Ideology vs commerce: why Mumbai's iconic Ambedkar Bhavan was demolished
- At 3 am on 25 June, a group of men demolished the iconic Ambedkar Bhavan in Dadar East, Mumbai
- The men were backed by the People\'s Improvement Trust, which was set up by Babasaheb himself
- PIT advisor Ratnakar Gaikwad says the building was dilapidated, and wants to redevelop it for the benefit of Dalits
- Babasaheb\'s grandsons Prakash and Bhimrao claim the PIT is driven by commercial interests
More in the story
- Details of the slice of Babasaheb\'s legacy that has been irrecoverably lost
- Reactions to the demolition, and how the dispute is indicative of a larger Dalit and Ambedkarite divide
It has been over 10 days now, but the Gokuldas Pasta Lane in Mumbai's Dadar East area is still patrolled by policemen. A few barricades are parked at the start of the lane, behind which, heaps of rubble sits where the iconic Ambedkar Bhavan once stood.
At 3 am on 25 June, a group of men backed by the People's Improvement Trust (PIT), sporting T-shirts bearing the face of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, razed the building, which housed Buddha Bhushan Printing Press, founded by Babasaheb, and the political offices of his grandsons, Prakash and Anandraj.
The demolition has sparked an ugly battle, where Ambedkar's kin are at loggerheads with a trust founded by Babasaheb himself in the 1940s.
War of more than words
Ambedkar Bhavan had been a centre of progressive movements in Maharashtra for more than five decades. The printing press comprised of a machine with archival value, as well as documentation of the periodicals edited by Ambedkar.
A slab collapsed during the demolition, and all of that was destroyed. Moreover, the plot, spread across 3,000 square metres is in a prime location, valued at more than Rs 50 crore. Once a structure is built on it, the cost would be multiplied.
Prakash has accused those at the helm of the PIT, including its advisor, Ratnakar Gaikwad, who appears to be leading the charge for redeveloping Ambedkar Bhavan and commercialising the Dalit movement. But Gaikwad said the PIT is merely trying to fulfill Babasaheb's dream of a social centre.
Gaikwad, a former Chief Secretary of Maharashtra, accused Ambedkar's kin of politicising the issue for personal gain. "The printing press and Ambedkar Bhavan were in a dilapidated condition," he said. "It had to be brought down. We followed the legal procedure. And we had informed the Ambedkar family about it. We were in the process of negotiation, but they wanted more power by becoming trustees."
He added: "Ambedkar had debarred his son from ownership of the property, and entrusted it to the PIT, because he opposed dynasty," Gaikwad said, citing a letter written by Babasaheb. "So the Ambedkar brothers have no right over the property."
Prakash, vehemently rubbishing these claims, said Gaikwad manipulated the approval from the BMC to demolish Ambedkar Bhavan, and the letter he is citing is 'fabricated'.
"Gaikwad has no authority to do what he did," he said, adding Babasaheb's authentic testimony to the court says the press is nobody's private property, and is not included in the trust.
Bhimrao, Prakash's brother, claims to be the owner of the press. He said while hundreds of men ran amok, Rs 1.23 lakh in cash from the BSI office and Rs 3 lakh from the booking office were stolen. "We have filed an FIR," he said.
Disputing Gaikwad's claims, Bhimrao said the press was not in a dilapidated condition, and by demolishing it, the PIT has attacked the legacy of the architect of India's Constitution.
Refuting Gaikwad's charge that the press had no heritage value, Bhimrao listed a number of files, magazines, books that had been archived there. "If this is not heritage, what is?" he asked. "Just because it did not get the heritage tag from the authorities, does not reduce its heritage value."
Sadly, with the demolition of the press, all these important documents have been irrecoverably lost. Among the mob of about 500 people, accompanied by bulldozers and 'JCB machines', nobody seemed to bother about the historic value of the documents.
"The documentation of the meetings held by Babasaheb, the original issues of Bahishkrit Bharat and Janata, the magazines he founded in 1927 and 1930 respectively; everything is gone," said Prakash. "We have demanded the arrest of Gaikwad for this act."
The complex also comprised of a Buddhist Society of India (BSI) office that is looked after by Bhimrao, and a hall which would be rented out for commercial purposes, with the money going to the trust.
The old guard versus the new
The whole conflict is between the 'original' trustees and 'new' trustees, said Bhimrao. Most of the original trustees are ageing, so they decided to rope in new ones to take the work forward.
Bhimrao said while the need to restructure the Bhavan was recognised by both, the old guard wanted to use trust funds, while the new ones had different plans.
"The old trustees realised the new ones' intention is to commercialise the place with government funds, hence they again became active," he said. "We had consulted a structural engineer, who only suggested the strengthening of the building, and accordingly, a report was submitted on 24 June with suggestions to the new trustees. But the same night, they brought in a force of goons and destroyed the whole place."
The arbitrary and murky manner in which the demolition transpired is not contested by many, forcing one to speculate whether the respective stakeholders were indeed taken into consideration, or is it a deal gone wrong.
Gaikwad, though, defended it by saying the goons bred by the Ambedkar family would not have allowed the demolition during the daytime.
Nonetheless, the conflict reflects the split in Dalit society, where commerce is at odds with ideology. Both the groups have accused each other of trying to grab the land.
A lavish 17-storied structure is envisioned by Gaikwad with five levels of parking, a skill development centre, a banquet hall and so on.
"If thousands of Dalit kids are going to benefit from it, what is the gripe of the Ambedkar brothers?" he asked. "It will be a social centre like Ambedkar had dreamt of, and as an Ambedkarite, I am merely looking at its fulfillment."
However, many of Babasaheb's supporters see it as an attempt to culturally take over the Dalit movement by commercialising it.
Prakash said a class of Ambedkarites had become materialistic, and its sole aim was commercial development. "Gaikwad represents that class," he said. "To convert an ideological movement into a commercial one, they needed to destroy the heritage and rewrite history. By attacking the Bhavan, which was the symbol of the Dalit movement, they have attacked the ethos and values that Babasaheb cherished and stood for."
More such disputes
Babasaheb had purchased significant properties across Maharashtra and Prakash said there have been similar attempts to usurp land involving Babasaheb's trusts. In Mumbai alone, one can cite four or five examples of dispute.
The long-standing dispute at the People's Education Society (PES) between trustees associated with BJP ally Ramdas Athawale and Anandraj, which is eerily similar to the one at Ambedkar Bhavan, has affected colleges across Maharashtra which come under PES.
The four-storied building at Siddharth College is in dispute. The trustees, backed by Athawale, have given two floors of another building at Siddharth College to builders. Hundreds of such colleges across Maharashtra coming under the PES are facing similar controversies.
Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada Univeristy at Aurangabad has a piece of land around 100 acres in area under the PES, which the "commercialised class", as Prakash describes it, appears to be targeting.
"I could see this materialistic class developing post economic liberalisation," Prakash said. "They gained financially by being appointed in government services. And since then, monetary gains have superceded social development for them."
Hardly a whimper from civil society
Intriguingly, civil society has been indifferent to the whole episode. Commentators have expressed doubts if things would have been the same if the Savarkar Sadan had been razed overnight.
Senior journalist Kumar Ketkar said it is nothing but intra-Dalit politics, where two groups thriving on Ambedkar's legacy are fighting for power and authority.
Ketkar said the place was part of Ambedkar's heritage which was supposed to be developed. "That is what is proposed by Gaikwad," he said. "But because Gaikwad is a Dalit and a bureaucrat, the organisations with no experience and no knowledge of what such a thing should be, have campaigned against it. And the municipality has failed to take the stakeholders in confidence."
But renowned writer Arjun Dangle, editor of Poisoned Bread, the first anthology of Dalit literature, condemned this "act of dacoity" and said those who demolished the heritage building should be arrested for carrying out a demolition in the middle of the night without due process, and for keeping the general public in the dark.
He alleged that Gaikwad has the full backing of the BJP government in the state, considering the manner in which he is conducting himself. "Prakash Ambedkar had initiated the conversion of Rohith Vemula's mother and brother, which took place at Ambedkar Bhavan," said Dangle. "He had also supported Kanhaiya Kumar as well. It has irked the right-wingers in Maharashtra."
Did the CM know about the demolition?
Gaikwad said he received the go-ahead to redevelop the place on 13 April 2016. On 14 April, Ambedkar Jayanti, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis laid the foundation stone for the 17-storeyed building, but not at the site where it is supposed to be built. The Bhoomi Poojan occurred a few kilometers away too. Organisers claimed it was scheduled away from the spot to avoid a clash, as the Vemula family was converting to Buddhism on the same day at the Bhavan.
However, the fact that he inaugurated the project indicates that the CM was aware of the demolition. Moreover, a secondary school, which was originally mentioned in the development plan, was converted to an education centre as a special case by the CM, enabling a higher floor space index and more facilities. The whole process lasted merely six months.
The project will solicit Rs 60 crore from the Babasaheb Ambedkar Research and Training Institute (BARTI), which is an institute for backward students.
"It is unacceptable to use that money," said Dangle, citing the dichotomy of the Central government buying Babasaheb's house in England but turning a blind eye towards the heritage site in Mumbai.
Observers suspect large-scale corruption, like it transpires wherever builders and contractors are involved in a redevelopment project, and opined that Gaikwad's innocent claim of fulfilling Babasaheb's dream need not be taken at face value.