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Thursday, Nov 14, 2019

As old monuments decay, grand plans for Ambedkar memorials

When the Siddhartha Vihar Hostel in Wadala was brought down, floor by floor, in early February by the BMC, a piece of Mumbai’s history associated with Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar was obliterated.

columns Updated: Apr 14, 2015 22:10 IST

When the Siddhartha Vihar Hostel in Wadala was brought down, floor by floor, in early February by the BMC, a piece of Mumbai’s history associated with Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar was obliterated. The building that Ambedkar had constructed to provide affordable accommodation to Dalit students was gone. It was in a dilapidated condition, worn down by neglect, but it was a part of Ambedkar’s association with the city that gave him the opportunity to transcend caste barriers. It was the launch pad of the Ambedkarite movement and several of its leaders.

In the same February week, the Maharashtra Cabinet approved a proposal to purchase the three-storey bungalow situated in London’s 10, King Henry Road, NW3, for an estimated Rs 40 crore to turn it into an international memorial to the man who also shaped India’s history. He had lived here during 1921-22 while pursuing higher studies at the London School of Economics.

A delegation of ministers and bureaucrats will visit London beginning April 17 to participate in the formalities. Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis dipped into the Mahatma Phule Backward Class Development Corporation funds – sanctioning Rs 15 lakh for the trip and Rs 3.10 crore to seal the deal – meant for financial assistance to underprivileged students to ensure that the opportunity is not lost.

While there was much applause for the London initiative, there was hardly a squeak about the demolition of Siddhartha Vihar. Similarly, no serious efforts have been made to breathe life into Rajgriha, the Dadar bungalow that Ambedkar built and lived in for years, where he stored his collection of 50,000 books. Then again, only Ambedkarites and history lovers visit the one room tenement in the Dabak Chawl in Parel where Ambedkar spent his early years.

There is an unmistakable pattern. It involves focusing on the imposing and ostentatious symbols while neglecting the real and lived structures of the man. The former involves crores of rupees, gets the eyeballs, the applause and possibly the votes of the section of society that has been cynically exploited by every political party, including its own formations such as all variants of the Republican Party of India. Restoring and renewing the iconic structures that hold symbiotic ties to the man does not appear half as impressive, does it?

Of course, the government can do both. But it chooses to lend its might to the grand gestures. The bhoomi pujan of the grand memorial to Ambedkar at the India United (Indu) Mills in Dadar might have been conducted on April 14, Ambedkar’s 124th birth anniversary, if Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Fadnavis were not in Germany. The memorial on the 12-acre plot, next to Chaityabhoomi at Dadar chowpatty, is likely to have an auditorium, library, recreation plaza in addition to the commemorative structure. This will be a multi-crore project.

Only a tiny fraction of that would be sufficient to settle issues about Rajgriha and turn it into a befitting real memorial on the lines of Mani Bhavan, which does justice to the years that Mahatma Gandhi spent there. In the 1990s, the then state government made efforts towards this, but gave up. The successive Congress governments did not even talk about the plan. Fadnavis has a chance to renew it.

The ground floor has been locked for decades, clothes fluttering in the breeze giving it a prosaic feel. Families, including that of Prakash Ambedkar, live on the upper floors. Two small rooms have photographs of political and personal significance on display. The table and chair that he used in his study room are still preserved. Neglect and casual maintenance mar its significance. Why is Rajgriha less important than his London home and a new memorial?