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Avenging Ambedkar

The Deve Gowda government struggles to contain Dalit ire

Avenging Ambedkar
BABASAHEB Ambedkar must be turning over in his grave. The humiliation heaped on his statue at a Bangaloremedical college last fortnight would probably have ruffled few feathers at a time when historic icons get little respect. But when the son of a state minister is charged with attempting to share his bottle of beer with a statue of Ambedkar on his college premises, it guarantees public attention. Indeed, for a fortnight normal life has been disrupted in Karnataka due to agitations, bandhs, rasta rokos and torching of buses. For its part, a defiant state government seems to have decided to let the issue die on its own.

At the centre of the controversy is Vishw-ajit C. Naik, a second-year MBBS student of B.R. Ambedkar Medical College, Bangalore, and son of state Minister for Kannada and Culture B.T. Lalitha Naik, who ironically belongs to the Lambani scheduled tribe. According to a complaint filed by the college management, on the night of November 13 Vishwajit and six other students removed the spectacles and garland on the Ambedkar statue, poured beer over it and tried to feed it some biryani.

While the police were swift in arresting Vishwajit and his friends, despite reported attempts by Naik to shield her son, organi-sations like the Dalit Sangharsha Samiti (DSS) and the Praja Vimochana Chaluvali (PVC) started a state-wide agitation for the minister's resignation on moral grounds. Spontaneous agitations rocked the entire state, with Gulbarga, Bidar, Raichur, Belgaum, Bijapur and Mysore districts being the worst hit. The police put the total loss of property at Rs 82 lakh. They arrested 266 persons on charges of looting and arson andanother 450 were taken into preventive custody.

However, the arrests (of Vishwajit and friends) have not satisfied the DSS and PVC, who also pressed for a CBI or judicial inquiry. Though the H.D. Deve Gowda government has said there is no need for Naik's resignation, it gave in to demands for a probe.

Naik attributes her troubles to "people ranged against" her who want to'blackmail' her. "We are a family who consider Ambedkar god. How could my son, brought up in this environment, commit a deed such as this?" she asks.

But Naik's own scheduled caste (SC) ministerial colleagues have joined issue with the Dalit organisations. Two SC ministers and four MLAs stated that the demand for Naik'sresignation was justified though they changed tack within two days and supported Gowda's rejection of the demand. Taking into account the charged atmosphere, Naik has said that if her son is found guilty in the Corps of Detectives inquiry instituted by the government, he should be punished. "If she (Naik) had adopted this stance at the beginning itself, things would not have come tosuch a pass," says Mallikarjuna Kharge, a senior Congress leader and a Dalit.

But Gowda holds the Congress responsible for the developments. In a detailed report on the disturbances in the state presented to the Prime Minister this week, Gowda pointed to the involvement of two Congress MPs, an MLA and a former state minister. Says Gowda: "There have been several incidents where statues of Ambedkar were defiled in the past. The reaction to these incidents was confined to the particular districts while this time it has escalated due to instigation by political parties and anti-social elements."

And while the agitation is expected to die a slow death, political observers feel that the outburst is more against an administration run by a Vokkaliga dispensation, traditionally viewed as feudal oppressors by the Dalits. And Gowda's handling of the issue is expected to eat into the Janata Dal's strong Dalit vote bank in the coming Lok Sabha elections. Which only adds another misery to his cup of woes.

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