Away from the PM’s lofty speeches, here’s what the BJP tried to do on Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, and how it all went pear-shaped.
“He (B.R. Ambedkar) played a big role in kindling aspirations of people like me,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on the Dalit icon’s birth anniversary in Bijapur, Chhattisgarh. A day earlier, inaugurating a memorial for Ambedkar in Delhi, he had said no government did as much for Ambedkar as his.
The BJP’s attempt to own Ambedkar will continue for the next few weeks as the party seems to address Dalit alienation. This has become a particularly important goal for it as Dalits in Uttar Pradesh, some of whom had voted for the BJP in 2014 and 2017, are now flocking to the BSP-SP coalition. The coalition threatens to upset the BJP applecart in the state where it won 71 of 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2014.
Away from the PM’s lofty speeches, the attempt backfired on the ground, particularly in Uttar Pradesh.
Saffron versus blue
In Moradabad, Yogi Adityanath’s minister for Dalit affairs, Gulab Devi, was booed off stage because she preferred the Gandhian term ‘Harijan’ to the Ambedkarite ‘Dalit’.
In Agra, Dalit residents prevented BJP MLAs and the party’s Etah district president from paying tributes to an Ambedkar statue. “Dalit residents were infuriated to see saffron flags being waved near the Ambedkar statue,” said a Times of India report.
In Meerut, it was the other way round. Saffron groups played a “leading role” in celebrating Ambedkar Jayanti as the Dalit-led Bahujan Samaj Party decided not to, instead moving to a neighbouring district because they didn’t feel safe in Meerut. “In Meerut, the attitude of police officers is very negative towards us,” a BSP worker said.
They moved their celebrations to the nearby Badalpur area of Gautam Budh Nagar, where Mayawati was born. The BJP’s attempt to own Ambedkar ended up looking like it was trying to steal Ambedkar away from the Dalits, even in Badalpur, where a saffron scarf was found wrapped around an Ambedkar statue.
In Noida’s Chaprauli village, 100-odd Thakur men (the same caste as the UP chief minister) took to violence to disperse an Ambedkar Jayanti celebration, soon after the cake cutting. One Dalit youth landed up in hospital.
The vandalism of Ambedkar statues continues unabated across UP. While the UP Police has not been able to arrest a single person for it, BJP MP Bharat Singh claimed it was the handiwork of Christian missionaries.
“It is clear that the vandalism of Ambedkar statues across UP is being carried out by elements who owe their allegiance to Hindutva forces. Had that not been the case, the culprits would have been arrested by now,” said Ram Kumar, a Dalit activist in Lucknow.
In Meerut, one statue vandalised 23 years ago was wrapped in plastic by the administration, fearing that people may think it was recently vandalised.
In Yogi Adityanath’s home turf of Gorakhpur, Dalits were denied permission to install statues of Ambedkar and Buddha on the zilla parishad campus. When they did so anyway, the police had the statues removed.
In Aligarh, Congress workers ‘purified’ an Ambedkar statue with milk after BJP leaders sat on a fast around the statue. Similar ‘purification’ took place in Vadodara, Gujarat, after union minister Maneka Gandhi paid tributes to an Ambedkar statue.
Also in Vadodara, Dalit activists clashed with BJP workers as they demanded that they be allowed to pay tributes to an Ambedkar statue before the BJP mayor. Thakor Solanki, a local Dalit leader, accused the authorities of stopping “everyone except BJP leaders” from garlanding the Ambedkar statue.
The Ahmedabad police detained four supporters of Gujarat MLA and Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani for trying to prevent Kirit Solanki, the BJP MP from Ahmedabad West, from paying tribute to Babasaheb Ambedkar at Sarangpur.
In Pune, Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar said: “Currently, people feel that their freedom is being compromised. There is an impression that someone is controlling their lives and there are attempts to change the existing system.”
As BJP leaders hailed the Constitution that Ambedkar helped draft, Mevani was detained at Jaipur airport, and denied permission to address a Dalit rally.
Similarly, Dalit activists in Lucknow were detained by the police for protesting a ceremony where chief minister Yogi Adityanath was being given the “Dalit Mitr” award. Next year, this award shall be given to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Minister makes a meal of outreach
Meanwhile, union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad decided to share a meal with Dalits in Patna. With bottled water, the communal eating event took place in Patna’s top hotel, Maurya, the minister eating furiously for the cameras. This was a short-cut to the PM’s request that BJP leaders visit Dalits and have lunch with them in their homes.