Siddharth Vihar, the boys’ hostel in Mumbai that was once the site of important political and cultural activity within the Dalit community, has been demolished. Here’s why the demolition means so much more.
February 9, 2015. The 90-odd residents of Wadala’s Siddharth Vihar boys’ hostel – mostly poor Dalit and “lower” caste students from rural Maharashtra – were busy preparing for the upcoming examination season. Around 10am, their studies were interrupted by a group of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) officials and beat policemen, who asked them to assemble outside the building. Once the students had been herded downstairs, the officials locked the hostel gates. Within ten minutes, the demolition started. The doors and internal walls were the first to go, to ensure that the four-story structure could not be re-occupied. In one stroke, the students were rendered shelterless. With nowhere to go, many are still camped out in the hostel compound.
In another part of the city, the Maharashtra state government is finalizing plans to buy a 2,050sq ft, three-story bungalow in London for Rs 30 crore. This is the house Dalit icon Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar stayed in while studying at the London School of Economics in 1921-1922. The government, with one eye firmly fixed on the Dalit vote in the upcoming local body elections, wants to convert the bungalow into an Ambedkar memorial. On February 18, the cash-strapped government announces that it will dip into the funds allocated to the Mahatma Phule Magasvargiya Vikas Mahamandal – a state-owned corporation whose objective is to help people from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities by offering training and financial assistance so they can be self-employed – to pay Rs 3 crore to a UK-based solicitor to close the deal.
The contrasting responses to these two cases reflect the larger tragedy of contemporary Dalit politics in Maharashtra, where tokenism and symbolism have taken the place of concrete efforts towards the upliftment of the Dalit masses. The state government, which is spending Rs 30 crore on an Ambedkar memorial in another country, did not even notice when an important part of Ambedkar’s legacy was lost forever. Over its 51-year history, Siddharth Vihar occupied a unique role in the struggle for Dalit emancipation in Maharashtra. It was an incubator for Dalit radicals and intellectuals, producing some of the biggest names in Dalit politics, literature, music and theater. And yet there were no public statements on its demise, no long paeans in newspaper columns.
The silence of Dalit leaders on the hostel’s demolition is especially striking. Take, for example,Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM) leader Prakash Ambedkar, who is BR Ambedkar’s grandson. He is a vocal supporter of the London memorial. But we haven’t heard a peep from him about Siddharth Vihar, even though he’s involved in a power struggle within the People’s Education Society (PES), the organization that managed the hostel. Nor has there been any statement from his rival Ramdas Athawale of the Republican Party of India (Athawale), who built his political career while at the hostel, and was still living in one of Siddharth Vihar’s dingy rooms when he became a cabinet minister in Sharad Pawar’s 1990 government.
But not everyone is silent. Revolutionary balladeer Sambhaji Bhagat, who stayed at the hostel from 1979-1994, called the day of the demolition a terrible day for the Ambedkarite movement. “This was Babasaheb [Ambedkar]’s dream,” he says, anger palpable even over the phone. “And it was that dream that was torn down.”
In many ways, Siddharth Vihar’s story is linked to that of the Ambedkarite movement. This story begins in 1945, when Ambedkar established PES in order to provide access to education for fellow members of the Dalit community – who had been denied access to education for millennia – as well as people from other underprivileged sections of society. To this end, PES set up schools and colleges all over the country, including Mumbai. Aware of the challenges rural Dalit students faced in coming to a big city, Ambedkar set the plans for Siddharth Vihar in motion. In the meantime, his own residence Rajgriha functioned as a hostel for “lower” caste students.
In 1964, eight years after Ambedkar passed away, Siddharth Vihar’s construction was finally finished. “[Ambedkar] had ensured that the hostel had all the facilities students would need – in every room there were tables, lamps, etc,” says Bhagat. “It was better than most of the government hostels in Mumbai at the time.”