MHOW: Mohan Rao Wakode is pleased. On April 14, he took Prime Minister Narendra Modi around Bhim Janmabhoomi.
This is the birthplace of BR Ambedkar, Dalit icon and father of the Constitution. An Ambedkar statute marks its entrance, rare images give a flavour of his life, his ashes are kept here.
The government has invested greatly in remembering him over the past year. Modi became the first sitting PM to visit Mhow to mark his 125th birth anniversary. Five places — his birthplace, the house in London where he lived, Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur where he converted to Buddhism, Alipur Road in Delhi where he spent his final years, Chaityabhumi in Mumbai where he was cremated — are being developed as a pilgrim circuit.
“There is nothing more important for a Dalit than samman (honour) for Babasaheb. And this government has done it,” says Wakode, secretary of the Ambedkar Memorial society.
But while the honour is appreciated, several Dalits say the government is “high on symbolism, low on substance”. In nearby Harsola village is a stark symbol of the caste hierarchy they face. Off the main road is a small field — grass uncut, ground littered. In the middle is a small open structure. If you are born a Dalit, this is where you leave the world.
And down the main road is a ‘savarna samaj dharamshala’ for those within the caste fold. A gate with Hindi iconography announces entry to Mukti Dham. There is a neatly constructed spot for cremation, benches, a platform where people can sit and grieve.
Last year, Shiv Prasad, a Dalit worker at IIM-Indore, died. He was brought back to Harsola. But the rains made the Dalit crematorium inaccessible and he was cremated in the general crematorium, causing consternation. After HT reported this, local officials came to take written commitments from all caste members that there would be no discrimination in using the crematorium.
But the gap remains. Villager Vishnu Malviya, whose wife is the sarpanch, says, “After that, we built a proper access road to our crematorium. My own (Dalit) community wanted it.” He says they plan to use the general crematorium too, but this hasn’t happened yet. Malviya, 53, says there’s been a change for the better in his lifetime. “But the mindset is still an issue. Behind us, they speak of us with contempt… We call them ‘bhaiya’, they call us ‘tu’.”