Dalits in Maharashtra are angry at the demolition of a Mumbai building where Babasaheb Ambedkar worked.
In the cabinet expansion earlier this month, Narendra Modi inducted 19 new ministers, five of them Dalits. It was obviously an outreach towards Dalits, especially in Uttar Pradesh, where crucial elections are scheduled to be held next year.
That strategy, however, is likely to fail in the face of rising Dalit anger against the Bharatiya Janata Party in different parts of the country. Already simmering after the suicide of Rohith Vemula, Dalits are now coming out in the streets. Processions against the BJP governments have been held in Gujarat and Maharashtra, and the Bahujan Samaj Party’s chief Mayawati has already given a warning that more could follow. The wrath of the Dalits could hurt the BJP in elections to come.
A video of four Dalits being thrashed by some boys claiming to be from a “gau rakshak mandal” (Cow Protection Group) went viral on social media, leading to widespread protests by Dalits and a call for a statewide bandh.
In Mumbai, the demolition last month of Ambedkar Bhavan, a building closely associated with Babasaheb Ambedkar has unified Dalits belonging to different parties. On Tuesday, tens of thousands of them came out on the street in a procession that brought traffic to a standstill for hours and has rattled the state government. Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash, CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, representatives from the Congress and BJP ally Shiv Sena and student leader Kanhaiya Kumar participated and squarely blamed the state government. “Part of our history has been demolished,” said Prakash Ambedkar.
The actual demolition – apparently to redevelop it as a 17-storey tower — was ordered by the trust running the Bhavan on the grounds that the structure was dangerously dilapidated. But the trustees showed poor judgement, given the sentiment attached to the building, home to the Buddha Bhushan printing press. Prakash Ambedkar claims that the printing press was destroyed and the fate of several old, handwritten manuscripts is unknown.
Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had reportedly performed a bhoomipujan for the new building in April, but after the furore, swiftly realizing that this could have serious political repercussions – elections to the Mumbai Municipal Corporation are due early next year – has condemned the demolition and offered to rebuild it with state funds.
The BJP is worried that recent steps to please the state’s Dalits – such as the induction of Ramdas Athavale in the Union cabinet and the purchase, last year, of a house in London where the young Ambedkar lived, for 3.1 million pounds – will come to naught.
As it is, the BJP in Maharashtra is known as a party of ‘Bhats and Sheths’ (Brahmins and Moneybag traders), which has no time for Dalits. Rumours abound that a BJP legislator, who is also a builder, is involved in the rebuilding project. Prakash Ambedkar has given a call that Dalits should congregate at the site on July 30 and begin rebuilding the Bhavan, “with their own hands.” This could take away supporters from BJP ally Ramdas Athavale of the Republican Party of India – and a recent inductee in the Modi cabinet – and cost the BJP dearly.
As if these instances were not enough, earlier in the week, Dayashankar Singh, a BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh hurled a vile epithet against BSP chief Mayawati. Though he has since been expelled and has apologized, the insult is not likely to be forgotten by Dalits so soon. Mayawati made an impassioned and angry speech about it in Parliament, saying that the “country will not forgive the BJP for this,” a clear signal to her flock that they must make the BJP pay.
The political cost could be paid not just in UP, Gujarat or Maharashtra, but also in Punjab, where 31 percent of the population – the highest proportion in the country — belongs to the Schedule Castes. It could turn out to be a self-goal of epic proportions unless the party takes active steps to counter the perception that the BJP is and has always been a party that has no time for Dalits.