The most-enduring image of Ramdas Athawale in my mind is one of him, clothes torn by angry residents, jumping over the barbed wire fencing of the Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar in Ghatkopar soon after a police firing there killed about six Dalits. The Dalits were protesting the desecration of a statue of Babasaheb Ambedkar in that colony in 1997.
Athawale had been a firebrand, rabble-rousing leader of his times but by then his influence among the Dalits was waning. There was rarely a single Lok Sabha constituency from where he contested or won a second time in a row and even as far back as 1997, he was beaten out of Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar by supporters who thought he was not representing their interests. The then state government was led by the Shiv Sena in alliance with the BJP and although Athawale was then an ally of the Congress, it was obvious that the Dalits trusted such leaders less and less.
But a year later at the Lok Sabha elections, Athawale was one of the four Dalit Republican Party candidates who swept the polls in alliance with the Congress, though from a reserved seat (the others won from general constituencies). But that was owing to Sharad Pawar who worked excessively hard that year to convince voters to elect these Dalit leaders as their representatives.
A year later, Pawar had split the Congress and, predictably, Athawale allied with him, shifting constituencies again and defeating a five-time Congress MP from the reserved seat in the temple town of Pandharpur. But he had little luck from another temple town — Shirdi — despite contesting on a Congress ticket in 2009.
Clearly, both Pawar and Athawale had run out of steam but there were other reasons, not the least of them the fact that that temple town resented Athawale’s denigration of people with ‘bhandaras’ (saffron tilaks). Congressmen were sore about an outsider taking one of their seats and the saffron parties had their own reasons to gang up against this intruder.
So I wonder what Athawale brings to the Sena’s table with his so-called Bhim Shakti when it is a fact that Buddhist Dalits do not trust the Sena for Bal Thackeray’s constant denigration of their leader: remember his opposition to the Maharashtra government’s publication of BR Ambedkar’s Riddles of Hinduism wherein he had raised some valid questions about the treatment of Dalits even in a Ram rajya, and the fact that Thackeray had accused Ambedkar of being a handmaiden of the Nizam of Hyderabad when, in fact, the Dalit leader had bitterly opposed the Nizam to secure the freedom of the Marathi masses from the yoke of slavery.
The Dalit masses have still not forgotten Thackeray’s bitter opposition to the Dalit Panthers in the heyday of both the Panthers and the Sena — as is evident from the little gain accrued to both parties through the subsequent long association with Namdeo Dhasal, a founder member of the Dalit Panthers, with the Shiv Sena. That is why, perhaps, Athawale who, in between, lost out an opportunity to be a member of the Bigg Boss House one year and threatened to sue the show for this ‘atrocity’ against a Dalit, is now fixated on a Rajya Sabha seat from the Sena. He is well within his rights but I feel sorry that this once much sought after firebrand leader has been reduced to making endless rounds of Matoshree in the hope that he will get a bonus from Sena president Uddhav Thackeray in this regard.
Both the Sena and Athawale are today spent forces and as Rahi Bhide, editor of leading Marathi daily Punyanagri, a keen Dalit watcher, tells me: Dalit memories of past slights to them are enduring and will not be easily forgotten. I am sure Athawale knows that well enough. Clearly, he hopes a seat in the Rajya Sabha will draw in some supporters even if for self centred reasons of their own. He is entitled to that pipe dream, I guess.