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And credit for Dr Ambedkar memorial goes to…

Centre lets Dalits have their way with prime mill land in Central Mumbai

Written by Kavitha Iyer | Mumbai |
January 4, 2012 2:58:45 am

It caused consternation among officials at what appeared to be a state government and Congress capitualation to arm-twisting by squatters inside a Union government-owned mill in Central Mumbai. And it set off a series of congratulatory messages for the Congress and a parallel clamour among parties for credit.

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last week agreed to allocate the entire 12.5-acre expanse of India United Mills for a mega memorial to Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar,it brought to an end a decade-long struggle by the Dalit community that has been demanding space for an “international-level” memorial. It has also initiated a good amount of political drama,with the Dalit constituency a looming factor in municipal corporation polls across Maharashtra as well as in the Uttar Pradesh elections.

At the centre of the dispute is a prime plot of sea-kissing land,just off Shivaji Park and adjoining the existing Chaityabhoomi where a memorial and stupa attract a few million visitors each year. The demand for the India United Mills and Dye Works land (loosely called “Indu Mill”) for the Chaityabhoomi expansion project has been hanging in balance since at least 2003,though the state government and the NTC arrived at a decision in 2011 regarding sharing the land. The NTC would get a high FSI of up to 7 for an 8-acre parcel in exchange for the remaining 4 acres that could be used to expand the memorial. The development potential for the land was then pegged as around Rs 1,000 crore.

On Dr Ambedkar’s death anniversary last year on December 6,more than 500 followers under the Republican Sena stormed the mill land,claimed that they had “taken possession” and installed a bust of Dr Ambedkar and Buddha inside. Most of the hundreds left later,but some 15 monks stayed back,watching over the statues as a steady stream of visitors from remote corners of Maharashtra came over subsequent days to pay their respects.

Encroachment of public spaces is common enough in Mumbai,but even the Bombay High Court was astonished that the state administration had chosen not to act against the squatters. It compared the occupation to the demolition of the Babri Masjid,stating that the police should be unapologetic about using force if necessary to evict the squatters.

“It was merely a symbolic occupation of the land,” argues Kashinath Nikalje,Maharashtra president of the Republican Sena,formed by Ambedkar’s youngest grandson Anandraj. “We did not construct a single structure inside. We weren’t seeking the land for ourselves. And,as promised,we left as soon as the state government assured us that a positive outcome could emerge in New Delhi.”

Whether prompted by the symbolic protest or the rap on the knuckles from the high court,the state government took its next steps swiftly,initiating backroom negotiations with the occupiers and with New Delhi.

“It is indeed a big step for the community that looks up to Ambedkar even more than God,” said Dalit writer-poet and political activist Namdeo Dhasal. “But when such a populist decision is taken with elections around the corner,it is natural to think about what led to the decision at this time. The issue had been pending for years; had they taken a decision earlier,it may have been much more meaningful.” Dhasal called the action of forcibly occupying the mill land “childish” and said the various groups claiming credit for the outcome should instead focus on completing Dr Ambedkar’s mission.

While the move is expected to enthuse Dalit voters,including those in Uttar Pradesh,the Congress in Maharashtra says it is mere coincidence that elections in UP and key municipal corporations in Maharashtra are round the corner.

“I am pained at the negative connotations around the decision. The Congress has always been totally oriented towards the oppressed or neglected sections of society,” said MPCC general secretary Sanjay Dutt. “This decision is a reaffirmation of our faith in the ideology of Bharat Ratna Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar.”

According to Dutt,Sonia Gandhi and the Prime Minister responded positively to the initiative by the state Congress and Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan,taking the decision as swiftly as the chief minister had presented his case on the very next morning after the Rajya Sabha’s adjournment following the Lokpal debate.

Anandraj Ambedkar has himself insisted that his was no political stunt. Nikalje,who said various Dalit groups had supported their “social movement”,added that the Republican Sena is not interested in contesting elections itself.

Yet,since the decision on Saturday,several hoardings have been put up thanking Congress leaders for the decision,NCP members have pointed out that their activist Vijay Kamble had been on a fast at Chaityabhoomi even before the December 6 occupation of the mill,and Republican Party of India leader Ramdas Athavale has organised his own victory rally although the Republican Sena clearly out-thought him on the issue.

Much anger is reserved for the Athavale group of the Republican Party of India,which tied up with the Shiv Sena and the BJP for the local body polls in mid-2011. Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray has called the decision an election gimmick by the Congress. Congress and NCP leaders have immediately pointed out that while Athavale is attempting to claim some credit for the decision,his ally Thackeray had some years ago stoutly opposed the renaming of the Marathwada University after Dr Ambedkar. “The recent municipal council polls have shown that there is no shakti in the Shivshakti-Bhimshakti combine,” said Dutt,referring to the Sena-BJP-RPI’s poor showing. “The shakti of the people is behind the Congress-NCP.”

But NCP leaders have been candid about drawing up their own plans to woo the Dalit vote after former ally Athavale supported the Sena-BJP,including the suggestion last year to rename Dadar railway station as Chaityabhoomi station,a step immediately opposed by Raj Thackeray.

Athavale has now demanded that the land be handed over by January 26,failing which he would launch his own agitation,a threat termed as tokenism by the Congress since a committee will now report on the modalities of the handover by January 31.

Meanwhile,what precise shape the memorial will take is another debate that has begun. While original plans were for a “Bhikshu-vihar”,a library and a “social justice university”,new ideas include land for Dalit groups to protest,a political education center for Dalit groups and Anandraj’s own idea — a statue of Dr Ambedkar,to be called the Statue of Equality,on the lines of the Statue of Liberty.


CONGRESS: Says Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister responded positively to the initiative by the state Congress and chief minister,taking the decision as swiftly as the latter had presented his case. Several hoardings have been put up thanking Congress leaders for the decision

NCP: Its members have pointed out that their activist Vijay Kamble had been on a fast at Chaityabhoomi even before the December 6 occupation of the mill

REPUBLICAN PARTY OF INDIA: Ramdas Athavale organised his own victory rally

REPUBLICAN SENA: Says various Dalit groups supported its “social movement”,and that it is not interested in contesting elections

SHIV SENA: Calls the decision an election gimmick by the Congress; Congress and NCP leaders point out that his ally Athavale is attempting to claim credit while Bal Thackeray had once opposed the renaming of the Marathwada University after Dr Ambedkar

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