Although many doubt the sincerity of the BJP’s new-found respect for Ambedkar, as long as there is space for women like Chhaya Wankhede on stage, his revolutionary thoughts will continue to spread.
On April 14 every year, thousands of people assemble at Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur to celebrate the birthday of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and his work to end – or ‘annihilate’ – caste in India. This year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting Nagpur too to honour the great constitutionalist. In Uttar Pradesh, now under the rule of the Bhartiya Janata Party, primary schools are holding new, mandatory programs to spread Dr. Ambedkar’s thoughts. Yet 40 years ago, when the government of his home state honoured Dr. Ambedkar, riots erupted.
In 1978, Maharashtra’s elected bodies resolved to make Marathwada University in Aurangabad the first university to be named after Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. Although the decision was unanimous in the legislature, the opposition in and around Aurangabad was swift and violent. Attacks began before nightfall, targeting state property, Buddhist women, and Buddhist property. When the Buddhists protested that the state should properly protect them and implement its resolution, the police fired on the protests.
The Nagpur-based singer Chhaya Wankhede was six years old when this happened. Wankhede’s mother regularly brought her to the protests after school. “I would study, eat, and then go,” she recalled. One day, Wankhede got home to hear that police had fired tear gas on protesters.
“When we left home, we didn’t know where we would find my mother. We didn’t know. They had released tear gas there and the gas filled the air.” When she found her mother, she was with the neighbour’s children, who “had appeared while she was going in another direction during the tear-gassing. We took my mom and the children out of there. When we got home, it was night.”
The Congress, which was in power at the time, delayed the namantar resolution. Reluctant to even protect those facing violence, the Congress appeared to want to collect Buddhist votes without investing any resources in their community. The job of popularising Babasaheb Ambedkar fell to Buddhist activists, like Chhaya Wankhede.
Wankhede joined a drama troupe of about 150 people, including set designers, that spread the songs of the movement across Maharashtra. It became famous under her name and for their main play, Vidrohache Pani Petle Aahe (‘The Water of Revolution Is Aflame’). Sometimes they traveled between locations on foot, and the programmes would go on late into the night.
As one of the first female professional singers in Nagpur, Wankhede faced extra scrutiny of her private life. “Don’t hang out with men”, she recalls people saying. And “She always comes home at night”. Her mother opposed her choice of carer for this reason, but Chhaya’s decision was final. Eventually her work impressed her mother too.
“Other communities had their songs. We didn’t have anything,” Wankhede explained. A few female singers had participated in Jotiba Phule’s Satyashodhak movement and her own parents sang at Buddhist functions in her childhood. Wankhede has helped establish these singing programs as a Buddhist tradition; she is an annual figure at both Ambedkar and Buddha birth celebrations.
Chhaya Wankhede uses her songs to instruct her community in how to be Buddhist – from the eightfold path to how to follow dhamma. “I make these things simple. And then there are Babasaheb’s thoughts in his letters, his work, and his lectures. What are all the things he did? We can find motivation in them.”
One of Wankhede’s songs, ‘Danka Gajto Mazya Bheemacha‘ narrates how Dr. Ambedkar became a great scholar and statesman despite the discrimination he faced. Popular songs like this one influence the phrases and details both the literate and the unlettered use when describing the history of caste. This gives Buddhist women, who are often excluded from both academia and the publishing industry, the chance to tell their community’s history. For example, the song features both the sacrifices Ramabai, Dr. Ambedkar’s first wife, made for his education and his burning of the Manusmriti.
Chhaya Wankhede is quick to emphasise that her popularity spans communities within and outside of India. Her groups “go to Ramayan music events too. We have to learn everything, because this is our study. I am not just in the Ambedkarite movement. I teach about culture. In that, there is no caste discrimination… In music, there is no language, no caste, no religion.”
In 1994, the government of Maharashtra expanded the name of Marathwada University to Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University. Sixteen years and many lives later, Dr. Ambedkar was no longer just the leader of ‘Untouchables’ – he was finally a founding father of the republic as well.
Today, even right-wing groups like the BJP and Shiv Sena honour Dr. Ambedkar. Although many doubt the sincerity of their new-found respect, as long as there is space for women like Chhaya Wankhede on stage, Dr. Ambedkar’s revolutionary thoughts will continue to spread.
Emily Hays is a student and aspiring journalist. After finishing her B.A. at Yale University in 2016, she received the Parker Huang Fellowship to learn Marathi and research the Namantar Movement for one year.