The Price for Walking on the Right Side of History

What do Dalits get out of their togetherness? Affirmation, strength, and a sense of solidarity.

On December 6, 43-year-old Dilip Ranadive went for work, as was his routine, at the E ward office of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation at Byculla. He worked his shift, returned home to freshen up and then, well past midnight, reached a lane opposite Shivaji Park, Dadar, along with 20 other people. They carried besoms for sweeping and cardboard squares for picking up the dirt. Around 1 a.m., Ranadive’s team started sweeping the street in front of Gypsy Chinese restaurant and the ‘Mad Over Donughts’ outlet near Shiv Sena Bhavan. It was the same street through which lakhs of Dalits had passed for over two days, shouting slogans such as “Jai Bheem” and “Jab tak suraj chand rahega, Baba tera naam rahega.” Hundreds of Dalit vendors had occupied the street. Dalit-run institutions and political parties had offered free food for those who had come from remote corners of Maharashtra to pay homage to their liberator. When it was over, the area was full of trash.

The trash was not so evident until the huge crowd of people that had gathered at Shivaji Park and Chaityabhoomi for Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar began leaving the venue. Soon, some persons took photographs of the mounds of dirt that had accumulated at different places on the street and posted them on social media in order to heap calumny on the followers of Babasaheb Ambedkar. By the next day, lots of pictures of the filthy streets of Shivaji Park had been posted on Facebook by citizens decrying what they saw as the vandalisation of the sanctity of the place.

Here’s one such instance of social media activism. My Facebook feed announced:

This is what Shivaji Park, Cadell road, Mumbai, India looks like, post 6th December. The day when a great human being Hon. Babasaheb Ambedkar (the person who created the Hon. Constitution of Republic of India) left our world. He did good to the needy, he provided everything they required but see how they behave…. This is not acceptable. This happens in a country where the Hon. Prime Minister #NarendraModi is busy struggling for Swatcha Bharat Abhiyan. Is it okay? Is this fair? Does reservation empower someone to outcast all the entities where you have the liberty to do whatever you feel? #NarendraModiji please do something about this. I voted a person who always had vision for a cleaner nation. I expect this should be minimised. My city has been molested…. The police representatives have to stand and guard in this trash. BMC is working hard to clean this dirt. And it’s not just with the litter but also the behavior of people. I have no issues with any religion. I have no rage against any race. I love all the religions, races, caste creed and origin because I believe in humanity. All I want to say is please keep the city clean and maintain decorum.

Just as much as the death anniversary of Dr Ambedkar’s is an annual ritual for over a million Dalits who visit Chaityabhoomi, it as much a ritual to witness such irresponsible moral outrage. I have nothing personal against the person who postd that comment on Facebook but he represents the way the non-Dalit world has come to see Dalits. Ambedkar is good, but the Dalits today – ‘the reservation people’ – are bad. His stunt photography proves this.

I do not want to remind people like him of what happens to Mumbai’s Chowpatty beach after Ganesh Visarjan or even the condition of Nashik or Ujjain after the conclusion of the Kumbh Mela. Perhaps this persons volunteers for one of those NGOs whose members, wearing jeans and T-shirt, see to it that the area is cleaned properly. Instead, I want to share something about what I witnessed at Chaityabhoomi on the night of 6-7 December, from midnight till 5 am in the morning. As a publisher and bookseller I had put up a stall there every year on Babasaheb’s birth and death anniversaries so I know what I am talking about.

Let us now leave our commentator behind and return to Dilip Ranadive, who works as a sweeper with the BMC. Sweepers are often thought of as belonging to the ‘Bhangi’ caste and are thus referred to derogatorily as ‘Bhangis’ by many people. However, Ranadive is a Buddhist. On December 6, having finished his daily job as a sweeper in Byculla, he set about doing the same work late that night and welll in to the morning in the Chaityabhoomi and Shivaji Park area. He knew he would not get any remuneration from the corporation for this extra work nor did he have any intention of asking for payment. Why then were he and his friends at it?

Well, if you have ever noticed the banner of the Bheem Garjana Seva Sangh at Ambedkar Chowk in Ghatkopar (Mumbai), you may know that Dilip Ranadive and Rakesh Jagtap are trustees of this Sangh. This Sangh, as is obvious from its name, is influenced by Ambedkar’s ideology. They have been regularly organising events such as career guidance for students, distribution of rice flakes and biscuits to the people who come to visit Chaityabhoomi and so on for the past several years. However, this time, it was surprising to see the activists of this Sangh with besoms and brooms on the streets.

In the documentary Jai Bhim Comrade by Anand Patwardhan, there is a moment when one of the residents of Shivaji Park says that “the area gets filthy because of the Scheduled Caste (S.C.) people” every December 6. When the activists of the Bheem Garjana Seva Sangha saw this, they decided to take besoms in their hand to clean up the area. They realized that if they had to give it back to the so-called higher class/upper caste people who mock the followers that visit Chaityabhoomi every year to offer their salutations to Dr Ambedkar, it was possible only through such action. And so it was that this year, Eshwar Dhanawde, Sagar Salve, Suryakant Shinde, Sunil Sonawane and a team of 20 such volunteers, all Dalits, reached Shivaji Park by midnight with a vehicle to cart away the garbage.

Within a few hours the team cleaned the street in front of Gypsy Chinese, one of the most popular eateries in central Mumbai, which is closed every 6 December. The road was now more clean than it would have been on any other morning. They picked up all the trash and collected it in a large black garbage bag and deposited it in the corporation vehicle. By 2.15 am, the road that connects the petrol pump in front of Shiv Sena Bhavan to Meenatai Thackeray’s (Bal Thackeray’s wife) statue was completely rid of dirt. The team also took measures to counter the foul odor owing to people having urinated in a nearby plot. I had a word with some of the activists, one of whom was Sunil Sonavane, a sweeper in BMC’s market department at Andheri, and another youngster, Sagar Salve, a student pursuing education as a civil draughtsman. Sagar said: “I cannot tolerate people talking ill about us. The mouths of high caste/high class people can be shut only in this manner. Not that they would ever clean up their own mess.”

I met one more group inside Shivaji Park, from Mharalgav, which is close to Kalyan, comprising of around six people including Bhupesh Jadhav, Navin Gaikwad and others. The group was cleaning up the used plates which were lying in front of a food distribution stall that has been set up by Manoj Sansare, a corporator from the Republican Party. This group had also carried black garbage bags of their own to collect the dirt.

The next morning, I learnt from Facebook that several volunteers of the World Bauddha Dhamma Samiti had also visited the area at 7 am on the morning of December 7. One thing that deserves a special mention here is that the Municipal Corporation employees, thousands of them, were also cleaning up the area all night and most of them, needless to say, belonged to the Dalit community.

Whether it is a vari (procession) that is carried out in Pandharpur every July, or the Kumbh mela at Nashik or the congregation at Chaityabhoomi in Dadar, the surge in trash is only because of the crowd. This mass of people maybe Varkaris or Naga Sadhus or Dalits, but they are all human beings. If a comparison needs to be made at all, we should compare the reasons that bring these people together. What do they get out of this togetherness? What is the inspiration they take back home? When such comparisons happen, we may perhaps assure ourselves that the followers of Babasaheb Ambedkar are walking on the right side of the history.

Kiritkumar Shinde is a Maharashtra-based journalist

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