Mumbai: Festive fervour at Ramabai Colony on Ambedkar Jayanti

Festive fervour ratchets up at Ramabai Colony, for the 125th birth anniversary of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, today

Pranay Balu Thokle (12) patiently awaits his turn in a queue to pay respects to the mortal remains (kalash) of Dr Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar at Ramabai Nagar Colony in Ghatkopar. The remains have been brought in for the first time to the colony as part of the Dalit icon’s 125th birth anniversary celebrations.

A 150 by 80 ft rangoli for the celebrations.
A 150 by 80 ft rangoli for the celebrations. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar

Dressed in a white kurta-pyjama, dwarfed by the huge, imposing 15-foot statue of Ambedkar, Thokle bows before the urn and sprinkles some flowers. Chanting ‘Jai Bhim’ he looks up at the statue in deep reverence, with folded hands.

“When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is take his name (Babasaheb),” he says with pride. “Before I leave for school, I repeat his name as I do when I sit down to eat my meals too. When we chant ‘Jai Bhim’, doors magically open up for us,” he says with conviction.

The greatness of this man lay in his dignity. Let us all look for the Ambedkar in us
The greatness of this man lay in his dignity. Let us all look for the Ambedkar in us   

Cut to Ballard Estate, seated in her plush cabin, gutsy Dalit entrepreneur Kalpana Saroj is all ears to a young Marathi film maker who has approached her for sponsorship of a film workshop that he is planning for young people. The Padma Sri Award winning chairperson of Kamani Tubes politely turns him down saying she could instead utilise the same funds to take 10 talented Dalit kids from her village to the United Nations to showcase their singing talents. She confesses that for her, the commitment to Ambedkar’s ‘vichaar-dhara' (thinking) of social upliftment is for real.

As the celebrations kick off both here and abroad, a mad rush of opportunists clamour for their share of the Ambedkar pie. Banners abound; loudspeakers blare, loud music and raths (chariots) carrying huge cutouts and statues of Dr Ambedkar are doing the rounds of Dalit bastis. Amidst the din, a quiet voice raises its head and questions the significance of it all.

Lanterns and banners at every nook and corner to mark the occasion
Lanterns and banners at every nook and corner to mark the occasion

Explaining the new phenomenon, Dr Surinder Jodka, Professor of Dalit Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi says that what we are witnessing is a deification of Dr Ambedkar. “He has become a sacred symbol for the Dalits, a source of identity and inspiration. He is their God because they have no other God. They worship him.”

Proof of this is evident at Ramabai Nagar Colony where the mood is festive and the air, thick with celebratory temper. Huge banners and hoardings with giant size pictures of Dr Ambedkar welcome you at the entry point. The entire basti is vibrant with streams of bright and colourful lights dotting every nook and corner. Stalls have sprung up for free distribution of clothes, food and what have you!

“This is like a mela,” says Rahul Jadhav, a local. “The unfortunate part,” he says, “is that for one day all of us from the Dalit Samaj pay our tributes to the Ambedkar statute. Hardly anyone pays attention to his thoughts and teachings. We do not translate his thoughts into day-to-day life.”

Jodka, however, maintains that though the celebrations may be ritualistic in nature or mere tokenism, they are relevant from the Dalit point of view. “With politics of the Right on the rise, celebrations help Dalits to present themselves in community terms and stake a legitimate claim to some political space.”

Dalit Scholar Chandrabhan Prasad however, begs to differ. He says all this celebratory fever may be tokenism for the politicians and opportunists. But for the average Dalit family, it is a very serious and emotional affair. “Because for them, Ambedkar represents freedom from caste system. He lifted them out of the shackles of caste disparity in very real terms and gave them dignity.”

This is true of every Dalit household in Ramabai Nagar which is dressed up for the occasion with brightly lit lanterns, displaying colourful rangolis. Reshma More, resident says, “For us, this is the real Diwali. We don’t celebrate Diwali otherwise, but on April 14, Babasaheb’s birth anniversary, we do. In every family there are get togethers marked by a joyful and happy camaraderie. We make the special Diwali faraal too, puran poli, chivda, chakli, ladoos et al!”

For her, Ambedkar is still relevant today and has been a real source of inspiration. “I am a PhD in Accounts and I teach at Bhavan’s college. My niece too is gearing up for her MBBS. Whenever she sits down to study, she keeps a picture of Babasaheb in front of her. If he can do it against all odds, why can’t we clear our MBBS?” she asks.

“Ditto,” says Tushar Kharat who works as an assistant officer at Godrej Manufacturing. “I dropped out of school mid way to look for small jobs. When I entered the job market, I realised the value of education. Drawing inspiration from Babasaheb’s writings, I decided to go back to school and finish my education. Not only did I do my B.Com, but also a course in computers,” he says proving the icon is still inspirational and aspirational, for Generation Next.

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