A major part of Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi founder Prakash Ambedkar’s stature comes from his pro-active stand after the Bhima Koregaon violence on 1 January, 2018. He called for a state-wide bandh the next day; and three months later, led a 50,000-strong rally in Mumbai to ask for the arrest of Hindutva leaders Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote. Both of them had been named in the first FIR filed after the violence.
While Ekbote was arrested after the Supreme Court rejected his anticipatory bail application (he got bail later), Bhide was never arrested. Ambedkar had threatened a gherao of the Assembly if Bhide, who was given a clean chit by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis in the Assembly, was not arrested.
The gherao never took place. For Ravindra Chandane, a victim of the Bhima Koregaon violence, and a witness before the Bhima Koregaon Inquiry Commission, that wasn’t the only betrayal by Ambedkar.
45-year-old Chandane suffered a hairline fracture on his arm and injuries on his back and head after he tried to save a lone Dalit from a crowd of saffron-flag waving youth at Bhima Koregaon. "We had gone there with our womenfolk and children, totally unprepared for the violence that had been planned. No leader was present there," he recalls.
"Hence it was our responsibility as victims and eye-witnesses, to appear before the Bhima Koregaon Commission to present our version of events," says Chandane. "And It was Balasaheb's (as Prakash Ambedkar is called) responsibility to support us. But he did nothing."
"The very first day I was summoned by the Commission," recounts Chandane, "I went there alone. The first sight that greeted me was of Milind Ekbote seated there with his lawyer. I saw other Dalit victims going into the Commission's room to depose on their own. No one had arranged a lawyer for them."
By the time Chandane deposed, a few months later, there were two lawyers representing the victims: senior lawyer BG Bansode, who had also appeared before the Gundewar Commission probing the July 1997 Ramabai Nagar police firing, and Kiran Channe.
"These lawyers are appearing for us without charging us, as part of their social duty. Wasn't it Ambedkar's duty to find lawyers for us? Other Dalits who are facing criminal cases too haven’t been helped by him," says Chandane angrily. "We thought he would get us justice."
Dalit activist Milind Bhawar, who helped many victims file affidavits before the commission, agrees. "Prakash Ambedkar's contribution to the Commission has been zero," he points out. "He has used the Bhima Koregaon cause for his personal gain. Worse, he has given tickets to those with a BJP/RSS background. One of them, Sangli candidate Gopichand Padalkar, is Sambhaji Bhide’s aide. His Pune candidate Anil Jadhav was in the BJP till last year."
According to Sunil Khopragade, editor, Mahanayak daily, the Bhima Koregaon cause isn't the only thing being used by Ambedkar for personal gain. Khopragade and Shyam Gaekwad, head of the Republican Party (Secular), say that the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi chief is also using his family name to get votes this election.
"Most Buddhists of the older generation feel a great debt to Babasaheb Ambedkar. The very mention of his name makes them emotional," says Khobragade, who has travelled through Vidarbha during these elections. "They feel voting for Prakash Ambedkar is like repaying this debt."
On the other side, says Khobragade, are first-time voters, who know little about politics and are easily swayed by social media. They are taken in by the aggressive rhetoric of the VBA.
But, says Khobragade, the middle class and more qualified Buddhists, who are anti-Modi, "share our view that a vote for the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi is a vote against the Congress and for Modi."
None of these Ambedkarites are fond of the Congress, which Gaekwad describes as "feudal and opportunist, but not revivalist like the RSS." They agree with Ambedkar's criticism that the Congress is a casteist party. "But it is not casteist enough to change the Constitution," argues advocate Kiran Channe. "We can’t equate Rahul Gandhi, sacred thread et al, with Mohan Bhagwat!" adds Gaekwad.
One argument made by the Bahujan Vanchit Aghadi is that for the first time, tickets are being given to candidates from castes hitherto neglected by the Congress and the BJP. "There's a surge of self-respect and pride among Dalits," observes Yogesh, a young activist, who feels this will result in a split in Dalit votes for the Congress in his constituency, South Central Mumbai.
"Political representation and self-respect are very important," argues advocate Channe, "but this time, we have to weigh these against saving the Constitution."
Gaekwad recalls that it was Prakash Ambedkar himself who had once said that one should not emphasise caste identity. He had even said that caste should not be entered on school leaving certificates.
"But now, he's identifying every one of his candidates by their caste!"
All these Ambedkarite intellectuals have known Ambedkar closely. Gaekwad recalls that Ambedkar's initial idea was to create a non-BJP, non-Congress Third Front with the help of the Communist parties and Socialists. "Everyone was enthusiastic about that. But finally he ended up aligning with the most reactionary, communal force, the AIMIM. And this was done without any discussion with his fellow travellers."
Gaekwad fears that the kind of identity politics being played by Ambedkar will result in polarization and the ultimate isolation of Ambedkarite forces.
To thwart that, 40 Ambedkarite groups hailing from all across Maharashtra have got together and formed a front to convince voters not to fall for the VBA’s rhetoric, and not to end up helping the BJP win.
However, Khobragade admits that this time, Ambedkar's vote tally is likely to go up from the close to 5 lakh votes that the Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh had got in the 2014 Assembly polls. This will help him strike a bargain in the Assembly elections.
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Updated Date: Apr 27, 2019 16:24:53 IST