Every year, on December 6, lakhs of people converge at Chaityabhoomi in central Mumbai to pay respects to their icon Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar to mark his death anniversary. This year too, the ritual was no different except for a little twist towards the end; prayers over, nearly a thousand young men ran towards a decrepit textile mill some 300-metres away, some broke through the security set-up at its gate, others climbed over high walls and occupied prime space in the mill. Lathi-charge ensued; there were injuries but the formidable police force, stationed there after the Maharashtra government had been notified of the protest, could not—or did not—stop the throng from breaking into the mill precinct.
Two weeks later, the “Occupy mill” agitation was going strong at the Indu Mill; busts of Buddha and Ambedkar had been installed, twenty-odd bhikshus (Buddhist monks) sat in silence or meditation, led prayers at regular intervals, a make-shift kitchen had been set-up with women volunteers running it, regular meetings had been organized, local civic body had been approached for water connection and toilets, young volunteers attempted to clean and take over relatively-sturdy buildings in the mill precinct.[Update: the Bombay High Court today rapped the Maharashtra government for its "failure to take action against the encroachers"]
Though most of them owe allegiance to the Republican Sena—one of the many Dalit-based and Ambedkar-vadi parties in Maharashtra, other Dalit, Republican and neo-Buddhist groups too had jumped into the agitation. As word spread, Indu Mill, owned by the central government’s National Textile Corporation (NTC), became a sort-of-pilgrimage point for Ambedkar-followers; an average of 20-30 families trooped in every day from far-off places like Nagpur and Amravati.
This “Occupy “ agitation was the last push—after seven smaller agitations and years of requesting, demanding and getting assurances—for the construction of a grand Ambedkar memorial. “This is where Babasaheb followers must come from all over, this is where we want the Statue of Equality. It’s high time both the state and central governments moved on the issue,” says Anandraj Ambedkar, grandson of the Dr Ambedkar and president of the Republican Sena. Anandraj, a short and stocky middle-aged engineer, was over-shadowed by his more famous brother Prakash Ambedkar and his Republican Party of India all these years, but he now believes it’s time to move centre-stage “for the sake of the memorial”.
Afraid of being left out of an “important” agitation, RPI leader and former Maharashtra cabinet minister Ramdas Athavale, who recently aligned with the Shiv Sena, led a mob of his own into the venue, RPI workers ransacked what was left of the ruins, set fire to a section of the mill, and attempted to hijack Anandraj Ambedkar’s agenda. The state assembly, now in session at Nagpur, saw some aggressive and disruptive scenes over the issue with political parties posturing for effect. But Ambedkar’s Republican Sena is unwilling to forfeit its first-mover advantage. [Update: the Maharashtra Assembly today unanimously adopted a resolution demanding 12.5 acres of Indu Mill land in Mumbai for constructing memorial of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar]
“Mumbai was where Babasaheb lived, worked and died, this is his karmabhomi.. Why should he not have a memorial here when all other national leaders are respected with memorials in Delhi that run into 20-50 acres?” demands Kashinath Nikalje, Maharashtra chief of the Republican Sena. Adds Ramesh Jadhav, Mumbai chief: “All along we demanded a section of the mill land, now we want the entire 12.5 acres. We have started talking to architects, but our own people sitting in the governments let us down, they are traitors to Babasaheb’s legacy”. We will not budge from here till we get the land, says Anandraj Ambedkar, in a matter-of-fact voice; it’s drowned out by deafeningly loud cheers. The mill security does not even bother to intervene.
Every “occupier” believes that the agitation is unnecessary because the central government should have constructed the memorial all these years. “Wasn’t Babasaheb a leader of the entire nation, the man who gave India her Constitution? Was he only a Dalit leader? Why should only Bahujans want this,” asks a livid Narayan Jadhav, retired state government employee. “The Statue of Equality, like the Statue of Liberty, should be visible from the planes that fly overhead.”
The agitation, if not handled sagaciously, could turn out to be a political game-changer; Dalits and Bahujans have traditionally supported either factions of the Republican Party which aligned with the Congress or the Congress itself. However, given their alienation from the Congress in recent years accompanied by a drift in the Republican Party movement, disparate interests such as Mayawati and the Shiv Sena are fishing in the troubled waters. It’s not lost on the Ambedkarites —occupiers and others—that successive Congress-Nationalist Congress Party governments in the state have been rather liberal in thought and budgetary allocations to icons other than Ambedkar.
Just about half a kilometer north of the occupied mill, and opposite Mumbai’s famous Shivaji Park is the over-arching memorial complex dedicated to Hindutva ideologue V.D. Savarkar, popularly called Veer Savarkar. “It came up without a fuss,” points out Ramesh Jadhav. And, he lingers on the point, to emphasise the relative significance of Ambedkar and Savarkar to the country. Then, there’s the Shivaji memorial, rolled out by the state government. “Once Ambedkar memorial is done, we will go all out for the other big one, that too should happen,” says Deepak Waghmare, from a Dalit youth organization.
The grandiose memorial complex for Chhatrapati Shivaji, a kilometer into the Arabian Sea off the southernmost tip of Mumbai, was announced in October 2005 by the Congress-NCP government. The Rs.350 crore memorial project was planned to house a statue taller than the Statue of Liberty, landscaped gardens and a museum. “The memorial should be close to Mumbai, it should not only be a tourist destination but also an inspiration for our youth,” the then chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh had said. The highly-criticised and controversial plan had given a boost to the Maratha community and fledgling Maratha organizations.
Six years later, the project has barely got off the ground. The state government willy-nilly made budgetary allocations last couple of years, and a team of Indian and Thai architects-designers was appointed. When it set up the memorial committee with Babasaheb Purandare, well-known scholar on the life and times of Chhatrapati Shivaji, as chairman, it was furiously contested. Maratha organizations and leaders panned Purandare and his role on the grounds that the government was “attempting to ‘Brahminise’ the Maratha king’s legacy”.
Ironically, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray termed the memorial idea a “stupidity”; the Sena believed that Congress and NCP sought to appropriate Chhatrapati Shivaji and add him to their list of icons. He wasn’t wrong; the Shivaji memorial announcement now seems rather token-ist. To add to the conundrum, another multi-crore Shivaji memorial spread over two acres is proposed near the Mumbai international airport. This was to appease Maratha organizations that objected to the Mumbai International Airport Limited (MIAL) plan of relocating Chhatrapati Shivaji statue located at the entrance in order to augment the handling capacity of the airport. “We won’t allow that statue to be taken out unless there’s a grand memorial here,” says a local Sena leader.
“Ultimately, it all boils down to politics, but the Ambedkar memorial should be above all politics,” notes Jayashree Khadilkar-Pande, editor-owner of Navakal, Marathi daily popular among Shivaji followers too. “He’s a national icon after all, the state can push the centre for this”. Anandraj Ambedkar says he and the “occupiers” will not give up till the memorial is declared, whatever it takes. The tension between his and Athavale’s followers is palpable though both sides attempt to gloss over it. Will Athavale similarly agitate for the Shivaji Memorial off Arabian Sea coast, as his new ally Uddhav Thackeray would like him to? Can he convince Thackeray to push for the Ambedkar Memorial, yards away from the Savarkar Memorial?
Of course, the philosophy of grand memorials as markers of caste or communal or political identity itself can be contested, as it should be, but here’s a unique situation: given that the Congress-NCP government has backed other memorials and atypically taken the lead for the grand Shivaji Memorial, can it duck addressing the demand for an Ambedkar Memorial? Ambedkarites are challenging this preference for one memorial over the other. “We want our Statue of Equality, come what may,” Anandraj Ambedkar declares.