It may seem that Dr. Ambedkar is the flavour of the season. His 125th anniversary has been observed widely and reams have been written about him. The BJP has embarked on its own agenda of aggressively staking claim to this legacy. The tragic death of Rohith Vemula has galvanised debate around caste. However, what is the price faceless Dalits have paid to keep Ambedkar’s legacy alive? Simple acts of assertion like putting up a flag here or a statue there, were often met with a backlash. Round Table India travelled to some villages in Maharashtra to look at the stories behind Ambedkar’s statues.
Why a village decided to not celebrate Ambedkar jayanti
Pangri Nawaghare (Washim): While the whole country is celebrating Dr. Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary, a village in Maharashtra’s Washim district has decided not to celebrate the occasion. Since 2007, Dalits in the village have been petitioning the authorities for permission to hold a procession to commemorate the legacy of the architect of the Constitution. Like every year, this year too, they have been denied that permission.
Ambedkar jayanti is celebrated from April 14 to April 30 in many villages in Maharashtra. Sometimes, a series of programmes marking Mahatma Jyotirao Phule and Ambedkar’s anniversaries and Buddha Purnima continue till May.
The district administration has refused permission citing law and order concerns.
“The people in power should stop this farce of celebrating Ambedkar jayanti. You show the world that you are paying tributes to him and in the village there is a restriction. It is nothing but publicity,” said a miffed Ramdas Wankhede.
With a population of 3,000, comprising 2,400 people of the powerful Maratha community, 400 Dalit Buddhists and 100 others, Pangri Nawaghare is a small village, but here caste animosity runs deep.
Social relations festered in the village especially in 2007, when an Ambedkar jayanti procession was intercepted.
“That was the rare year we got permission. However, our rally was stopped by them [Marathas]. They set up a ‘mandap’ in the route assigned for the procession. So we had to change the route and take the procession towards the bus stand. For this, cases were slapped on us and we were detained for a day,” said Subhash Khadse.
Frustrated by repeated denials of permission thereafter, the Buddhists held a procession in 2013 on Ambedkar jayanti without the official approval. “We were attacked and beaten by caste Hindus. This happened despite the police bandobast,” said Subhash. Atrocity cases were registered against members of the Maratha community and many arrests took place.
The village has had a history of strife, with old timers recalling similar conflict in 1996 when someone garlanded a Shivaji statue with ‘chappals’ in 1996. “Since then, it has been 20 years that we have been waiting for permission to hold a procession in Ambedkar’s name. The biggest tragedy is that you need permission to hold a rally in memory of such a great personality. Even in 2007, we should have been given security. How did the administration allow them to stop our procession when we had the requisite permission? We have petitioned every authority right up to the State secretariat to no avail. We don’t know what more we can do. Does the administration want our sacrifice to agree to our long-pending demand? It is in protest that we have decided not to celebrate Ambedkar jayanti this year,” said Ramdas.
District authorities dismissed the caste hostilities and scuffles as the result of political manipulations.
An official source, who did not wish to be named, told Round Table India, “I agree the Buddhists are deprived of their legal rights. They should be allowed to hold a procession. This is a democracy, but the top authorities are not willing to take the risk. Having said that, no community is above blame. The Buddhist women sing songs such as ‘Patil [reference to Maratha] women wear shimmering saris’ and abuse Brahmins. Why would the Marathas not react? You can praise your religion, but why do you criticise other religions? On the other hand, the Marathas conduct ‘bhagwats’ [religious discourses] in the temples at the time of Ambedkar jayanti. None of their members turn up for the peace committee meetings. There is only one man from the Maratha community who says he will not let the Buddhists hold a procession till his death. But that does not mean the entire community is like him. This has to do with illiteracy. And how is that anger is displayed only at the time of Ambedkar jayanti? The Buddhists work in the fields of the Marathas, they ride their motorbikes to go to the market. All these interactions are smooth all year round, except during the jayanti period. And after it is over, they go back to their regular exchanges. This is such strange behaviour!”
Over 20 people from the Buddhist community and nearly double the number from the Marathas were served externment notices on the eve of Ambedkar’s anniversary. Among those externed are Paryagbai Wankhede, Janabai Khadse and Sugandhabai Tajne, a trio of old Dalit women roughly in the age group of 60 to 90.
Like others, they were served externment notices under section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), which gives power to the authorities to issue an order in cases of nuisance or apprehended danger.
“The superintendent of police and the Malegaon police [local police station] have proposed restrictions on being within or entering the jurisdiction of the Malegaon police station from 8 a.m. of April 14, 2016, to 8 a.m. of April 16,” the notice said.
The women, who also have cases of unlawful assembly against them were amused at the official assessment of their ability to create nuisance.
“I was the one who was beaten with thick sticks in 2013. I was abused with words such as ‘Maharde’ and ‘Dhede’ [references to lower castes] and I am the one to be booked in a case? I was in jail for two days and had to shell out Rs. 15,000 for my bail. And now this notice,” said 65-year-old Paryagbai.
The central government’s efforts to acquire Ambedkar’s house in London has cut no ice in this village.
“We don’t know what is happening in a foreign land. Why is nothing happening in this village?” asks Ramdas.
Rahi Gaikwad is an independent journalist based in Mumbai