The last time Lalitabai Kamble travelled to Mumbai, it was 1972 and she was a young teenager. Of all the sites she visited in the city, BR Ambedkar’s memorial in Dadar was not one of them.

“Back then, my family had no consciousness about Babasaheb Ambedkar, so we didn’t come to Chaityabhoomi,” said Kamble, now a 60-year-old farm labourer from Maharashtra’s Osmanabad district. “But for more than 20 years now, it has been my dream to visit Mumbai again and pay my respects to Babasaheb.”

At 2 pm on December 6, after eight hours of bus travel and 17 hours of camping in a queue in Dadar, Kamble’s dream finally came true. With tears streaming down her eyes, she stepped into Chaityabhoomi – a circular Buddhist shrine in memory of Ambedkar – and bowed her head before the small garlanded bust of India’s pioneering Dalit rights champion.

“I have spent Rs 600 to make this trip possible and don’t know if I will be able to afford it again,” she said. “But I am at peace now that I have come here once.”

Lalitabai Kamble (right) at Chaitya Bhoomi with her neighbour Girijabai Hawle.

On Ambedkar’s 60th death anniversary on Tuesday, Kamble was one of the few pilgrims making a first-time visit to the memorial. For lakhs of other pilgrims around her, journeying to Chaitya Bhoomi on December 6 is an annual event that often involves taking special trains and buses from across India to Mumbai, camping on the grounds of Shivaji Park, wearing white and blue saris and kurtas and placing flowers at Ambedkar’s shrine.

Pilgrims camping at Shivaji Park for Ambedkar Jayanti.

Overcoming caste discrimination

As an “untouchable” who defied caste to become a lawyer, as a reformer who enshrined the equality of castes in the Constitution and as a leader who led thousands of Dalits out of Hinduism towards Buddhism, Bhimrao “Babasaheb” Ambedkar is particularly revered by India’s lower castes.

For many of the older pilgrims visiting his memorial on December 6, the proof of Ambedkar’s success at social reform is evident in their personal experiences itself.

“When I was younger, I remember being treated like an untouchable, but that doesn’t happen anymore,” said Girijabai Hawle, a labourer in her 60s who came to Mumbai from Osmanabad with Kamble. “Now my children and upper caste children eat food together, and that has happened only because of Babasaheb.”

Ganesh Dabholkar, a retired cardio-technician from Panvel, has a similar story. “While growing up in my village, Dalits were not allowed touch the public water taps, and we had to drink water out of our hands,” said Dabholkar, whose parents converted from Hinduism to Buddhism in 1956, the year that Ambedkar died. “But if things are different today, it is because of Ambedkar’s hard work.”

Ganesh Dabholkar remembers being treated like an untouchable.

Prabhakar Gavai, a volunteer on the organising team of the Ambedkar Jayanti event, cannot help bring up the current demands for caste-based reservations by the land-owning Maratha caste of Maharashtra. “Years ago when Babasaheb had himself offered to list the Marathas as a caste eligible for reservations, the Marathas refused, because they saw themselves as zamindars,” said Gavai. “Now they’re asking for reservations too, because they are seeing how much we Dalits have progressed as a community.”

Inadequate consiousness

Despite the multitude of Dalits converging in Mumbai on December 6, there was little talk of two of the biggest incidents that sparked Dalit fury across the nation this year – the suicide of Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad Central University in January, and the assault on four Dalit youths by cow vigilantes in Una, Gujarat.

Inside the Ambedkar memorial in Mumbai.

Instead, several pilgrims seemed concerned that the younger generation of the community is not adequately aware of Ambedkarite philosophy. “We come to Chaityabhoomi every year and teach our children the little we know about Babsaheb at home,” said Gautam Shriram, a rickshaw driver from Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh, who travelled 36 hours to get to Mumbai. “But my 10-year-old son is not being taught anything about Ambedkar in school. When some of us brought it up, the school simply said they would not do so.”

Gautam Shriram and his family come to Chaitya Bhoomi from Uttar Pradesh every year.

Gavai, who is a member of the Buddhist organisation Bharatiya Baudh Sabha, believes that the electronic media is the only solution to the problem of diminishing Ambedkarite consciousness. “Today, thousands of Dalits in rural India have a deep love for Babasaheb, but they don’t know much about his beliefs. This is because the media is owned by the upper castes and does not even reach the people in every village,” said Gavai. “Unfortunately, the only solution is the expansion of the electronic media to these remote areas, because people do watch TV if nothing else.”

Gavai outside the Chaitya Bhoomi memorial.