Aatika S | TwoCircles
As the internationally celebrated event of Dalit History month comes to an end, the Indian subcontinent is reeling with an increased appropriation and attack on the thoughts and figure of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar-the modern intellectual and statesman. One such incident of desecration happened 100 kms away from the national capital, in Neemka village situated in Gautam Buddh’s Nagar Jewar block on 18th April, four days after the 132nd celebration of Ambedkar Jayanti on 14 April.
Traditionally a Bahujan Samaj Party bastion, the Neemka village has recently been in the headlines for the construction of the Noida International Airport on its arable land. The village located along Khurja road and comprising roughly 4000 people is a mix of a majority of Scheduled Castes, and a minority of Jats, Brahmins and a few Muslim families.
As one travels in a bus from the Uttar Pradesh border towards Jewar police station on the Agra Expressway, wall murals of the Taj Mahal appear across the dotted green terrain. Steadily, modern architecture fades away and one is left with the basics- a school, one-storied
construction, fields and vast arrays of agricultural land under siege by real estate giants as well a 108 ft tall Krishna sculpture situated in the premises of the Gaur International School.
As I entered the Jewar police station, I noticed the conspicuous presence of a big Shiv temple inside the station premises. A photo frame of Bhagat Singh, Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar adorns the wall inside the police station.
When enquired about the desecration, the police inspector Gajendra Singh asked me to check with the Sub Inspector Lakhan Singh incharge of the police post at Neemka. He is the official investigating the case booked on the desecration. He didn’t give me any information. There has been no electricity in the room for hours due to the construction of the airport that has impacted the life of the village to a great extent.
The gram pradhan, Arvind Kumar is also at the post. It was at that moment that he introduced himself and narrated the entire episode. Arvind, a BJP leader, is the son of the erstwhile pradhan, Tejpal Singh who fought from the BSP. Arvind belongs to the Jat community and attributes his family’s continuous victory to the Dalits’ support.
He alleged that Rajpal’s family ( the dalit family who gave land for installation of the statue) must have desecrated the statue in order to shift the statue elsewhere so that they could get compensation by the airpot authority for the entire land in which their house is built. However, later, Rajpal’s family termed the allegation as bizarre.
Takes Months to Overcome Caste Resistance to Install Ambedkar’s Statue
The contestations over the statues of Ambedkar go back to the late 1990s. According to the social scientist Christopher Jaffrelot Radhey Lal Boudh, a leader of the Dalit Panthers started the aesthetic and political strategy of installing statues of Ambedkar in order to propagate Ambedkarite iconography and assert control over land.
In 1994, two demonstrators who were protesting against the removal of an Ambedkar statue from a public park in Meerut were killed by the police. Many more lives were to be later sacrificed for the cause.
The disfigurement of the bespectacled Ambedkar sculpture took place on the night of 18 April according to the locals. The sculpture was adorned in the traditional blue and white with the Constitution of India in his left arm while the now broken right arm extended to the sky with an upraised index finger.
The statue was installed on the initiatives of the local Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Samiti on 9 April in 2001 and inaugurated by the then BJP Lok Sabha MP of Khurja Ashok Pradhan, despite resistance of the Jats.
The statue was installed but not without lengthy controversy and powerful resistance by the local upper caste Jatos and Thakurs. Before its installation the statue was kept covered at a nearby park for nine months since the Jats and Thakurs refused to enter the village from beneath a ‘chamar’s statue’ that was initially meant to be stationed at the top of the village entrance gate. A settlement was facilitated by the then gram pradhan Tejpal Singh and the funds were collected from the Dalit households.
After a controversy around the piece of land on which the statue was supposed to be installed initially, Rajpal Singh, a local dalit teacher offered his land. And finally, the statue was installed next to the main gate of Rajpal Singh’s house.
Dalit Perspective on Desecration
In Neemka it is time of wheat and sugarcane harvesting however an eerie silence looms large. In Neemka, most Dalits are landless farm labour. In sharp contrast, most members of Rajpal’s family are literate. Abhishek Gautam, the deceased school teacher’s son who has taken up the cudgels of his father’s dalit activism. A doctor by training, he heads the local social justice forum- Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Yuva Jan Kalyan Samiti along with Sunil Kumar, Rajeev Kumar and other Dalit men of nearby areas extending up to the Naya Bans village in Noida.
Abhishek’s house, situated along the main road, is painted in green and blue. While his Alto 800 car adorns a Buddha sticker. Inside, the Panchsheel Buddhist flags and posters of Ramabai, Kanshiram, Mayawati and other anti-caste leaders adorn the walls of the drawing room along with certificates and medals for his family’s service to the cause. The one storied house has been partitioned into three to run a nursing home and a kirana store.
As he shares the details, he opens the hasp of the enclosure to let me in to touch the new Ambedkar statue. He narrates the ordeal of the vandalism along with his family members chipping in every once and then. His mother, cousin brother and few others too seem traumatised due to the incident and its aftermath. Abhishek’s mother said the assailants knew about the camera location and hence deliberately disfigured the statue from the other side.
Abhishek vehemently contests the allegations of Arvind against the Dalits. He contends the defacement to be the action of a group of men with a pre planned ulterior motive. Abhishek and his dalit friends wanted to bury the desecrated statue, but couldn’t because the Jewar police took it under custody.
Arvind signs off by saying that seventeen freedom fighters hailed from Neemka village and that he will try his best to ensure the village keeps up its contribution to the Yogi Adityanath-led project of nation building.
Aftermath of the Incident
As the news about the desecration spread, local Dalit families blocked the road as a means of protest. The local police including officials from the Intelligence Bureau were stationed in the village for two days under an apprehension of caste flare up. However no arrest was made. But the national media reported the detaining of three minors and two men, all belonging to the Thakur community, from a nearby village Rabupura for disturbing peace and tearing blue flags, banners and posters on the occasion of Ambedkar Jayanti. The tik tok video of the purported incident filmed on the beats of Thakur ka Sikka song, had also gone viral on social media garnering praises for the Thakur men and their casteist actions.
An FIR was filed by the Jewar police against unidentified persons for inciting violence and other criminal charges on 19 April under sections 153-A about offence committed in a place of worship or in any assembly engaged in the performance of religious worship or religious ceremonies, 295-A on outraging the religious feelings of any class and 427 on causing mischief, of the Indian Penal Code.
A New Statue
After the desecration, a new statue was installed and unveiled in the enclosure on 19 April after a ceremony by Buddhist monks and fellow Ambedkarites in the presence of Arvind Kumar, police officials and State representatives. It was bought from Lucknow at a cost of Rs. 60,000/- from the sculpture artist, Jai Kishor Sagar by Rajpal’s son Abhishek and an administrative officer. The 6 ft bronze statue of Ambedkar now has a golden veneer.
As colossal Ambedkar statues are being established all over India especially by the State, incidents of desecration also seem to be increasing. However the counter from the Dalit community is gaining momentum too. A few days after the desecration in Neemka village, on 23 April, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar Yuva Sangharsh Samiti unveiled an Ambedkar statue in the Pragya Swaroop Buddha Vihar in Sheikhupur Raura village in Bulandshahr district, just 50 kms off Jewar, in a large-scale cultural program.
The defacement is a tell-tale case of caste atrocity but it is also a story of the upper caste’s phobia of statues of dalit leaders and symbols. It is part of a sinister project of erasure of the material culture of the Dalit community often through lethal and violent acts of destruction.
(Aatika is a fellow at the SEEDS-TCN mentorship program)