Just grin and bear it

Years ago, I gave up traveling by train on the Calcutta-Bombay route during the first ten days of December. With the winter session of the Maharashtra Assembly generally held in the first few weeks of the last month of each year, I discovered there was no safety on any train on the route headed towards Bombay from December 1 to 6 and in the reverse direction until up to about December 10 or 11.

That is because hordes of Dalit supporters of the late Dr B R Ambedkar make tracks towards his samadhi, the Chaityabhoomi, in Bombay to observe his death anniversary on December 6. No government ever thought it fit to run special trains or buses or other transport between the far ends of the state to Bombay during this time. Since it is not possible to accommodate all worshippers of Dr Amberdkar on the trains legitimately, these groups just evolved the system of boarding the train, ticketless, knowing no one dared stop them.

Now they do not just get into the general or second-class compartments. They break their way into the A/c 1st class supposedly secured compartments as well and there was an occasion when the wife of a noted industrialist traveling with jewellery worth Rs 60 lakh found herself looted bare by some of the youth. She then sued the railways and was awarded the entire sum in compensation.

Whereupon, I discovered, the railways — from the next year on — simply instructed the ticket checkers to return the fares of the legitimate travelers and leave them to travel onwards at their own risk.

Finding myself in such a state on one occasion, I found some of these youth had brought the forbidden kerosene and some rags and sticks along with them into the train. The moment anyone objected, they would dip the rags into the kerosene tin, wrap them onto the stick, create a mashaal and light it up.

“We will burn you all,” they would say if passengers protested about them occupying their seats and berths.

On that particular day, all the other passengers around me ran for their lives, they pulled the chains and hastily got off at the next station to avoid being charred to death.

I stuck on. “Burn me if you will,” I told one of them. “If this train burns, so will you and all your fellow Dalits. You will then never see chaityabhoomi again.”

The cops at that small station got into the train to check out what the commotion was. They threw up their hands when they realised who the offenders were. And although they confiscated the kerosene and the matches, they took no further action, simply saying, “We advise you to get off the train, Madam. If you want to lodge an FIR, we will help you do so. But don’t expect any action.”

They shrugged at my horrified expression and explained that the miscreants being Dalits, the cops were bound by the diktats of the law – any action and they (the cops) were liable to be booked under the Prevention of Atrocities against the Scheduled Caste Act. “It is a non-bailable offence. They can make a false complaint about you, too. Our advice is to let them be.”

I refused. I could not do much about those militant youngsters after that but I made their journey as uncomfortable as possible – by spreading myself thick on my berth, giving them only the teeniest bit of space edgewise to park their behinds on, tossing and turning deliberately to make them, too, shift positions again and again.

At the end of the night, I was exhausted. But, I could see, so were they – and very resentful. Once they thought I was fully awake they began to call me all sorts of names — all I could do was pretend not to understand and keep up my own protests in the fanciest of English. Whereupon, their abuses got even worse.

I later complained to their leaders in Bombay who just shrugged and said they could do nothing about the enthusiasm of Ambedkar worshippers. With a similar sense of helplessness, I took to the air in later years while travelling between Nagpur and Bombay for the winter sessions of the legislature.

But it was also illuminating that the power of the Dalit protest (and their numbers) could overawe even the Shiv Sena and Bal Thackeray. I recall the mid-eighties when the Maharashtra government had celebrated Ambedkar’s centenary by republishing his entire works in English. Thackeray had an issue with one of the volumes – ‘Riddles of Hinduism’ – wherein Dr Ambedkar had raised queries about Lord Rama’s treatment of Dalits; he had asked why a ’shudra’ sitting in tapasya should have been disturbed by Lord Rama on the advice of his Brahmin priests.

The Sena led a morcha – claiming they had one lakh workers – in protest against the publication. Three days later, Dalit leaders answered Thackeray with a morcha of their own. They claimed they had one lakh people, too – but covering both the rallies, I thought the Dalit numbers seemed thrice that had been brought out by the Shiv Sena.

They smashed everything in sight (which the Sena had spared) – cars, shop windows, roadside stalls etc. Many Shiv Sainiks had been taken into custody for far less violence but the government and the cops did not dare arrest any among the Dalits. For both reasons of the law and their own politics.

It has always been thus, I have noticed. A colleague from the Marathi press, herself a Dalit, has always been critical of both the Shiv Sena (for its alleged communalism) and the Dalit leadership (for failing to do much for their own community). But while Thackeray would let her be after a series of some unsavoury verbal abuses, the particular Dalit leaders under criticism would send hordes outside her home or office to demonstrate and threaten her life and property. Other rival Dalit leaders would come to her rescue — and it has been like that on and off for years now.

So what happens when the Dalit power and the Shiv Sena’s skills at rabble rousing come together? There can be a fearless rampage as there was on Thursday when the Ramdas Athawale group of the Republican Party of India stormed a mill compound in Dadar and demanded the entire area be handed over to them instead of just the four (out of 12) acres that the union textile ministry had decided to allot to the memorial of Dr Ambedkar that they have been demanding.

“If the government does not change its decision then it will have to face more violent protests. We are warning the government that this will continue if they do not take immediate steps. We will give them a hard time,” Athawale, an ex-MP was quoted as saying.

Athawale has now teamed up with the Shiv Sena – he is desperate for a nomination to the Rajya Sabha which neither the Congress nor the Nationalist Congress (whose ally he was) can offer him any longer. He hopes Thackeray will have no compunctions about taking him on board.

But while his fire power might please Thackeray for the protection that his identity offers against the authorities to his own rampaging Shiv Sainiks, I am told he is not quite happy with Athawale’s demand himself – the Sena has other plans for that particular piece of prime property.

But this is only the second time since the Dalit protest of the Eighties that Thackeray has been stumped – and rendered speechless.

And the government has to grin and bear it – as always.

The only person I know so far who has retaliated with a sound but civilised response to Dalit violence has been former union Telecom Minister and noted journalist Arun Shourie. When a group of Dalits blackened his face for some of his comments in Pune some years ago, he came up with a book. It was titled, ‘Worshipping False Gods’ and it is among the best critiques of Dr Ambedkar I have read so far.

When I had asked Dr Prakash Ambedkar, his grandson, to respond to Shourie’s book the latter had declined. And realising the depth of Shourie’s knowledge and powers of retaliation in his own way, there were no protests either. That was the only time I know that Dalits were silenced.

But not everyone can be Arun Shourie.

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