How India’s Dalits had to cope when the backlash began after Ambedkar’s death

April 14 marks the 127th birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar. An excerpt from a book on the Dalit Panthers.

On 27 October 1954, at an informal meeting with some of Mumbai’s senior activists at the Siddharth College, which was then located in the barracks along Marine Lines, Babasaheb Ambedkar shared his anguish over their squabbles. He urged them to put an end to their infighting, as it could undermine the work they had done for the oppressed people. Expressing concern over the plight of the downtrodden people who were at the mercy of such social activists, he was moved to tears. He rued that he had not been able to do much for the people of the rural areas. These sentiments shook those present at the meeting.

Some of them went on to become leaders but could not give up their old habits. After Dr Ambedkar’s death, the movement disintegrated. These squabbling leaders fell prey to the crooked politics of the Congress party that led to further division in society.

Consequently, the orthodox, the rich and the powerful became even more ruthless towards the Dalits.

The main victims of exploitation were people living in the rural areas, especially the Ambedkarites among them – those who were influenced by Babasaheb and had started asserting their rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Earlier, Dalits used to be subjected to exploitation and atrocities and in the villages, the orthodox people used to ostracise them. The lives of these ostracised Dalits in the closed societies of villages was miserable – for they were totally dependent on the rest of the village for their livelihood.

While Dalits from other communities had their traditional (caste) vocational skills to rely on, the Ambedkarites (former Mahars) who had converted to Buddhism had no such vocation to ensure regular income. The restrictions imposed by the village used to ruin their lives. The responsibility of taking up their cause rested with leaders of the Republican Party of India (RPI), which was established after the death of Babasaheb.

However, the leaders were busy fighting among themselves, oblivious to the fact that they were entrusted with the responsibility of taking the Ambedkarite movement forward. The victims in villages had given up hopes of being rescued from their condition by these leaders and had no strength left to stand up to and question the injustice, let alone fight it. For such victims, the Dalit Panther became a ray of hope. It rejuvenated them and boosted their confidence in taking on the system that was subjugating them.

Babasaheb used to describe a village as a garbage dump of casteism.

His followers rejected casteism and its stipulated diktats. When violence broke out after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, it was mainly the Marathas from Maharashtra who targeted the Brahmins. Dalits stayed away from the violence because they had learnt that violence was not the tool to overcome ideological differences.

The violence marginalised rural Brahmins, who were left fuming. The Brahmins nursed a grudge against Marathas although they did not show it or take revenge. However, despite being a minority community, the Brahmins continued to control the entire society on the basis of their intellectual prowess and “divinely” sanctioned supremacy in the caste system.

During the same period, the country had started experimenting with panchayat committees for local governance in rural areas. Based on the recommendations of the Jivraj Mehta commission and Vasantrao Naik committee reports, developmental works were being undertaken in villages. Before the Panchayat system was introduced, the most powerful position in a village, of the “patil”, used to be occupied by members of the Maratha community. It was a traditional position, not an administrative one, but carried supreme status in the traditional village community.

The panchayat system ushered in an official position, that of the “sarpanch”. Being an administrative post, it bestowed power and opportunities to get one’s hands on lucre. The traditional position of a “patil” and the democratic post of a “sarpanch” came to be vested in members of the Maratha community by virtue of their clout in the villages. The Maratha community became more powerful than ever, even within the framework of the Constitution.

However, these first baby steps taken towards democratisation of local governance led to rivalry and provided leeway for exposing the atrocities against Dalits. Such incidents drew the attention of newspapers, prompting reporters to visit the homes of victimised Dalits. The news reports of such incidents, however, ultimately resulted in more exploitation of the victims.

Since the RPI leaders had politically compromised with the then ruling Congress party, the situation led to anguish among Dalits.

Whenever newspapers reported such incidents, the leaders could do little to take up their cases. The state of affairs made Dalit youths like me feel the need for a militant organisation to combat atrocities. Incidents of women being raped and paraded naked, Dalits being ostracised and human excreta being dumped in wells were on the rise, so were human sacrifices, lynchings, murders, people being burnt alive, burning of houses, grabbing of land and denial of land for cremating the dead. There was even a heinous incident of eyes being gouged out for demanding justice. It was like standing on the mouth of a volcano. We thus founded Dalit Panthers. That was our way of venting our anger simmering within us.

Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar had wanted a strong opposition party to take shape for the sake of a healthy democracy in the country. He had envisaged such a role for the Republican Party of India to check the ruling party. He had wanted to unite all opposition parties to create a strong alternative to the Congress party. Unfortunately, this did not happen during his lifetime.

During 1971 and 1972, newspapers played a crucial role in checking the hurtling Congress, using the growing atrocities against Dalits as their shields.

In 1971, atrocities against Dalits, which never used to be prominently displayed in newspapers, made front-page news.

Such stories had a lasting impact on Dalit youth. Every day, stories of atrocities against Dalits used to leave them shaken. Around the same time, the report of the Elayaperumal Committee was made public. The committee had travelled across India to compile cases of atrocities against Dalits and prescribed remedies to curb them. L Elayaperumal headed the committee and Dadasaheb Gaikwad, one of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s closest lieutenants, was a member.

Dadasaheb’s experience left a mark on the report. It was similar to the reports in the United States that revealed atrocities being committed against African Americans. It revealed the high-handedness of the Congress party’s goons, the zamindars (landlords), the rich and the powerful. The report led to outrage among Dalit youth – the second generation after Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s death – and they wanted to fight back.

This generation had followed his message of “Educate, Unite and Fight”, but found itself in a quandary. Born into poor families, they were all bread-earners, mainly employed in government departments and couldn’t risk losing their jobs by participating in the movement as activists.

Some of them came up with the idea of uniting the older generation of Dalit leaders who were heading various factions of the Republican Party of India. A new organisation, Republican Kranti Dal, was formed, with Dr Narayan Gaikwad as its president. The new outfit was headquartered on the 13th lane of Kamathipura area of Mumbai.

April is the month of festivity for Dalits because Dr Ambedkar was born on April 14.

Dalit localities celebrate his birth anniversary with gusto and pride to express gratitude to their liberator. The festivities include processions, speeches, cultural shows and various collective activities that go on for a couple of months. Every year, Dalits look forward to the occasion. However, on 14 April 1972, an unpleasant incident in Mumbai dampened the spirit of Dalits.

While Dr Ambedkar’s birth anniversary was being celebrated at the Dalit locality of Chinchwadi (Gadhav Bawdi) in Bandra, some of the elite residing in nearby buildings became annoyed with the loudspeaker blaring songs on Dr Ambedkar. They filed a complaint with the police. A team of police personnel from the Bandra police station arrived at the venue of the celebrations and started assaulting the Dalits, and they wouldn’t stop even after the organisers turned the sound down.

The use of loudspeakers is common in all public religious functions in India, including those of Hindus and Muslims, but some Hindu police officials nursed a grudge against Ambedkarites and were waiting for an opportunity to show their might. The police team headed by PSI Nanavare not only assaulted Dalits, but also smashed photographs of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and Gautam Buddha. The news spread like wildfire in Mumbai city, drawing crowds to the Bandra Police Station to protest. Demonstrations were held at various places across Mumbai. Two of them were important.

On 16 April 1972, Dr Ambedkar’s son, Bhaiyyasaheb Ambedkar, led an army of protestors to the front of the state secretariat (known as sachivalaya then and mantralaya today). The protestors demanded an inquiry into the Bandra incident and suspension of the police officer concerned. Barrister BD Kamble and Bhausaheb Kelshikar led another protest march to the Bandra Police Station and demanded the suspension of the police official. Leaders of both the demonstrations submitted memoranda to senior police officials and minister of state DT Rupawate, who promised to take action. However, neither he nor anyone else took any action, adding to the anguish of Dalits.

Excerpted with permission from Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History, JV Pawar, translated from the Marathi by Rakshit Sonawane, Forward Press Books.

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