Shubhangi Khapre: Babasaheb Ambedkar always advocated non-violent methods of agitation. In the context of Bhima Koregaon, what led to this kind of violence?
Across the country, not just in Maharashtra, there is an upsurge by neglected castes. They are microscopic minorities, but when they come together, they become a major force. And parties have failed to recognise them — be it the Congress or the BJP… A very low-level anger (among the Dalits) is also that we were a part of Shivaji’s army and the Peshwas had taken away our weapons. That anger still lingers and this got integrated into the function that we arranged on January 1 (at Jaystambh in Pune’s Perne village). It was a very simple function — no public speeches, people would just come, pay their respects and leave. When we were attacked, the anger just exploded.
The smaller OBCs… are feeling neglected; this should be addressed immediately. That’s why on January 1 we had such a large gathering. We’ve never had such a large gathering, never more than 50,000-80,000. But this time, it was more than 5 lakh people. We were attacked by right-wing forces. The smaller OBCs were used for two decades against Muslims and I think they realised that their utility was only against Muslims, but they didn’t have the respect and therefore, they revolted in a big way. I had a discussion about this with the government — the government was in total panic.
Shubhangi Khapre: For three decades, Chaityabhoomi in Mumbai has been a major pilgrimage centre for Dalits, besides Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur. Now Bhima Koregaon appears to have emerged, though the issue was a battle between the Peshwas and the British.
The Peshwas were not challenged because of their political rule, they were challenged because of social compulsions — some of the worst forms of untouchability that you have seen. Had Peshwas reformed after Panipat (battle), this war wouldn’t have taken place.
Kavitha Iyer: If social compulsions led to the Mahars battling the Peshwas, what parallels would you draw now with what is being called the New Peshwai (a reference to the BJP and RSS)?
The RSS is not able to explain what is the new Constitution that they want to bring. Between 1946 and 1950, the Sangh Parivar, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Sadhu Sant organisation spoke on every principle adopted by the Constituent Assembly and took an opposite stand. They said that it had nothing to do with Indian culture and that they don’t find it based on Manuvad and therefore were opposing it. So whenever they speak of changing the Constitution, it reminds everyone that they are speaking for Manuvad.
Sandeep Ashar: Ramdas Athavale is considered a more popular leader among younger Dalit sections than Prakash Ambedkar. Would you assert yourself more politically now?
Whenever I wanted to assert myself, I’ve done so. None could stand behind me then, even at the national level. I didn’t use my position as the grandson of Dr Ambedkar; I have huge backing because my grandfather is still looked upon as a leader. Whenever I wanted to impose myself on the nation, I have done it, not just among the Dalits. I’m now doing the same thing; I’m going to impose myself on the national scene.
Rashmi Rajput: On January 3, protesters said they were responding to your call. As the leader of the protest, do you take responsibility for the violence in Mumbai?
On January 3, the violence began after 3 pm, not before that. The violence that occurred from 3 pm, till we called off the strike, was orchestrated by political parties, because none of them had expected this kind of support for the bandh. In the violence that occurred on January 1, till today, nobody has been able to show how many cars and buses were damaged. Let there be an inquiry into the matter and everything will be out. When I spoke to the rural police station about the damage of 41 cars, they said that they had the footage. I asked them why don’t they show us the footage and from the faces of the protesters, we will identify which party they belong to.
Tabassum Barnagarwala: Children who were protesting didn’t know what the issues were. Do you think there is a sense of loss of direction behind these young kids taking to the roads?
The younger generation might not know for what they are protesting, but they know they are being denied and that the earlier generation had also been denied. If you see the criminalisation that has crept into these communities… at one stage during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, these were the communities that were at the forefront of gangsterism. It took a very long time for us to win them back to lead a normal life. They might not know what they are fighting for, but there is a sense that we are there for something and we want to be there and don’t want to become like our parents.
Zeeshan Shaikh: Can you explain what Dalits are angry about? After the bandh, we tried to map the social and economic indicators of Dalits in Maharashtra. We found that there isn’t a huge difference between the socio-economic status of a Dalit and an average Maharashtrian.
Economically, development has taken place, but the feeling of neglect and being left out of the system pinches. On January 1, no one was concerned till the incident happened. Why were they attacked? The calculated move was that the current assertion by Dalits is a sign that they might not be with us, and that’s why they should be crushed. The issue is not financial, but the issue is now recognition.
Zeeshan Shaikh: What would assuage Dalit feelings?
Now the kind of politics that is going on is a Hindu phase. One section of Hindus has come up to say that we are above scrutiny. Basically, among Hindus, there are those who would like to play religious politics. The question before them is whether they would like to have regulated Hindu politics or whether they would like to have non-regulated Hindu politics. So that is the issue that has cropped up, and across the country, I see these controlled Hindutva parties are not in a position to control these unregulated Hindutva organisations. Which is why I said that there could be an Indian Hafiz Saeed (among Hindus) in the making.
Priyanka Sahoo: Do you see colleges and universities as a potential ground for politics? Will we also see non-RSS, non-Congress parties coming together to fight student elections?
There were elections when we were students and what each party stood for came out clearly. That kind of grooming is not there today as it was banned in between. Instead of allowing students to choose, there is now an indoctrination taking place. I think that this indoctrination is dangerous for students.
Shubhangi Khapre: In the Modi government, there is a concerted effort to bring Dr Ambedkar into the centrestage of politics. It is now mandatory for nationalised banks to create 1.25 lakh Dalit entrepreneurs. There are economic reforms for them. But in the Gujarat elections, the Dalits drifted away from the BJP. Can you explain the contradiction?
Nothing new has been introduced by Narendra Modi. The first Scheduled Caste financial corporation (the National Scheduled Castes Finance and Development Corporation) came into existence in 1990. Sometime in 1992-93, more financial corporations came into being. Earlier, they were Centrally controlled. The present government is moving towards a capitalistic economy. And therefore, they have given these budgets for financial institutions to implement. But these communities do not have a business sense. When you start a new company, you should have leadership quality — financial as well as industrial and management leadership. Neither the previous nor the present government caters to these concerns. This is just pouring money that is going down the drains.
Kavitha Iyer: Will Dalits who voted for the BJP during the Modi wave do so again?
Don’t be surprised if the BJP comes back to the level the Congress reached in 2014. The present generation changes opinion overnight. It’s not like the older generation, which takes time to change opinion. I am seeing signs of the younger generation turning against the present regime. On the manner in which Hindutva politics was articulated over the last few days, there have been so many calls asking if this is true or just politics. I ask them to reflect on what I’ve said: whether they have these snakes in their own states. Everybody says yes, there are some organisations and some leaders who consider themselves above the law. I tell them they need only to be organised and become a force. So the younger generation, according to me, would like to be able to enjoy and have peace. Anybody coming in the way of his enjoyment is going to be crushed.
Shaji Vikraman: We see that in the last couple of years the BJP has been expanding its social base and becoming more acceptable to the Dalits and OBCs. Has disenchantment set in?
The 2014 election was fought on an economic platform rather than a social one. Within families, it was about gas, cooking charges, food bills. When it came to the younger generation, it was about enjoyment. Both were disenchanted then and voted straightaway (for the BJP). In 2014, the Muslims too voted for the BJP in large numbers. But that was only to show their anger against the Congress. If the BJP loses in 2018, it will not be just anger, it will be hatred against the BJP. Because we gave them an opportunity and they have thrown us back to the same people whom we rejected. Therefore the anger against the BJP and RSS will be converted into hatred.
Mayura Janwalkar: At a volatile time, when you give a call for a state-wide bandh, there are rail rokos and rasta rokos throughout the day. Do you think this is the only way to protest?
The courts have controlled the kind of protests that can take place. If you take out a morcha, (it says) no, you can’t take out one. If you want to stage a dharna, the court says no. In this heterogeneous society, protest is one platform where one makes oneself felt. The Supreme Court and the high court have snubbed this weapon, and therefore there is simmering anger within the community that builds up.
Mohamed Thaver: Among those who were arrested, including 16 children, some got bail but struggled to get sureties. Have you kept track of them?
Yes, we have kept track. Every person who has got bail is out and every surety has been given. There are a group of lawyers working on it. Even now in the city civil court, 70 people have been granted bail. They will be out soon. We are keeping track.
VISHWAS WAGHMODE: In 2016, Ambedkar Bhavan in Mumbai was demolished and many Ambedkarite organisations and you protested. The chief minister ordered an inquiry. What happened to that?
It was a government-orchestrated demolition because Ambedkar Bhavan was slowly becoming a centre for all disgruntled elements against the government. They thought that by dismantling the centre, they would destroy the feelings that were developing. It has grown. The government has not taken any action, I do not think that they will. The high court has ordered a stay, we are fighting to lift the stay so that reconstruction can begin.
Rashmi Rajput: Only 1% of all FIRs filed are under the Atrocities Act, and the conviction rate is low. Around 35 to 40% of the witnesses turn hostile. Where do you think the problem lies?
The problem lies with the Social Welfare Department. It is supposed to monitor these things, appoint lawyers along with the public prosecutors. The Social Welfare Department fails to do so, fails to ensure the safety of witnesses. The victim begins to think about how long he is going to fight the entire village. And therefore he reaches a compromise. If you want a high level of conviction in these matters, you should see that the cases are completed within six months. In the agrarian economy, everyone is either buying, selling, supplying. The victim is in that chain too. If you are removing him from the chain, you have to rehabilitate him, without that he cannot survive.
Kavitha Iyer: Do you see Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani as being a leader around whom different kinds of Bahujan groups can come together?
Absolutely not, unless he grounds himself in Gujarat. As I have said, there was a wave against the BJP. He has won, opportunity has come his way. We would be interested in grooming him, rather than he flying to each and every nook and corner of the country.
Zeeshan Shaikh: You speak about sharing and reaching out. Then, when was the last time you spoke to Ramdas Athavale?
Who is Ramdas Athavale? I consider myself to be the only leader. I don’t need anybody’s help. Those who want help can come to me. I was at the forefront and I promised Mumbai that the city would not burn. I fulfilled my promise… I don’t need anybody.
Sandeep Ashar: Athawale has said he is willing to quit his post in the Union Cabinet if all Ambedkarite forces come together. Would you be open to it?
The question is, do I need him to run this party? I don’t. I’m very clear about myself. Neither can he contribute intellectually nor he can contribute organisationally. I can lead a national agenda and run a national agenda. Let me tell you that the 2018 agenda will be led by me.
Zeeshan Shaikh: And you will be in the Lok Sabha as well?
I don’t think I will be in the Lok Sabha. Because all these forces are against me, to knock me off from Parliament. I have seen that in the last three elections. The Congress, NCP, Shiv Sena and BJP all joining together to see that I am defeated. On that count, I am satisfied that Parliament is not for me.