In the next few days, the row over the demolition of Ambedkar Bhavan, a structure in Dadar significant in the movement led by late Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar for equal rights for the oppressed castes, is likely to take a political turn.
The grandsons of Dr Ambedkar — Prakash and Anandraj --- as well as the opposition Congress have threatened agitation to protest the demolition for redevelopment.
The People’s Improvement Trust (PIT) founded by Dr Ambedkar, owns and manages the affairs of Ambedkar Bhavan. It does not have anybody from the Ambedkar family on it.
In fact, the trustees say Dr Ambedkar had made it clear that none from his family should be a trustee because he was against any kind of dynasty in public life. The trustees say that since the structure was dilapidated and needed to be rebuilt, they prepared a redevelopment plan and even kept the Ambedkar family in the loop.
Prakash and Anandraj have been denying this, questioning the legal authority of the trustees whom they describe as trespassers. They hint that the BJP-led government in the state is supporting the trustees, but have appealed to chief minister Devendra Fadnavis to step in and stop the redevelopment. Prakash Ambedkar is already talking about rebuilding the structure through public participation.
As far as the Congress is concerned, its aim is to put the BJP in trouble. It is already alleging involvement of a BJP legislator, who is a real-estate developer and that the issue has a commercial motive. Will this episode snowball into a major political controversy or will CM Fadnavis manage to defuse it?
This controversy is taking place just a couple of months after the ruling BJP was seen trying to appropriate the legacy of Dr Ambedkar, the biggest Dalit icon, who has millions of followers among the socially backward castes across India.
It was seen as a shrewd attempt by the BJP to outsmart the Congress, which used to be once seen as the first choice of socially backward castes. It was also seen in the context of next year’s Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, which are crucial for the BJP and where its rival could be Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party that combines Dalit, Muslim and Brahmin votes.
The BJP governments at the Centre and in the state also gave push to the long-pending project to build a grand memorial for Dr Ambedkar on the land of the defunct Indu textile mills in central Mumbai. Though the plan was initiated by the Congress-led UPA government, it could not clear the project because of lack of political will. Meanwhile, it lost power and the Modi government put it on track in a short time. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it a point to lay the groundwork for the project in Mumbai. It was meant to convey a message to the Dalit population that the BJP was more responsive to its demands than the Congress.
While all of this was happening, where were the parties that claimed to be carrying forward the legacy of Dr Ambedkar in Maharashtra?
There are half-a-dozen factions of the Republican Party of India, which was founded by Dr Ambedkar to represent not just the socially backward castes but a large number of the working class. The prominent factions are headed by Prakash Ambedkar, Ramdas Athawale and Jogendra Kawade. Anandraj Ambedkar and Rajendra Gavai (son of late MP RS Gavai) head smaller factions. None of these leaders sees eye to eye.
For a long time, they strongly opposed right-wing politics. However, Athawale joined hands with the Shiv Sena and the BJP in 2012. He was the BJP’s ally in the 2014 elections. The remaining parties either allied with the Congress or the Third Front. None of them could make a mark. They have no presence in the state Assembly except one legislator of Prakash Ambedkar’s faction.
It is quite an irony: At a time when national parties like the BJP are trying to appropriate Dr Ambedkar’s legacy, the parties run by his followers are struggling for survival.
A major reason for this is the failure of the Dalit leaders to take other castes/working classes with them. Except Prakash Ambedkar, all of them chose to remain the leaders of Neo-Buddhists (called Hindu Mahar, the caste Dr Ambedkar came from, before converting to Buddhism).
Neo-Buddhists (as they were called after conversion) are a part of the Scheduled Castes. The idea behind formation of the RPI was to bring all oppressed sections falling in Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes under one umbrella. Since this was not done by Ambedkarite leaders, they failed to expand their base. Only Prakash Ambedkar did such an experiment by floating an outfit, Bahujan Mahasangh. He even got some electoral success in 1995 and 1999 but could not sustain it. Major parties further divided what could have been seen as the Dalit vote-bank in Maharashtra.
While the Congress was always tilted towards neo-Buddhists, parties like the Shiv Sena and the BJP wooed the Hindu Scheduled Castes and encouraged leadership from these communities. It further alienated Ambedkarite leaders who remained limited to certain pockets. None of them has a pan-Maharashtra presence or following. The 2014 Assembly elections showed how their influence was on the decline.
With this background, the Ambedkar Bhavan controversy could come as an opportunity for the Dalit factions who are trying to stay politically relevant. It has been seen in the past that emotional issues can mobilise opinion faster, especially when it comes to vote-bank politics.
It could also mean trouble for Athawale, who is expecting a berth in the Modi government and some share in power in the state cabinet expansion this month. If other factions convince Ambedkarites that the BJP government is responsible for the Ambedkar Bhavan controversy, he will have a tough time. For the BJP, this would be an avoidable controversy ahead of the next year’s crucial municipal and district polls.