A Space of Our Own: The Indu Mill Ambedkar Memorial Project

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The cause of commemorating the Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar is symbolic of a larger struggle for Dalit representation and expression in the city.

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When Chandrakant Bhandare, a resident of Dadar, decided to file an application under the Right To Information (RTI) Act in 2011 to find out the number of memorials that have been constructed for all the famous national leaders, he didn’t find any answer as to why there is no memorial built for the father of Indian Constitution, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. Ambedkar is a political figure who represents equality for many, especially the Dalits. He has become an icon of Dalit emancipation, an inspiration for those who find themselves stigmatised and discriminated against and a symbol of hope for those fighting against the powers-that-be and aspiring to rise up in life.

For the last decade, the Dalits of Maharashtra have been fighting to construct a Babasaheb Ambedkar memorial at the now defunct Indu mill land in Mumbai’s Dadar West. The 12.5 acre land officially belongs to the National Textile Corporation. It is only recently, in December 2012, that both the state and the central governments have agreed on this issue.

However, it has to be emphasised that commemorating Ambedkar and ensuring that his memory is captured in our new geographies has always been a contested issue. Demands to build his statues, structures or memorials are often dismissed by upper caste groups as a waste of public money. Thus the movement for the memorial has had to constantly give counter arguments for such ideas by justifying or emphasising the need of having symbolic politics in a caste-ridden democracy like ours.

The Movement for the Memorial

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Ten years ago, Bhandare had written letters to 250 IAS officers, appealing them to not build anything else but the Ambedkar Memorial on the Indu Mill land. After 2003, various political groups took up the issue of the memorial and agitated in their own way. Finally on 6th December 2011, the Republican Sena led by Anandraj Ambedkar, the lesser-known grandson of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, along with several other Dalit activists and Buddhist monks ‘occupied’ the mill premises and stayed there for the next two weeks till the State government finally accepted the demand and announced the setting up of an independent authority to develop the memorial. On the other hand, in July 2012 Ramdas Athavale of the Republican Party of India lead a protest rally of workers at Azad Maidan in South Mumbai. In December 2012, when the Centre took a stand in favour of the land transfer, the Congress-NCP government congratulated itself in various newspapers. Though so many parties claim to have fought for the issue, the National Textile Corporation and the state government seems hesitant to finish all the paper work

How will the Memorial be planned?

The memorial is visualized in many different ways. Some groups imagine only the statue of Ambedkar and an auditorium or a convention centre with open spaces around it. Some groups imagine many other features and facilities in the memorial, like hostels and research centres for students, meditation centres for Buddhist monks, a space to accommodate the large population that visits Mumbai’s Chaityabhoomi on 14th April (Ambedkar’s birth anniversary) and 6th December (Ambedkar’s death anniversary), halls to conduct protest meetings and other programmes, a museum that showcases Ambedkar’s thoughts in various forms and so on.

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All of these visualizations of the memorial indicate how important it is to constitute a movement by insisting on moments of inspiration, of claiming a rightful space in the city, of wanting to regain a cultural dignity. This insistence, which can also be called as symbolic politics or affective politics, forms an important part of Dalit politics.

Mere Symbolic Politics?

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Dalit politics is often criticized for being overly ’emotional’ and sensitive. Whenever there is a controversy about the icon of Ambedkar, let it be about Ambedkar Cartoon 2012 that appeared on textbooks which had Ambedkar sitting on a snail named ‘constitution’ and Jawaharlal Nehru and him holding whips over it or about Ashis Nandy’s comment at the Jaipur Literature Festival of 2013 where he said most corruption comes from SC, ST and OBC employees, intellectuals of all backgrounds, left-leaning or some Dalit scholars themselves, voice against the reification of Ambedkar. But as popular Dalit scholar Kancha Illaiah points out, “The icon of the oppressed community cannot be compared with a god or goddess of the oppressors;” we need to question this instant dismissal of affective symbolic politics as being over-sentimental and violent.

Vidrohi poet Vivek More, who has also written several articles on the Indu Mill issue in the Marathi daily, Navakal, talks about the constant juggling between ‘bhavanik‘ and ‘buniyaadi‘ i.e. the emotional issues vs. the structural issues, and says, “It is a matter of shame that we need to have a movement in the first place to built a memorial for a leader like Ambedkar. All the Gandhis have a memorial, why not Ambedkar?” Kena Wani, a scholar under the Urban Aspirations in Global Cities Project at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, is studying the claim to space made by the memorials and statues of Ambedkar. “In many neighbourhoods I was told that the statue was important for guiding the Dalit youth and encouraging them to follow the path of education. Often many narratives claimed how, under the gaze of the Ambedkar statue people were compelled to denounce their vices. The point is to not investigate these stories in terms of facts. Because that is the thing with narratives, it allows you to appreciate the significance of affect beyond the divisions of truths and falsehoods.

There are many others who also believe in the power of inspiration. Vaibhav Chaya, an active Ambedkarite blogger who writes extensively about a new symbolic politics, opines, “There are monuments about all national leaders, and even RSS leaders have been commemorated in many places. They aren’t mere icons, they denote a standard, a value of worth being remembered, like for example, the Jawaharlal Nehru University refers to a certain standard of quality education. Denying that kind of commemoration to Ambedkar is like another form of casteism.” With a voice that sounds like well-informed sarcasm, Chaya continues, “People point out the corruption that goes on in the construction of Dalit symbols or monuments as if corruption doesn’t happen in any other case. All parties are concerned about the names that are given to spaces in the city, like the Shiv Sena which opposed the renaming of the Marathwada University to Ambedkar University, changed the name of Victoria Terminus to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus as soon as they came to power.”

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On the 6th of December, thousands of people visit Chaityabhoomi in Dadar to pay respect to Ambedkar on his death anniversary. Sunil Yadav, a safai-karmachaari at the BMC who has been in the news for his fight to get leave to pursue his masters degree at TISS, has been visiting Chaityabhoomi for years.He says, “I was born in Mumbai, in a slum where labourers from all castes and creeds lived. When I first visited Chaityabhoomi, I saw the extreme emotional attachment thousands of people had in spite of having to stay on the streets, to bear the sights of the cremation ground next to Chaityabhoomi, and to see the middle-class of the city get disgusted because of their presence.”

Another student involved in the movement, Sumit Chavan, a former TISS student whose research was based on the 6th December gathering in Mumbai, visualizes the memorial as a new public sphere for the Dalits. He says, “We are not begging for anything, we have enough self-respect. If the memorial has a hostel for young students, scholars and UPSC aspirants, we will be able to create a new generation of socially conditioned intellectuals for ourselves. So the memorial is not just a cultural cause, but also a socio-economic one.”

Political Economy of Space

Bombay was once a city known for its textile mills and also for its rich working class culture. But today, it is known for its soaring real estate values and commercial centres. In this kind of a transforming city, while other mills are being converted into shopping malls or skyscraper residences, what does it mean to demand the conversion of an abandoned mill into a memorial? Republican Sena leader, Anandraj Ambedkar says confidently, “Ambedkar stood for equality of all kinds, for women, for the Dalits, for the labourers as well. Mumbai is the commercial capital of the country, and just like the Statue of Liberty is in New York which is America’s commercial capital, we want Ambedkar’s memorial to have a Statue of Equality. With advanced technology, we can also have Ambedkar’s speeches played in the auditorium in his own voice. This memorial has to get built in any situation.”

Vivek More is sceptical of the city’s commercial growth, he says, “The rulers of Mumbai conspire to wipe out the poor in the city completely, through their schemes like the Slum Rehabilitation and Allocation etc. Earlier they had already planned to trade the Indu Mill land with various international companies to build a 7-star hotel. If the movement hadn’t grown strong, they would have gone ahead.”

Some scholars have also written about how the Dalits are enjoying the thrills of capitalism in the new economy, and the display of wealth through the building of giant statues and structures is a way for claiming participation in the neo liberal era. This was said in the context of UP chief minister Mayawati’s building a spate of statues and monuments. To such an argument, Sumit Chavan has a counter, “Why do these intellectuals have double standards? Majority of the Dalits don’t even have any kind of capital, so how can they be capitalistic? Do they understand how Mayawati’s statues could inspire a young Dalit girl in Uttar Pradesh? They should stop being caste cronies and subjecting us to their moral standards.”

Architectural Aspirations

What kind of spatial aspirations are being visualized is quite interesting. Some images show Ambedkar’s Statue of Equality on the skyline of Bombay, as seen from the Arabian Sea, with him being between but higher than huge skyscrapers, while a large population of the Dalits in Mumbai reside in slums and bastis that account for only 6 per cent of the city’s total land area. The powerpoint presentations that have been made by the architects of ‘international repute’ show its images of swanky conference rooms, theatres, dining halls etc which almost evoke the image of real estate advertisement hoardings.

Due to past incidents of vandalism on the Ambedkar statue, many statues all around the city are either caged in glass, or have a 24×7 security guard. The Ambedkar garden in Chembur East , opens only on 6th of December and 14th of April, and is shut the entire year otherwise. Since Ambedkar has become a ‘fragile icon’, gardens like these cannot be used by let’s say a group of Dalit women who could’ve actually used to sit, meet, discuss or children who do not have the luxuries of spacious backyards could come and play in this space. In a drive to protect the memorials from such ‘undesirable’ activities, an entire space becomes exclusionary for all, in a city like Bombay where the commons are dwindling each day. It is hoped by many that the Indu Mill memorial will never face any vandalism and its spaces can be utlilized to an optimum level.

Even the way the print media reports the issues is in a manner that pokes their anxieties and reinforces their opinion about these issues. As if trying to suggest to its middle class readers that ‘look, what these Dalits are up to.’ The headlines go like “Centre bows down to ‘threats’ by Dalits” “Cry gets shriller of Indu mill land as 6th Dec approaches.” There seems to be no effort by the media or the middle-class activists to understand the Dalit standpoint, and a constant denial of space for Ambedkar in their minds reflects into a denial of space in the city which they think of as truly and only theirs. In such a situation, the importance of symbolic politics grows only bigger.

Photos: Republican Sena Party & Sandeep Viswanath 

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