The massive turnout on July 19 to protest the demolition of the iconic Ambedkar Bhavan, associated with Babasaheb Ambedkar, in Dadar, Mumbai has finally shown the prowess of the Dalit masses to the upper class of the Dalits that overtly or covertly supported the demolition and also to the ruling dispensation that has fraudulently sheltered them. Braving the monsoon downpour, people filled the space between Byculla and Mumbai CST, choking that part of the city for over six hours demanding the arrest of Ratnakar Gaikwad, retired chief secretary of Maharashtra and current chief information commissioner.
According to reports, in the wee hours of June 25, hundreds of people masquerading as Ambedkarites came with two backhoes and demolished the Ambedkar Bhavan and Ambedkar’s press in Dadar on behalf of the Peoples’ Improvement Trust. It was a daredevilish act, inconceivable, unless it was backed by the state. The structures were directly connected with Babasaheb, who had bought the land on which they stood in the 1940s. While Ambedkar Bhavan, an inverted U-shaped single-storey structure, was constructed in the 1990s by the trust he had founded, the Buddha Bhushan Printing Press was owned by him and stood there as the tenant of the trust. He had paid a rent of Rs 50 per month for the land it occupied, which was continued by his son until it was stopped sometime in the 1970s through a legal process. The press was of historical importance, having served not only as the press wherefrom Janata and Prabuddha Bharat, two of Ambedkar’s important papers, were printed and published, but also as a centre of the Ambedkarite movement from the 1940s. It continued so even after Ambedkar’s death.
While the masses of Dalits have protested against this demolition all over the country, the classes, comprising well-off Dalits, among them senior bureaucrats, politicians, businessmen and so on, and their counterparts in the Dalit diaspora, overtly or covertly supported Gaikwad for his grandiose plan to construct a 17-storey Ambedkar Bhavan with provisions for a five-storeyed car park, a vipassana centre and various offices there.
The existing Ambedkar Bhavan was a hub of Dalit and progressive activists and masses. The classes were repelled by its spartan look and aspired to rebuild the area with club-like spaces, where they could park their cars and network with other “civilised” people. Ambedkar for them is just an abstract identity marker, which, bedecked with all superlatives, lent them pride. They would not like to remember any other Ambedkar, particularly the one who publicly declared that the educated people had cheated him, or who, at the fag end of his life, wept over the realisation that whatever he had done benefitted only a small section of educated Dalits in cities and that he could not do anything for the rural Dalits.
This class divide had surfaced immediately after the death of Ambedkar and manifested in the Republican Party of India, which split in the aftermath of the constitutionalism versus mass struggle debate. The former was described as the Ambedkarite method while the latter was considered the communist path. The clash between B.C. Kamble and B.D. Gaikwad, as practitioners of these methods, respectively, reflected this incipient class division. This division went on expanding with the accrual of gains through reservations to an increasingly small section of beneficiaries over the years. As the thin layer of better-off urban Dalits at the time of the beginning of the Dalit movement expanded in the later years, the divide between the haves and have-nots among the Dalits widened. This class of haves, still insecure in the larger society, used its caste identity as protective cover. It not only distanced itself from the Dalit masses, but wantonly acted against their interests so as to be acceptable to its larger class. Still the masses largely followed them as their role models. Being visible and vocal, their interests became the political focal point to the detriment of ordinary Dalits. This class, however, has been oblivious of the woes of the masses. It would never speak about increasing atrocities on Dalits, never relate with their increasing deprivation and never empathise with their struggles. They would promote individualistic vipasana but not the radical social activism of Buddhism that Ambedkar envisaged. It exhibits an Ambedkar emptied of radical content.
The protest march of July 19, hopefully, seeds this class consciousness among the Dalit masses.