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The Ambedkar Bhavan Issue
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Vaibhav Wasnik

“Tyranny is defined as that which is legal for
the government but illegal for the citizenry” ~ Thomas Jefferson

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Recently, an issue that has hit at the very crux of Ambedkarite consciousness across Maharashtra (and parts of India) has been the destruction of Ambedkar Bhavan located at Dadar. This has resulted in a spat between the Ambedkar family and a faction symbolically headed by the Chief Information Officer of Maharashtra, Mr. Ratnakar Gaikwad. I have been following this issue mostly through interviews given by the concerned parties on news channels (mostly YouTube recordings) and would like to put forth my views on the issue. Mr. Ratnakar Gaikwad has made the following claims regarding the justification for the demolition:

1) It had been Ambedkar’s dream to build a big center for Dalits on the land of Ambedkar Bhavan, and the trust supposedly looking after this Bhavan had decided to go ahead and build a 17 storey building on the proposed site.

2) The members of the Ambedkar family, who were supposedly owning the land (without paying any amount for electricity and other facilities) were scared that they would lose control of the prized land and were therefore not ready to hand over the land for the proposed project.

3) In order to show the supposed immoralities at play, Mr. Gaikwad showed a letter which Dr. Ambedkar had supposedly written to his son – the father of the Ambedkar brothers at the helm of this dispute. This letter talks about how Dr. Ambedkar’s son, Mr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, was profiting by renting the land to shopkeepers – something which Dr. Ambedkar was seriously against, since he felt the land belonged only to the community. Mr. Ratnakar Gaikwad in his personal attacks said that Dr. Ambedkar had also claimed that progenies like Mr. Bhimrao Ambedkar were a disgrace, and that the Ambedkar brothers today are plainly following their father’s footsteps.

4) Even the inspection for electrical issues was disallowed by the Ambedkar brothers and ‘their goondas’ in spite of the presence of a hundred policemen. He uses this and other such instances to claim that the Bhavan had become a center for goondagiri.

4) The proposed demolition of the site was advertized in widely read Marathi newspapers like Samrat, Loksatta, etc., and if there was an issue with it, then the fact that no stay order was filed against this demolition in the Indian courts, remains a question.

Now, I will try to outline my views on the issue, many of which will coincide with those of the Ambedkar family, even though I am not a supporter of what Mr. Prakash Ambedkar stands for politically. First of all, it has been accepted by every civilized nation in the world that certain sites, buildings, monuments, etc., deserve to be protected for their historical value. Mr. Gaikwad cited the dreams of Ambedkar in relation to this site, but it would just be foolish to assume that the location of a particular site was what Ambedkar was implying when he was talking about building a center for Dalit activity.

If Ambedkar were alive today at this very moment, he would have seen how many political activities – which were quintessential to the Dalit movement after his death – originated from Ambedkar Bhavan due to the devotion of people attached to him, and he would have considered the preservation of the said Bhavan as part of the legacy of the Dalit movement. I mean to say that Dr. Ambedkar would obviously have been rational enough to consider building a center for Dalit activity at some other location, whether in the Indu Mill area, or even in the few acres of plot at Vasai that is still owned by the trust that is looking after the Bhavan.

Simply citing the dreams of Ambedkar without realizing the historical context, the circumstances when he made the comments, and the historical changes that have occurred ever since he made the comments, almost seems similar to the Taliban, who destroyed the Bamiyan statues in the name of the Prophet, while the people who were much closer in time to the Prophet never saw any need to destroy the historical site. Wasn’t it Ambedkar himself who said that the needs of one generation are different from the needs of the generations of the past, which was why even the constitution written by him should have the provision for its own amendment? This penchant for literal interpretation of Ambedkar’s statements being anti-Ambedkarite seems to somehow escape the entire debate, and is troubling to say the least.

Arguing that the Bhavan – which was a genesis point for many Dalit movements including the recent conversion of Rohith Vemula’s family to Buddhism – was “ruled by goons”, almost seems like a slap on the face of the entire Dalit community. Which normal Dalit was ever fearful of going to Ambedkar Bhavan at any time in their life? Should resistance to the police (who, as far as India goes, are anyhow biased against Dalits in the vast majority of cases) be construed as thuggery? Because if that was the case, then the students of UoH should also be considered as thugs since they were beaten up and arrested by the very same police. That an individual who works for the establishment defines resistance against the police – which has been a main instrument of Dalit oppression in almost all issues related to politics or otherwise – as ‘thuggery’, should definitely ring warning bells. The Ambedkarites for some reason seem to respect the bureaucrats from the community because of the power these individuals hold. The virus of looking up to such individuals (Mr. Gaikwad or anyone else), instead of being vigilant about people in power, is definitely disastrous for any community that claims to be oppressed.

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Next, even if we assume that the Ambedkar Bhavan had to be destroyed, anyone who is even remotely an Ambedkarite would have easily seen that since the structure has a lot of importance for Ambedkarites, it should only be dismantled through a consensus in the entire community. Mr. Gaikwad claims that he had the approvals given by various Dalit political leaders. Such an argument does not make any sense either, because as far as politics goes, it is very rare that any stand taken by Marathi politicians on any issue is taken as the view of the people by the vast majority of Dalits.

If Mr. Gaikwad actually wanted to act according to the wishes of the community, he should have lobbied with the community at large at the grass-root level about the need for changing the structure into a 17 storey building, and then gone ahead with the community support to dismantle the Bhavan. Even the Ambedkar brothers would have had to bow down before the community. Yet, Mr. Gaikwad used the strength of the establishment to demolish the structure with the implicit slogan of ‘Shoot Now Answer Questions Later’. Such behavior is really disastrous for a community. Tomorrow, what will prevent another Gaikwad from breaking down Chaityabhoomi with statements like ‘Ambedkar would never have liked that people come and shit and dirty the area on 6th December, hence we have decided to turn this area in to a multiplex of sorts with a large number of toilets etc’? After all, a good politician is always the one who justifies his actions, however bad they may be for the society. But a good politician need not be good for the people. Just because the law had been followed, it does not mean that the action was holy.

Finally, certain points made against the Ambedkar brothers (which are not of relevance to the debate around the Bhavan per se) seem puerile to say the least, with statements like “Ambedkar brothers wanting to grab the land”. Isn’t it common sense that if the Ambedkar brothers intended to grab that land, they could have built a 70-storey building there and made crores of rupees from rental money, instead of getting peanuts out of the land by having the Bhavan there? Such accusations may easily be leveled in the future against individuals who are similarly in-charge of looking after Dalit memorials, and should thus not be allowed into any debate. The destruction of the Bhavan by the hands of a few individuals from the community, and dishing out justifications for it, is definitely not a trend that should be taken lightly, because it’s better to nip politically destructive trends in the bud before they envelope the entire forest of state politics.

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Vaibhav Wasnik is a researcher and he blogs here.

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