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

29 July 2020
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
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

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.

Rahul Jaywant Bhise is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai who has previously written for The Wire and Firstpost. He was a South Asia Foundation scholar at the Asian School of Journalism, Chennai.

Keywords: Dalit rights BR Ambedkar Mumbai Dalit activism Dalit movement