Home / Politics / Policy /  Do the Ambedkar monuments in Mumbai do justice to the man?

Mumbai: In the wee hours of June 26, a demolition team commissioned by People’s Improvement Trust brought down Ambedkar Bhavan in Mumbai’s Dadar East area on the pretext that the structure was listed out by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) as being ‘dilapidated’. The Trust also announced a plan to build a 17-storey memorial to Ambedkar on the same site.

In 1944, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the great scholar and leader, had purchased this 2332 square yard plot for 36565 in which he had raised from Dalit community donations, and founded the Bombay Scheduled Caste Improvement Trust, which was later changed to People’s Improvement Trust, to manage the affairs of the property. Ambedkar’s idea was to build an education and Buddhist study centre here with accommodation facility for poor students from the lower castes. But he could not realise this objective in his lifetime. In 1946, Ambedkar, however, moved his Bharat Bhushan Printing Press from Naigaon in Bombay to this site in Dadar. The Ambedkar Bhavan as it stood on June 26 was built in 1970 much after Ambedkar’s death in 1956.

Ambedkar’s grandsons Prakash and Anandraj, who run two different political parties and who have not been on good terms with the some of the trustees of People’s Improvement Trust, have filed a first information report (FIR) against the Trust. The Ambedkar brothers have escalated the issue to a political level. Prakash Ambedkar, who is more serious politician of the two, has even announced that Dalit activists and followers of Ambedkar would build a memorial to the great emancipator “with public donations and with their own hands". Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who has said the demolition was not “official", has ordered an inquiry.

As the Ambedkar Bhavan issue rages on, a question arises about the other Ambedkar monuments in Mumbai, the city where he came in 1900-1901 as per most biographical accounts and where he prosecuted the bulk of his social and political ideals and ideas. In her brilliant biography ‘Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India’, American born Indian scholar Gail Omvedt writes that when he came to Bombay, Ambedkar was enrolled in school by his family nickname Bhiva and not Bhim. Prakash Ambedkar, the president of Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh, says his grandfather’s physical legacy is spread over several landmarks in Mumbai.

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“There are very modest residences where he lived, institutions like colleges that he set up himself or helped establish, schools and college where he studied and taught, Ambedkar Bhavan of course, and finally Chaitya Bhoomi in Dadar which is a memorial," says Prakash Ambedkar.

Most biographical and critical accounts including Omvedt’s tell us that he first came to Bombay after his father decided to move the family from Satara. Ramji Ambedkar enrolled his youngest son in Parel’s Maratha High School, which is now Shirodkar High School. In 1905, Ambedkar was admitted to Elphinstone High School where he passed his matriculation in 1907. Soon after his matriculation, which itself was a rare feat for an ‘untouchable’ in those days, Ambedkar, 17, got married at his father’s behest to Rami Walangkar, with her name later getting changed to Ramabai Ambedkar. The marriage took place at Byculla vegetable market yard.

In 1908, Ambedkar enrolled in the Elphinstone College and competed his graduation in English and Persian in 1912 before he went to the Columbia University in the US for the Masters. Most biographies say from the time since the Ambedkar family came to Bombay till Ambedkar built himself a home called Rajgriha in Matunga where there is now Rajgriha square, they lived in a dingy place in Parel’s Dabak chawl and later in the Improvement Trust Chawl Number 1 in Parel. Writes Dhananjay Keer in his widely read biography ‘Dr. Ambedkar : Life and Mission’ about the Ambedkar home in Dabak chawl--"Bhim lived in the same one-room tenement in the old chawl at Parel. There was no chance for the provision of a study, and the possibility of employing a tutor was beyond a dream. The small room was full of domestic articles and utensils. It was also smoky and crowded."

Keer also writes that a prolonged stay in this locality which was then a concentration of labourers and anti-social elements exposed Ambedkar not only to extreme deprivation of the lower classes but also to the underbelly of Bombay. From 1913 to 1917 Ambedkar lived in the US and UK for higher education. On his return to Bombay he worked as the professor of political economy at Sydenham College from 1918 to 1920. He went back to London to complete his doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science from 1920 to 1923.

All this while, except for the two stints abroad for education, Ambedkar was subjected to humiliating experiences wherever he worked in Bombay and Baroda. His plunge in active social and political movements was waiting to happen. Ambedkar launched his social campaign for the untouchables at a meeting at Parel’s Damodar Hall in 1924. It was at Damodar Hall, which still exists within the same name, where Ambedkar located the main office of an organisation called Bahishkrit Hitkarini Sabha which he founded in 1924 to promote education and liberal culture among the depressed classes, to advance their economic lot, and to represent their grievances. The Damodar hall, according to grandson Prakash, remained a nerve centre of the movement launched by Ambedkar for a long time. Ambedkar continued to live in the Improvement Trust chawl during this time.

In 1930, Ambedkar bought a plot in Hindu Colony and started building a house which would be called Rajgriha after the ancient Buddhist Kingdom. The construction completed in 1934 and it remained Ambedkar’s home in Bombay till his death. During his lifetime, the second floor of this three-storey was used as hostel for the underprivileged students of Siddharth College. In 1960, four years after Ambedkar’s death, the family of his grandson Anandraj moved in here. The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai has, in a token gesture, acknowledged this house of Ambedkar by naming the small square around it as Rajgriha Square. On the ground floor, there are two rooms which serve as memorial to the monumental man, with his pictures and ashes kept there. These rooms are open to people and they receive thousands of visitors on December 6 which is Ambedkar’s death anniversary.

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Talking about Ambedkar landmarks, a veteran journalist who has followed Dalit movements and politics for four decades and who did not wish to be named, says Ambedkar’s most significant physical contribution to Mumbai is the educational institutions he founded or inspired. “Ambedkar’s central message to his community was about taking education. He led by example and also set up several centres of education including Siddharth College in 1946. In June 1956 he founded Siddharth College of Law. The extraordinary quality about Ambedkar and his legacy is that he made sure these colleges don’t end up as private enterprises of his family and descendants by handing over their ownership to People’s Education Society that he founded," the journalist said. He pointed out that like other colleges or universities named after religious communities like Hindu or Muslim, Ambedkar did not name the Society or college as Dalit Education Society or Dalit college. “But right from the time when he set up these colleges till today , even those students who have scored 35% get admission there," he said.

This journalist also points out that Ambedkar’s message of education was not limited to his community only and he wanted all those who were deprived of the opportunity to get education to make their rightful claim to enlightenment. He said it was Ambedkar’s suggestion to the Sikh community leaders, who had approached him with a request to convert to Sikhism, that inspired them to establish the Guru Nanak Khalsa College of Arts, Commerce, and Science in Matunga in 1937.

Mumbai’s most important Ambedkar monument, of course, is his memorial at Chaitya Bhoomi in Dadar. “This is a significant monument because it is where his people gather in lakhs every 6 December," Prakash Ambedkar says. The Chaitya Bhoomi memorial was built in 1970 to commemorate Ambedkar who was cremated here.

There is a new monument to Ambedkar coming up at the Indu Mills compound in Dadar though Ambedkar never had any direct relationship with this site. In October 2015 Prime Minister laid the foundation stone for this monument to come up over 12 acres at an estimated cost of Rs. 425 crore. Persistent demands from various Dalit organisations and political parties have led to this site, which is close to the Chaitya Bhoomi, getting selected for the memorial.

Do these landmarks really give the contemporary Mumbai any sense of the monumental man that Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was and remains? Prakash Ambedkar says they do but adds that two aspects of Ambedkar’s legacy still need to be commemorated. “One, his fascination for education and scholarship. Two, his interest in history and heritage," Ambedkar points out.

The journalist quoted above makes a different point. “Ambedkar was a great rationalist and nation builder. Another hundred years later India would have discovered that he was our greatest nation builder. His scholarship was expansive and covered multiple disciplines. So the right tribute to him would be to bring his ideas to life, write about his work, read what he wrote, and see the brilliance of his thoughts and leadership," says the journalist.

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