The attack on Rajgruha is an attempt to deny Dalit self-respect

Anandraj Ambedkar appeals to Republican activists outside Rajgruha to maintain peace after an attack against the residence of Dr BR Ambedkar, on 8 July. Ganesh Shirsekar/ Indian Express Photo
29 July, 2020

On the night of 7 July, two individuals vandalised Rajgruha, the Mumbai home of BR Ambedkar. CCTV cameras in the premises noted two men pelting stones at the windows of the house, smashing flower pots and ripping out plants outside the house. Two days later, the Mumbai Police detained one suspect, a 35-year-old called Umesh Jadhav, for the attack and said they were in search of his accomplice. Saurabh Tripathi, the deputy commissioner of police, for Mumbai Zone 4, the jurisdiction under which Rajgruha lies, told the Indian Express that “investigations were underway to determine what led Jadhav and his accomplice to damage the property.” As a Dalit reading this, the search for a motivation seems almost laughable.

Symbols of Dalit assertion have been under siege since the moment they were built. Attacks on statues of Ambedkar—commonly called Babasaheb within Dalit communities—happen with an almost monthly regularity, vandalised, garlanded in footwear, smeared in black paint or torn down. Yet, the journalistic, police and political establishment in this country ignore the systemic causes behind the violence that Dalit communities and symbols face on a daily basis.

The COVID-19 pandemic, rather than decrease casteist violence, has seen it rise in frequency. In Punjab it has taken the form of dominant-caste panchayats issuing illegal and exploitative rulings against Mazhabi Sikhs—a Dalit community that converted to Sikhism. A press note by the National Dalit Movement for Justice—a group working towards Dalit and Adivasi civil rights—collated a list of 92 caste atrocities during the nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. In the few states where activists have been able to compile data, they have recorded a sharp uptick in violence against Adivasi and Dalit communities in the past four months. In Tamil Nadu, violence against Dalits increased almost fivefold during the lockdown. The period witnessed the desecration of Babasaheb’s statues in Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Uttar Pradesh. In Tamil Nadu, a statue of EV Ramsamy, founder of the self-respect movement and commonly called Periyar, was also vandalised.

The attacks on Babasaheb’s legacy has not been by masked vigilantes alone. On 14 April—celebrated as Ambedkar Jayanti, the birth anniversary of Babasaheb—the Maharashtra police arrested Anand Teltumbde, a renowned Dalit academic and Babasaheb’s grandson-in-law from his residence within Rajgruha. The arrest of Teltumbde and several other activists and human-rights lawyers was in relation to a Dalit protest in Bhima Koregaon in 2018. On Babasaheb’s birth anniversary, his residence flew a black flag in protest of Teltumbde’s arrest.

Rajgruha stands apart from the other memorials to leaders of late colonialism. The house was built in 1933, when Babasaheb’s legal career was just beginning to grow. It takes its name from one of the first Buddhist empires in South Asia, whose ruins lie in Bihar. In a deeply symbolic choice, Ambedkar had decided to build the house in a locality named Hindu Colony, in Dadar. Ambedkar’s residence became in every way a symbol of resistance, rejecting Hindu majoritarianism and celebrating a literate and self-respecting Dalit identity that harkened back to a Buddhist past where his people were able to beat the strictures of Brahminism.

During Babasaheb’s 20-year stay in the house, its most prized possession was his library. Without the financial backing that his upper-caste contemporaries enjoyed, Babasaheb collected over fifty thousand books, making Rajgruha one of the largest personal libraries in the world. This was no easy feat for someone born into abject poverty and into a religion whose scriptures promised murder as the punishment for literacy. Babasaheb went so far as to sell Charminar, his previous residence, to buy books for the library of Rajgruha.

Rajgruha unlike its contemporaneous residences, does not serve to entomb the past, but instead militates in the present. Anand Bhavan, the home of the Nehru family in Allahabad, is a tourist attraction. Jawaharlal Nehru’s books are carefully stored in glass showcases, carefully fenced by barriers. MK Gandhi’s home in Sevagram is a tourist site too, where foreigners and Indians alike can take a quick photograph with his fabled handloom. Rajgruha, in contrast, is a library. It does not seek to harken back to a mythical past. Crowds go there to read, crowds go there on Mahaparinirvan Divas—on 6 December, the day Babasaheb died—before they go to his resting place in Chaitya Bhoomi. It is a symbol not merely of past victories, but also of struggle and self-respect in the present.

A cursory glance at newspapers on 8 July would not have told you that anything was amiss. The attack on Rajgruha was not on the front page of any major English language national broadsheet. No editorials were written about it in these newspapers. Television news channels held no primetime debates about it. On 2 October 2019, a memorial to MK Gandhi, in town of Rewa in Madhya Pradesh, was vandalised. News of the attack was prominently reported both nationally and internationally. Even today, one can only imagine the sheer volume of coverage that would have been given to an attack on the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or an attack on Matoshree—the Mumbai residence of the Thakeray family.

In the understanding of German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, the “public sphere” is the domain of social life where public opinion is formed, the media being a central mediator that allows and disallows ideas from entering this public space. The Indian public sphere is constructed, controlled and policed by an exceeding small and unrepresentative group of people. Its newsrooms are peopled overwhelmingly by Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Jains. The space for Dalit reporters and editors, much less independent Dalit thought, is either deeply restricted or non-existent.

A 2019 study by Oxfam India about caste representation in Indian newsrooms showed that of 121 newsroom leadership positions, 106 were occupied by upper-caste journalists, with not a single person from Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities. Three out of every four anchors in flagship debates were upper caste, with not a single anchor being SC, ST or from a community classified as Other Backward Castes. No more than five percent of articles in English newspapers were written by Adivasis or Dalits, who together make up more than a quarter of the country’s population. Among by-lined articles in news websites, 72 percent were written by upper caste people. The textbooks that we study, the cultural symbols, the art, music—the entire setup—is policed by this small, upper-caste minority.

The only manner in which Dalits are portrayed in this public sphere are as victims. As murdered bodies, while their attackers’ names and castes go unmentioned. As rape-victims. As the lynched. Our nation’s public sphere cannot allow for the Dalits who were inspired by Babasaheb. Dalits are slowly scoring high in entrance exams. They are securing positions in the finest educational institutions. The Dalit diaspora in the West is not only growing in number, but also in their vocal assertion. They are saving money, trying to live a life with dignity. They are wearing fine clothes, and are looking great in them. The public sphere is not used to seeing this sight. When a Dalit wears footwear in remote village of peninsular India, he is beaten up. When a Dalit is riding a horse on his wedding day in north India, he is brutalised by upper caste Hindus. But Rajgruha is a symbol of Dalits who will define themselves by their achievements and not their victimhood.

The antecedents of Dalit self-respect as a tool of liberation can be traced back to Babasaheb’s reclamation of historical events. The annual celebrations at Bhima Koregaon in memory of the Mahar regiments victory over the oppressive, upper-caste Peshwas is an example of this. The traditional understanding of Dalits in Maharashtra has been as a naïve people who are blind participants in the caste system. Celebrations such as the one in Bhima Koregaon challenge this idea. The annual pilgrimage Dalits make to Rajgruha, Chaityabhoomi and Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur—where Babasaheb converted to Buddhism—mark the persistent and unignorable assertion of Dalit self-respect. These are carnivals of Dalit assertion and militancy. These establish their own public sphere regardless of how ignored it will be by savarna India.

The event at Rajgruha and Chaityabhoomi every 6 December splits the city of Mumbai in two. On the day, tens of thousands of Ambedkarites from around the country descend on the two locations to pay respect to Babasaheb’s residence and his grave. To the savarnas of the city, this is a civic bother, something they complain about on a regular basis. There have been countless times when I was on local trains and overheard conversations about how difficult the day is for commuters. They complain about dirty people, who know nothing about hygiene, flooding the city. They say it is safer to spend the next few days at home until the unwashed millions return to their villages. They view the day as an invasion into a city that only they can claim ownership of.

The Rajgruha I see every 6 December could not be more different. It is a carnival of solidarity, the marginalised from across the subcontinent sharing their determination, stories and joy. Multicolored Buddhist flags fill the streets, scattered between joyful faces. It is the one day when junkyard workers and manual scavengers celebrate alongside students and lawyers. Young volunteers, speaking more languages than I can recognise, are everywhere, distributing food and water, guiding people on the long walk to Chaityabhoomi. Stalls dot the street outside, selling books and CDs of protest. T-shirts, posters and little statuettes of Babasaheb are everywhere. There is always an unusual zeal in the air, one that speaks of a struggle and a people who are plowing forward despite everybody trying to beat them down. They are being themselves with no regard for how outsiders judge them. It is their moment to live, the only celebration they can own completely. It is a rare moment in which you can see what a truly democratic India might have looked like.

On the last Mahaparinirvan Divas, in 2019, I met a woman on the sidewalk outside Rajgruha. She told me she had travelled all the way from Vidharba with her two daughters and a son in tow to see the house Babasaheb lived in. “My husband is a drunkard,” she told me. “I have to work more than ten hours everyday at a plastic recycling facility just to make ends meet.” She told me she wanted her children to become doctors like Babasaheb, without fully understanding what kind of doctor he was. But somewhere in her I could see that dogged determination that Babasaheb left as his legacy. A faith that education could pull you out of the worst miseries. Her eyes, like those of thousands of others around me, were filled with an intense passion, a forceful determination that could not exist anywhere else.

My family, too, had been one of those drawn to the city by the dreams that Babasaheb had given us. In Vidarbha, as in many other parts of the subcontinent, Dalits are not allowed to live in the village. We instead have our Maharwada—a squalor, separate and unseen. Dalits had no right to get an education, own a farm, or even feel a sense of dignity while working. Before Babasaheb, that was all that could be hoped for. But he changed that. He worked, studied, and moved from the Maharwada to a Hindu colony, to Rajgruha.

My parents were able to leave a Maharwada and travel to Mumbai because of the policy of reservation that Babasaheb cemented into the constitution. Rajgruha, to thousands like me, represents that journey, one of dignity only received after centuries of social mobilisation and struggle. A struggle that militates against the order that Hinduism is built on. It is that hope that every attack on Rajgruha tries to crush. That hope is the motive that the Mumbai police were struggling so hard to investigate.