Earlier this week, Karan Vasne, 15, helped his father load a dozen large bags filled with merchandise, books, badges, flags and CDs relating to Babasaheb Ambedkar on to the Vidarbha Express from his hometown in Nagpur.
The family of four then travelled 16 hours to Mumbai, like they do every year, to set up a stall opposite Babasaheb Ambedkar’s shrine in Shivaji Park in Dadar, which Dalits call chaitya bhoomi, on the occasion of his death anniversary on December 6.
“He is like God to us. We have been able to educate our children because of him,” said his father Vinod Vasne, 38. Added Karan, smiling: “It is also good for business.”
For lakhs of Dalits, like the Vasnes, the trip to Mumbai every year is a pilgrimage. For some Mumbaiite, it means traffic diversions and a reason to stay away from Shivaji Park.
For the route leading to Shivaji Park from Dadar railway station transforms overnight. Posters and banners with Ambedkar’s picture go up on the roads, while men, women and children with luggage and cane mats pour into the ground on the days leading up to the big event.
A popular ground for cricketers and joggers, Shivaji Park becomes their temporary home. The municipal corporation has erected two huge tents covering an area of 2.5 lakh square feet to accommodate the more than five lakh people who are expected to come.
This influx and the attendant tumult are something that Shivaji Park residents await with some trepidation. Many leave town altogether. Chaya Potdar, for example, will go away to Pune until December 7, as she does every year.
“I can’t go for my morning walk because people occupy the pavements,” she said. “The litter and noise can be hard to bear.”
Vasne has already picked a spot in one of the tents, set up a kerosene stove and tied a string between two poles to dry clothes. Local non-profit groups provide the visitors with free food and the corporation arranges for basic sanitation facilities.
On Monday, non-profits, political parties and private companies will set up stalls to provide the visitors free food. Crowds throng each truck that arrives at the park laden with food.
About 150 stalls selling CDs and cassettes, and another 200 selling books written by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and other authors will also come up. Some non-profits will also organise health camps.
The number of visitors has been growing steadily. Last year, five lakh devotees from across the country came. This year, local volunteers and organisers expect a 20% increase.
“The community hasn’t had a strong leader after Ambedkar,” said GG Wankhede, a professor of sociology at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “So many scheduled caste and scheduled tribes from across the country are now following his teachings.”
Although most visitors are from Maharashtra, the number of people from other states, such as Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and southern India, is increasing, organisers say.
Wankhede says that a large number of youngsters have joined the movement as well.
“The new generation is educated and passionate about forwarding the cause,” he said.
Their participation is visible. A group of students from Wankhede’s institution has set up a stall on education. Dr Satish Shambharkar, 35, a student of health administration at the institute, gave the media details about the Khairlanji massacre in 2006.
“It happened in my village,” says Shambharkar “That’s when I decided to do something for the community.”
Shrikant Bhosale, 22, a student of mass communication and journalism at the University of Mumbai has been volunteering at Shivaji Park for the past four years. After college on December 5, he will work from 11 pm onwards on December 5. At 3 am, devotees will start queuing up, the lines extending to Shiv Sena Bhavan.
For many, this is also a short vacation. The Vasnes, for example, travel for free across the city and spend what they earn from the stall at Fashion Street in south Mumbai.
The family makes about Rs 35,000 every year by selling goods.
“We feel close to this city,” said Vinod Vasne. “We have seen the Bandra-Worli Sea Link grow every year. Now it has been completed. We can’t wait to go for a drive.”