Posters showing B R Ambedkar picking up and throwing trash into a dustbin have been removed from the New Delhi Railway Station after they were met with outrage from political parties and Dalit activists, who alleged he was being depicted as a “manual scavenger”. The hoarding was part of a series of posters put by the private company, Antyodaya Group, which had approached the Railways for the campaign and had done it for free. The plan was to use national icons to educate people.
The caption underneath read: “Awaken the Babasaheb within you. Contribute to this great campaign against filth.” A second poster depicted a WhatsApp conversation in which a woman is asked by her friend why her family objects to her meeting male friends, when they have no apprehensions letting her defecate in the open.
A third, also in the form of a WhatsApp conversation, talks about a man being bitten by a snake while defecating in the open.
Since the controversy, Railways authorities have taken down all posters, including of other ‘icons’ such as Gandhi and the film character Bahubali. Antyodaya Group founder Sourav Panda (26) denied the BSP’s charge that his company had links with the RSS. He said he had been so “inspired by Ambedkar” that he had “given up wearing the sacred thread”.
“By removing the posters, they have removed Ambedkar’s drastic thoughts. The idea behind Swachh Bharat is as drastic as anything that Ambedkar represented. I didn’t think of any political colouring while designing the poster. The idea was to push awareness in people,” he told The Indian Express.
Railway authorities, meanwhile, pinned the blame on Panda and his year-old organisation, accusing him of “unauthorisedly” putting up posters “with icons”.
In a statement, R N Singh, divisional railway manager, Delhi, said, “Limited permission was given to NGO Antyodaya to put out a few stickers/slogans at New Delhi railway station with the noble objective of enhancing cleanliness awareness amongst public. They were allowed to put only simple messages regarding cleanliness awareness like ‘keep the station clean’, ‘take ownership over the station’. Instead, they unauthorisedly put out a poster with icons. We removed all posters immediately. We are contemplating suitable action. In the future, we will do all awareness campaigns in-house only.”
The controversy erupted on Thursday, weeks after the hoarding had been put up, after BSP-led protesters chanted slogans in front of the station against the “casteist depiction” of Ambedkar. BSP’s social media handler Devashish Jaraiya described the advertisement campaign as “betraying” the “ignorance” of those who came up with it. He said, “We got to know about the posters through social media and we held a protest. Showing Babasaheb throwing trash goes against the entire ideology that he represented.
The community has been associated with sanitation jobs for hundreds of years and continue to work in the same jobs. His entire ideology was to give this up, enter the education system and become nurses, doctors and lawyers.”
However, Panda denied any “angle of manual scavenging” and said that the idea behind putting up the posters at the New Delhi railway station was to maximise the campaign’s reach. “It was a trial phase and in the future, we plan to use Maharana Pratap’s image in Rajasthan, Subhash Chandra Bose’s image in Kolkata and also Bahubali because of his association with greatness in popular culture.”
Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani targeted the Swachh Bharat campaign, saying, “Even when the campaign was started, this casteist ethos was visible in Delhi. The state of Delhi and concerned authorities need to take cognizance of this and pay heed to the sentiments of Dalit masses.”