This Navratri, around 100 Dalit families from a village in Ahmedabad district chose to celebrate their identity by taking part in a garba that they say has never been done before. They called it the “Ambedkar garba”.
Speaking to The Indian Express over phone, Kanu Sumesara Mangalbhai, main organiser of the event in Rampura village, said, “This is the first time that something like this has happened in Gujarat. It took me five years to convince people in my village that praying to Ambedkar is better than praying to gods and goddesses. People in my community are very superstitious and believe that the gods will uplift them.”
Mangalbhai said the “aarti” was performed to a modified version of the popular song from the Bollywood movie, ‘Jai Santoshi Ma’: “Mein toh aarti utaroon rey Ambedkar sahib ki… jai, jai Ambedkar baba, jai, jai, jai.”
The “Ambedkar garba” was staged amid a series of attacks on Dalits in Gujarat last week, including one that led to the killing of a youth in Anand, allegedly by upper-caste men, for watching a garba at a temple.
On Tuesday evening, a Dalit boy was attacked in a Gandhinagar village, allegedly by upper castes, for sporting a moustache. This was the third such attack reported from the region, prompting Dalit men from villages around Sanand to adopt as their WhatsApp display picture a logo of a twirled moustache with a crown and “Mr Dalit” written on it.
Mangalbhai said the “Ambedkar garba” was a “very difficult idea to implement” in a village, which is also home to a number of upper-caste members, including 150 Thakor, 30 Patel, 20 Jain and 50 Darbar families.
“The other Dalits in the village thought I was mad when I first proposed the idea. Some told me that during Navratri, one has to pray to the goddess and replacing her would bring doom. But I kept telling them that the goddess is the same for everyone but in our village we are not allowed to dance during Navratri with members of the upper caste,” said Mangalbhai, 38, who runs a decoration business for events such as marriages and birthdays.
“For me, the teachings of Babasaheb are empowering and that is why I thought that instead of worshiping idols, people should worship him,” he said.
“What made our garba different was that the songs spoke about the values and teachings of Babasaheb. These are songs written by Dalit activists Hemant Chauhan and Dashrat Salvi, which I saw online and downloaded. The songs tell us to break the shackles of caste and ask us to fight for our rights,” said Mangalbhai.
Among those attended the “Ambedkar garba” was Vinod Chavda, a school teacher from Kointiya village, 3 km from Rampura, who described the event as “a revolution in its own way”.
“The educated youngsters of our village loved the idea. After the flogging of Dalits in Una last year, there is a lot of anger in our community. The garba was about Babasaheb and how he fought for our rights. If we do it every year, people will remember the teachings of Ambedkar,” said Chavda.
Mangalbhai’s wife Hansa admits that she was “taken aback” when her husband first came up with the idea and thought that they would be thrown out of the village.
“A few women came to me and said that that it was not right to replace the picture of Mataji. But over the years, the atrocities on Dalits have increased and I felt that my husband had a valid point. Even today, we are not allowed inside temples in our village and we cannot even share the graveyard with members of other communities. We face humiliation for being Dalits and for us, Babasaheb is God,” said the 33-year-old who is a part-time tailor.
Mangalbhai, who earns Rs 3-4 lakh every year from his business, says he spent Rs 70,000 for the 10-night garba, but is “proud that people turned up”.
“On the first day, there were only people from my village. But with each passing day, people from nearby villages started joining us. I had to extend the garba to the 10th day because some students of Gujarat University wanted take part. Now, I am trying organise an Ambedkar garba for Diwali as well. People of my community should understand that whenever there is a religious celebration, it has to be about Babasaheb,” he said.
In Rampura, Mangalbhai is also known as “decoration wala bhai”. The son of a farmer, he says he worked for three years from 2007 to 2009 at a milk company in Johannesburg before returning to the village.
“I decided to become a decorator as I had seen many events in Johannesburg and wanted to replicate them in the village. I am now looking for sponsors to support the 2018 Navratri. We plan to give Babasaheb t-shirts and black trousers to all those who want to dance. I am also encouraging children in my village to write songs that we can use for the garba. Today, I am known as decoration wala bhai but I want to be known as Ambedkar garba wala bhai,” he said.
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