Last week, after men sporting t-shirts with Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar’s face printed on them tore down Dadar’s Ambedkar Bhavan, the structure that housed the printing press he used to espouse the Dalit cause, many of his followers were perplexed. The people protesting the demolition claimed to be his followers, but so did the men who carried out the demolition.
This is also the challenge the Ambedkarite movement faces today. The claimants to his legacy come in all hues. This begs the question: just who is the real Ambedkar follower? The demolition might be the result of commerce colliding with ideology, but for many, more worrying is what might follow next: the silent cultural takeover of Ambedkar’s legacy.
“The Bhavan was the last place left which was a part of the Ambedkarite movement and continued to be one. The building was just the symbol, it’s the movement which is being attacked and destroyed,” says Prakash, Ambedkar’s grandson and chief of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh, a regional political party.
A sign of this change in the way the legacy will be taken forward is the structure that will come up in place of the Bhavan. What’s planned is a swanky 17-storey structure, with five levels of parking, a state-of-the-art skill development centre, and a banquet hall among other facilities. For close watchers, these cosmetic changes represent a larger transformation. “This issue is two-fold, the commercialisation of the place and the hidden oppression that such transformation perpetrates. They are killing the ideology by killing the space,” said Bilal Khan from the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, a not-for-profit, which works with informal and labour communities in the city. Khan and his colleagues made a report on the demolition, indicting government agencies for not intervening. “The building was a memorial. It needed to be preserved,” he points out.
For Subodh More, grandson of comrade RD More, an aide of Dr Ambedkar, the demolition was part of a larger pattern of trying to take over Ambedkar’s legacy. “Two years ago a hostel that Ambedkar had established in Dadar, called Siddharth Vihar, was pulled down. It was a very crucial part of his history and his work but rather than preserving it, it was demolished.”
More, an activist associated with various movements, said these demolitions were a conscious attempt. “The right-wing is pulling down original structures and, as a result, parts of what made Ambedkar’s ideology. In its place, it is now creating new memorials so that it gets to rewrite the man’s ideology and the way it is followed.”
In the case of Ambedkar Bhavan, CM Devendra Fadnavis inaugurated the project to reconstruct it. But Prakash Ambedkar believes the government may not be behind the conspiracy. “I don’t believe it yet. But, this demolition is definitely connected to the larger conspiracy in suppressing Dalit politics. The right-wing, which Ambedkar opposed bitterly, is trying to appropriate him,” he said.
The demolition has sparked a political melee. Ambedkar’s grandsons, especially Prakash and Anandraj, both politicians, see an opportunity to mobilise followers. The Congress, too, has jumped into the fray. Its city chief, Sanjay Nirupam, wants to upstage the Ambedkar family, by starting protests by Tuesday, even as Prakash has called for an agitation the following day. Amidst all this, it’s the ruling BJP has remained silent. Fadnavis has promised action against the demolition but not many are counting on this. With Prakash and his followers threatening to hit the streets, the BJP might have to tread cautiously.