FIVE WEEKS BEFORE INDIA CELEBRATED its 50th year of independence, in Mata Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar in suburban Ghatkopar East, a part of northern Mumbai where many Dalits live, someone placed a garland of footwear around the neck of a statue of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the Dalit lawyer who drafted the Indian Constitution that guarantees the fundamental rights that all Indians take for granted. Even if not the worst atrocity committed against Dalits, it was a mean, insulting act: many Dalits live in abject conditions; many are routinely abused; and many have faced far worse physical atrocities. The act of garlanding the statue with shoes was entirely unprovoked. It seemed it was meant to incite a reaction; if not, at least to remind the Dalits that they had to submit to those who had treated them with contempt for centuries.
Ambedkar not only wrote the rules by which India governs its society, he also empowered his community to assert its rights, reclaim its dignity, and be proud of its identity. And so, that July morning, Dalits gathered round the statue, protesting what many viewed as desecration.
One has to be careful using a word like ‘desecration’ while talking about Ambedkar, because he wasn’t one for placing individuals on a pedestal. Indeed, in Anand Patwardhan’s new documentary Jai Bhim Comrade, which is inspired from the incident at Ramabai Nagar, a leader says as much in a speech to a crowd of Dalits: “Unfortunately, we gave up 330 million gods, but made Ambedkar into a god. We wear Babasaheb (as he was affectionately known) Ambedkar’s photo around our neck. On waking up, we say ‘Jai Bhim.’ Before sleeping, it is ‘Jai Bhim,’ and when having a little drink, it’s ‘Jai Bhim’.” Blind faith was not for him. Another speaker reminds his audience that they should not be Ambedkar bhakta (devotees); they should be anuyayi (followers).