Vagalun Bhimachya nava, tumhi pudhari houn dava (Ignore the name and followers of Ambedkar and show us how you can become leaders), a noted Dalit poet had challenged squabbling Dalit politicians some years ago.
The statement also holds true for political parties in the state, which find that they cannot exclude a community that represents 15% to 18% of Mumbai’s voting population from their political calculations.
The upcoming civic elections sees new political alignments, with the Republican Party of India ditching the Congress-NCP to join hands with its erstwhile ideological nemesis, the BJP-Shiv Sena combine.
Many Dalits are uncomfortable with their party’s tie-up with the saffron alliance and said they feel like pawns in a political game. An activist from the RPI (A), Bhushan Jadhav’s sentiments reflect what many in the community feel. “It’s difficult to overlook material and ideological differences between us and our new partners,” said Jadhav. “But the prospect of getting a share in power that will benefit our community overrides these concerns.”
Justifying his move, RPI chief Ramdas Athawale said: “The Dalits should realise they have got nothing by going with the Congress and the so-called secular forces for years. We need to be in power and be treated as an equal to see some difference. The Sena is willing to give us this.”
The community’s problems remain unchanged from what they were years ago. Walking down the Dalit pockets of the city such as Ramabai Nagar in Ghatkopar, Matunga Labour Camp near Dharavi or the BDD chawls, you realise that only the political flags fluttering in these areas have changed – now you see saffron flags with the RPI’s emblem. “The quality of education, housing, sanitation and class deprivation are the problems the Dalits face. Irrespective of the political alliances formed, none of these issues are reflected in the parties’ political discourse,” said Pramod Sakhare, a resident of Ramabai Nagar.
Many Dalits blame their own leaders for failing to address the issues. “Leaders have failed to address our material problems. They have made an icon of Dr Ambedkar, but none of them seem to understand what Amebedkarism means,” said Ravi Jadhav a political history student from Ramabai Nagar.
The declining number of reserved government jobs is a sore point with youngsters, who find it upsetting that the Dalit leadership has made no endeavour to empower the community.