Far from television studios, the Rashtriya Dalit Prerna Sthal, or Mayawati’s Rs 685 crore park, as it is being referred to, is already acquiring a life of its own.
In the few days since it opened, it has had many visitors. It might be massive, but there is nothing alienating about it. People walk in and out, looking at the statues of Babasaheb Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati, many posing with the statues and taking pictures on their cellphones. They read the history recorded in the three sections that surround these statues. After this, most head towards the two fountains and the park on the side.
Dalit Bahujan activist Kancha Ilaiah is here too, looking around at this rewriting of history. In the evening, he has to visit a TV studio for a debate. He observes that most people coming here would be Dalits and lower castes. Many, like him, see this act as an important part of the struggle in rejecting Hinduism and for an alternative future, possibly a Buddhist one. I overhear someone explaining to his friend: “One should learn from this what it is to fight and struggle.”
As you enter the monument, you find a long text running from ceiling to floor, tracing the significance of the structure. Unlike most public spaces where the presence of caste is masked, here it is openly acknowledged, and the struggle against casteism celebrated. More than once, the inscriptions refer to Mayawati as Kanshi Ram’s ‘sole’ heir. A plaque explains that her statue is there only to fulfil Kanshi Ram’s wish.
But to look here for evidence of Mayawati’s megalomania is to miss the significance of this moment. A TV anchor debating the cost of this project, remarked, “Let’s not see this from the prism of caste.” What else is this about then?
Contextualising the three statues, there are snippets from each of their lives, apart from illustrations carved out on the walls. The text explaining these scenes is in Hindi without translation, unlike the other plaques that are bilingual. Ambedkar is shown handing over the Constitution to Rajendra Prasad, with Jawaharlal Nehru and others in the background. The players of the dominant narrative of the nation’s history are present here as passive recipients of the Constitution.
The other two scenes in this section are Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism and the Mahad Satyagraha for temple entry. Kanshi Ram’s section shows him on a cycle moving from place to place, building the Bahujan Samaj Party movement from scratch. In the other scenes, he always has Mayawati by his side — first announcing her as his heir, and then together planning out the struggle. There is also one where both of them are shown with ‘Muslim leaders’.
The third section, reserved for Mayawati, shows her with her parents, and then commemorates the four occasions when she took the chief minister’s oath. Here she is someone who has worked for Dalits, backward castes and upper caste ‘poor’, a strategy similar to the inclusion of the ‘Muslim leaders’ earlier. There is also a list of the ‘Bahujan Samaj ke Mahapurush’ (Great Men of the Bahujan Samaj) starting from Chhatrapati Shahuji Maharaj, Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram and Sree Narayana Guru. One wonders though why there aren’t more details.
On the TV programme for which Kancha Ilaiah went in the evening, a woman felt that the existence of the monument could lead to uncomfortable situations, including her children asking her who a Dalit is. While the anchor seemed to find in this question an illustration of the ‘Development vs Caste’ debate, this is exactly one of the great possibilities that the Sthal opens up. One can argue the Sthal is giving into the dominant narrative of the nation’s history and its obsession with individuals and great men. But one can’t deny that this public commemoration of the struggle against caste means that a conversation on caste is no longer taboo. It also means that a society which is caste-centred cannot but be looked at from the prism of caste.
Aakshi Magazine is a post-graduate from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal