Voices of people visiting Chaityabhoomi to celebrate Dr Ambedkar

Every April 14th, a blue sea dominates the streets of Dadar West to celebrate Dr Ambedkar's birth, the paramount event for the Dalit community.

Trupti and Pravin travelled from Nagpur to Mumbai a day before April 14th. Having not visited Chaityabhoomi for five years, Trupti wanted to pay her respects at the place Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar was cremated before it became crowded with devotees from across the country the next day. It was his 132nd birth anniversary the next day.

“We’ve travelled all day to get here. Please let us in,” Trupti pleaded with the security guard of the sanctum sanctorum, who had closed the gate for visitors at around 10:30 pm.

Twice a year, on April 14th and December 6th, which marks the birth and the death anniversary of Dr Ambedkar respectively, thousands of Dalits travel great distances to honour the memory of ‘Babasaheb’, a towering icon of the country’s fight for social justice.

The celebration of Dr Ambedkar’s birth is the most prominent public event that the community participates in. In Dadar West, close to Shivaji Park and the Shiv Sena headquarters, a sea of blue dominates the streets for that one day. Blue flags are seen tucked on two-wheelers, while many opt for white clothes, some are seen donning blue. Even the candles sold with flowers bear the same blue shade.

Yellow flowers with blue candles
Blue is tied to Dalit identity for several reasons. It was the flag colour of Dr Ambedkar’s Scheduled Castes Federation of India and is believed to be his favourite. It symbolises equality under the open sky. Pic: Eshan Kalyanikar

Arrangements are made for the safety and convenience of devotees, with police stationed, medical camps set up, and fire safety taken care of. Events are organised by the state government, speeches are delivered by political leaders. As one enters the area, they are welcomed by hoardings of every major political party; all have a large sized picture of Dr Ambedkar along with pictures of top politicians of that party.

But on the night when Trupti and Praveen arrived, the work for the next day’s was still on. Metal detectors were being set up for the next day. The security responded to Trupti’s pleas: ”A lot of people have been coming in and some work needs to be completed, if we allow you, we will have to allow everyone.”

The duo was let in and many others after them. “We live very close to Nagpur’s Deekshabhoomi and go there on Babasaheb’s death anniversary and birth anniversary,” Trupti says. That is where Dr Ambedkar converted to Buddhism along with his followers on October 14th, 1956.

The siblings are working professionals who had rented a hotel room for three days. As the clock struck 12, the sacred day had begun. The small crowd gathered on the sea-facing promenade at Chaityabhoomi started walking towards the main building where Dr Ambedkar’s ashes are kept in a small square-shaped room.

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‘Only education can destroy caste’

Greetings of Jai Bhim are heard loud and clear. The crowd thickens with devotees who have travelled long distances for this annual pilgrimage. A chant repeats on the loudspeaker throughout the day: Buddham saranam gacchami, Dhammam saranam gacchami, Sangham Saranam Gacchami. (I go for refuge to the Buddha, I go for refuge to his teachings, I go for refuge to the order of monks).

Many from the Dalit community also add Bhimam saranam gacchami (I go for refuge to Ambedkar) after the first three chants. Ravindra Kumar Baudh, 25, is seen wearing a black t-shirt on which Dr Ambedkar’s picture is accompanied with Jai Bhim printed in Hindi.

For the last three years, on April 14th and December 16th, Ravindra has been undertaking an over 1,000 km journey from Jaunpur in UP to Mumbai’s Chaityabhoomi. “I work as a tailor,” he says. When asked how he looks at the pictures of Dr Ambedkar on hoardings of every political party, he says, “All of it is for show. No one has bothered to take his legacy (of social justice) ahead.”

The three cousins are standing on a red carpet.
Ravindra with his two cousins. Pic: Eshan Kalyanikar

His cousins are first-time pilgrims to Chaityabhoomi. His older cousin, Suraj Jaiswal, joins in the conversation, “No party is following Babasaheb’s ideals, you can see what is happening in the country.”

Back home, the family celebrates Dr Ambedkar’s birth anniversary by keeping fresh flowers in front of his picture. “Nothing is going to change with that,” Suraj says. With a sense of frustration and anger in his voice, he asks: Why do we still have victims of caste discrimination and untouchability?

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On February 12th this year, IIT Bombay’s Dalit student Darshan died by suicide. The special investigation team have implicated one student in the case, on the basis of what they claim to be a suicide note. However, Darshan’s father wrote a letter to the investigators raising questions on the authenticity on the note. In the letter, the father also says that the issue of caste bias has been sidelined.

“We are human beings too, why are we subjected to untouchability? It is the moral responsibility of every human being to fight caste,” Suraj says. “It is only education that can pull people out of this disease of caste.”

The events held that day at Chaityabhoomi did not address the issues of caste bias that the community faces today. Neither did talk about what happened to Darshan. “They should have,” says Ravindra.

‘Where are the Panthers of today?’: The legacy of Chaityabhoomi

At Chaityabhoomi, a red carpet is spread over the beach sand to guide people towards the other exit. After hours of standing in the queue, some families sat on the carpet, admiring the sea and the view of the Bandra-Worli Sealink.

“I am a senior citizen who took lathi-charge while taking part in namantaran andolan,” says Gita Bansode, a resident of Mankhurd who has been visiting Chaityabhoomi for decades.

The 1970s and the 1980s marked a significant period of resistance by the Dalit community. The Namantar Andolan, which saw the involvement of the Dalit Panthers, was a movement to rename Marathwada University in Aurangabad to Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar University.

After many lost their lives in the struggle, the university was eventually renamed Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University in 1994. “Looking at the state in which the country is, I can’t help but ask myself if we fell short somewhere,” Gita says.

Her disappointment is reflected in official data.

National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) report shows an increase of 27.3% in cases of atrocities against people of scheduled caste in 2018 compared to 2009. In the case of scheduled tribes, it increased by 20.3% over a span of 10 years.

Furthermore, there was a jump of over 7% and 26% respectively in the year 2019 as compared to 2018. This rise continued throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, with at least one scheduled caste person being a victim of caste atrocities every 10 minutes in India in 2020. A total of 50,291 cases were registered that year. The following year saw an increase of 1.2%, with 50,900 cases being reported.

“Back in my day, there was Raja Dhale and many anti-caste poets and writers who fought against injustice, but the issues are the same and now I don’t see many here to fight,” she says. Raja Dhale, known as the man who burnt, the religious book, the Gita — in JV Pawar’s words, “as a symbolic act to protest against the religious diktats that brought untold suffering to Dalits” — was cremated at Chaityabhoomi in 2016.

“Another dogma to which the Bhagvat Gita comes forward to offer a philosophic defence is Chaturvarnya. The Bhagvat Gita, no doubt, mentions that the Chaturvarnya is created by God and therefore sacrosanct,” Dr Ambedkar notes in one of his writings. (sic)

Dhale’s act was also in line with what Dr Ambedkar did with Manusmriti, an ancient text prescribing inhumane practices towards the scheduled caste. On December 25th, 1927, Dr Ambedkar burned a copy of Manusmriti during the Mahad Satyagraha, a key event in Dalit history where, for the first time under his leadership, the community asserted their right to public drinking water. That day is celebrated as Manusmriti Dahan Divas.

There was also Bhai Sangare, who used to speak at Chaityabhoomi “with rage against all the brutalities that the community was subjected to”, Gita recalls. His voice was aggressive and powerful enough to rouse up the crowds, she says.

Picture of Gita Bansode sitting at the beach
Gita wants more and more young people to raise their voice against all caste injustices. Pic: Eshan Kalyanikar

In his book, Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History, JV Pawar writes, “The rally at Chaityabhoomi was scheduled for 8am as it was the death anniversary of Dr Ambedkar, a huge crowd had already gathered by 6am() We started the rally with the handcart as our stage and a megaphone. Raja Dhale, Namdeo Dhasal, Bhai Sangare and Avinash Mahatekar addressed the rally while I moderated the event. The rally ended around noon under heavy police deployment.”

We don’t see that today, says Gita.

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