Mohan Rao Wakode is a pleased man. On April 14, he spent 20 minutes with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and showed him around the memorial he has so carefully maintained.
This is the birthplace of BR Ambedkar, the tallest Dalit icon and father of the Constitution. An Ambedkar statue marks the entrance of Bhim Janmabhoomi, rare images give a flavour of his life’s different phases, his ashes are kept carefully here and books are stocked in the complex.
The Modi government has invested enormous energy in remembering him over the past year. Modi became the first sitting PM to visit Ambedkar’s birthplace to mark his 125th birth anniversary.
Five places - his birthplace in Mhow; the house where he lived as a student in London; Deekshabhoomi, where he converted to Buddhism in Nagpur; Alipur Road in Delhi, where he spent the final few years of his life; and Chaityabhumi, where he was cremated in Mumbai - are being developed as an Ambedkar pilgrim circuit.
“There is nothing more important for a Dalit than ‘samman’, honour, for Babasaheb. And this government has done it,” says Wakode, the secretary of Ambedkar Memorial society.
His grandfather was among those who converted with Ambedkar in 1956.
But while this honour is appreciated, several Dalits told Hindustan Times that the government is ‘high on symbolism, low on substance’ when it comes to Dalit rights and welfare. The suicide of Rohith Vemula, for instance, came to be widely perceived as a sign of government’s insensitivity.
But on an everyday basis, the difficulties Dalits continue to face cannot be put merely at the doorstep of the government.
The starkest symbol of persistent caste hierarchy can be found in the nearby village of Harsola.
Off the main road, through a rough track, one approaches a small field where the grass is uncut, the ground littered and the place is vacant all around. And in the middle is a small, open structure. If you are born a Dalit, this is where you will bid the world good-bye.
And then straight down the main village road is a ‘Savarna Samaj Dharamshala’; savarna denotes those within the caste fold. Adjacent to it is a gate with Hindi iconography, announcing entry into Mukti Dham.
There is a neatly constructed spot for cremation, benches for rest, and an elevated platform where people can sit and grieve for their loved ones. This has been built with public money, Rs 15 lakh of panchayat funds. If you are born within the Hindu caste fold, this is where you will leave the world.
Last year, Shiv Prasad, a young Dalit worker in IIM Indore, died and was brought back to the village. But the rains made the Dalit crematorium inaccessible. Prasad was then cremated in the general crematorium, causing much consternation among the upper castes and OBCs of the village.
HT first reported the story in January. Local government officials took note, visited the village to take written commitments from members of all castes that there would be no bar on the basis of caste in using the crematorium.
But Harsola reflects the gap that exists between law and practice.
Vishnu Malviya, whose wife is the village sarpanch, is a Dalit from the Balai sub-caste.
“After last year’s incident, we have built a proper access road to our crematorium so that we can reach it easily in the rains. My own community wanted it,” he says and adds they plan to use the general crematorium too, but this has not happened yet.
Fifty three-year-old Malviya claims there has been a fundamental change in his lifetime for the better.
“But the mindset is still an issue. Behind us, they will speak about us with contempt. For weddings, SC families are still not invited. We will call them bhaiya; they will call us ‘Tu’. And most SC children go to government schools and their children go to private schools.”
When asked about the Modi government’s commitment to Ambedkar, Malviya – who is sympathetic to the Congress - says, “He is doing it to woo Dalit votes in UP election. For his Mhow visit, Rs 10 crore were spent. The government should have used it for Dalits in the Mhow area.”
The story of Mhow reflects Modi government’s relationship with Dalits.
In the last two years, there has been a high-level commitment to giving Ambedkar his due as a global icon. But battling social hierarchies and ‘mindset’ of who is pure and who is polluted will need more than just symbolism.