“Ambedkar is more dangerous dead than alive,” N.Shivrajan, the first president of the Republican Party of India, had said soon after Dr B.R. Ambedkar's death on 6 December, 1956. Just two months before his death, Ambedkar had converted to Buddhism along with 10 lakh followers in Nagpur. Even today, the Bahujan Samaj Party and other Ambedkarite parties continue to follow his vision; his movement for social justice and the annihilation of caste.
On 8 February, a Supreme Court bench led by the Chief Justice of India made an observation about BSP chief and former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati. According to news reports, the bench said that “We are of the tentative view that you should pay the public money from your pocket”. The next hearing of the case is on April 2 and it seems likely the top court will order her to return the money spent on elephant statues in public spaces, which amounts to Rs 52 crore.
A very important question here is whether the court has issued similar statements or questioned any other statues or parks dedicated to savarna icons. Successive Congress governments have drained public funds to build memorials and parks for Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. The Bharatiya Janata Party used public money to build the Statue of Unity in Gujarat, which deprived and displaced thousands from their homes. The Tamil Nadu government under J Jayalalitha distributed thousands of mixers and water bottles with her face printed on it.
In Maharashtra, the BJP-Shiv Sena government announced that they would construct a statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in the Arabian Sea near Mumbai city. Did they use their party funds for this? Why is this not regarded as misuse of public money as well? Why is this ten-year-old public interest case against Mayawati coming up now, just months prior to the Lok Sabha elections?
In the last four years of rule by the RSS-BJP government, Dalits, Muslims and Other Backward Classes that form 85 percent of the Indian population have been targeted. The weaker sections have been at the receiving end of government policies and have faced the brunt of the right-wing violence.
From the Rohith Vemula suicide in Hyderabad, Una in Gujarat, to the suppression of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle in IIT-Chennai, the arrest of Bhim Army leader Chandrashekhar Azad and the Bhima Koregaon violence, Dalits in India are furious with the BJP government.
And as if to top it off, the government recently gave 10% reservations to “economically backward” upper castes persons, but with a cap of Rs 8 lakh income, which includes most general category people in the country. This diluted the social reason for reservation.
In perspective, raking up the case against Mayawati at this point could be a way to counter the anti-BJP alliances that are forming across India. In Uttar Pradesh, however, with 80 Lok Sabha seats, the two largest state parties – Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and Mayawati’s BSP – have announced that they will unite against the BJP. The alliance is not just a two-party alliance, but an alliance of two parties of marginalized castes. Together, they represent Dalit, OBCs and Muslim, which combined is almost 75% of the population of UP. Many predict that together, they are likely to win at least 60 Lok Sabha seats.
Perhaps this is the real reason the BJP wants to target Mayawati and create fear among BSP leaders and her cadres. At the same time, they are using government machinery to target SP leader Akhilesh Yadav and RJD leader Lalu Yadav because they are speaking for the rights of Dalit-Bahujans.
In India, Dalits are the most marginal group who, despite abolition, continue to face caste discrimination, caste violence and untouchability. In reality, India is made of two countries. One is Savarna India, of the dominant castes. The other is Dalit India.
The targeting of Mayawati is deeply rooted in casteism. The savarnas of India didn’t have any problem with statues of Patel, Nehru , Gandhi or the great Hindutva icon Savarkar. They target Mayawati because of their hatred for what she stands for. They have no problem if the government gives Bharat Ratnas only to Brahmins and upper-castes.
With a population of only 25%, savarnas control all influential sectors including media, cinema, academia and judiciary, where they practice caste in the name of culture. In 2019, there is almost no Brahmin or other savarna collective group in India or abroad who are anti-caste. But online and offline, there are plenty of savarnas who are actively anti-Dalit, anti-Ambedkar, anti-Reservation and who glorify their own dominant caste hegemony and power. This is why they have such a huge problem with these statues. When she was CM, Mayawati created parks, universities and museums to celebrate Dalit-Bahujan icons.
What kind of park did Mayawati create?
The upper caste, casteist argument against Mayawati is that she wastes money on statues and her own party symbol of the elephant. There are two problems with this.
First, elephants have a very significant connection with Buddhism. In Buddhist caves across India, the elephant symbol is very important and present everywhere. The symbol of the Republican Party of India founded by Ambedkar was the elephant. It is also the symbol of the Assam Gana Parishad. The Rs 10 note has an elephant image. The elephant is not just a symbol of the BSP, but for all Buddhists, it is a symbol of peace, non violence and strength.
Second, what is frequently forgotten by the savarna media is that the 108-acre park in Lucknow has ten different sections, each dedicated to memories of Indian anti-caste leaders who have devoted their lives to humanity, equality and social justice. Mayawati created a park which features several anti-caste leaders including Mahatma Phule and his wife Savitribai Phule who was the first Indian woman teacher.
Other statues include those of her guru and political idols Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram, Buddha and many other anti-caste thinkers. Her statue is only one of dozens other statues in the 108 acres dail which has thousands of daily visitors.
In India, most public art and culture is dominated by savarna icons and their culture. These public parks and museums help to continue their soft and hard Hindutva politics and influence.
When Dr. Ambedkar died in 1965 in Delhi, Nehru's Congress government did not allow or provide land for his last rites. This is why his last rites took place in Mumbai on private land belonging to an OBC. This is the type of casteist hatred the savarnas continue to carry against the Dalit majority.
There are almost no other public memorials that share and celebrate a positive history of the lives of Ambedkarites anywhere in all of India. And yet, caste is a living reality. The monuments that Mayawati built are a commemoration, an acknowledgment of those who fought against caste before us. They empower Dalit-Bahujans and give them hope that one day they too shall be able to live in their own country without discrimination or violence and with social justice and dignity.
Mayawati is an educated Dalit woman and a seasoned Phule-Ambedkarite politician. She has been the CM of India’s largest state, four times. She is president of the third largest national party in India. After the soft Hindutva of Congress and the hardcore Hindutva of BJP, BSP is the only cadre-based political party with a presence and network all over India. Though BSP did not win any seat in the last Lok Sabha election, they stood third in vote share. In December's state elections, the party won some seats in all states. In the coming election, the party could win at least 40 Lok Sabha seats because BSP has a political presence across India.
As a Dalit woman, Mayawati faces horrific casteist and sexist abuse from other politicians and India's savarna public. Despite all of this, she has emerged as a strong symbol of power and a mass leader with a wide following. The BJP is uncomfortable with this power and making her pay for the statues seems nothing but a pre-emptive act of vindication.
(The writer is a research scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. Views expressed are personal.)