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.”
It didn’t take long for the hostel to become a hotbed of political and cultural activity, a process that was accelerated by the disintegration of the Ambedkarite movement’s old guard. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the main Dalit political party – the Republican Party of India (RPI), set up after Ambedkar’s death – had fallen prey to factionalism and infighting. Atrocities against Dalits were on the rise, but neither the RPI nor the ruling Congress party seemed interested in intervening. An alternative was needed, and a group of students and writers linked to Siddharth Vihar took the lead.
At a meeting organized at the hostel on July 9, 1972, this group, led by Namdeo Dhasal, JV Pawar and Raja Dhale, officially formed the Dalit Panthers. Inspired by the Black Panthers in the US, the organization combined left-wing radicalism and militancy with a strong emphasis on Dalit culture and Dalit identity. Dhasal, who would go on to become a major figure in Marathi literature, was living in Room No 105 of Siddharth Vihar at the time, and it was there that the group’s manifesto was written. While the Panthers drew adherents from across the state, many of its members and most of its leaders came from Siddharth Vihar.
“This isn’t just a hostel,” says law student and activist Arvind Sable, who hails from Airoli and stayed at the hostel from 1998 till its demolition. “This is a big center of the Dalit movement, in Maharashtra and in India. This was the only place where [politicized Dalits] would meet, discuss and decide on how to act on social issues. The Dalit Panthers is a product of those discussions.”
The Panthers’ early militant stance gave the movement a revolutionary aura. Throughout the 1970s, the Dalit Panthers fought pitched street battles in Mumbai with the then-new Shiv Sena (the most famous example is the Worli Riots of 1974, when Bhagwat Jadhav, a Panthers leader, was killed). Surrounded by Sena strongholds, Siddharth Vihar was their headquarters – and their fortress.
“The hostel was often gheraoed (surrounded) by the CID,” says Bhagat. “When attacks would happen on Dalits then the reaction would come from Siddharth Vihar and so the police would always be around.”
The Panthers movement petered out in the 1980s, but not before it had propelled Siddharth Vihar to the heart of Dalit politics in the state. Leaders like Kanshi Ram and Ram Vilas Paswan would drop in whenever they visited Mumbai. One of its alumni, Suresh Mane, is a founding member of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Many others fill the ranks of the various RPI factions and other parties like the BSP and BBM. And Siddharth Vihar’s contribution to the Dalit cause isn’t just limited to the arena of politics. Leading Dalit literary figures, including Dhasal, JV Pawar, Arjun Dangle and Baburao Bagul, either stayed at the hostel or were regular visitors. Many of Mumbai’s Dalit and left-wing music and street theater troupes were based out of Siddharth Vihar, with the hostel’s terrace serving as a practice space. Political magazines like Kalank, Zahernama and Prabuddha Bharat were published from there.
“Dalits had been oppressed for thousands of years and when they finally received education and freedom, there was an explosion of creativity,” says Bhagat. “An explosion of painting, poetry, music, drama, literature and street theater that emerged from Siddharth Vihar.”
Over the decades, the hostel has churned out hundreds of Dalit activists, writers, journalists, bureaucrats and musicians, such as former Planning Commission member and Rajya Sabha MP Balachandra Mungekar, and Nagpur’s Deputy Commissioner of Police Shriprakash Waghmare. Many of them attribute their success to the supporting and encouraging atmosphere they encountered there.
“I was living on the footpath [in Mumbai] in 1979 when I first heard of Siddharth Vihar,” says Bhagat, who would go on to become one of Maharashtra’s foremost lokshahirs (people’s poets) and a much-respected figure in Dalit and progressive circles. The son of a cobbler from Panchgani in Mahabaleshwar, he had just shifted to the big city and didn’t have a place to stay. But he got in touch with a few helpful people from the hostel, who got him a room as well as admission into Ambedkar College.
“When I joined the hostel, the Dalit Panthers movement was dying out, but its remnants were all over the place,” he says. “Many rooms had revolutionary poetry and paintings adorning their walls. There was a lot of brotherhood. We supported each other when the bastis in our villages would get burned and our people would get beaten up or killed. We would get together and cry, we would protest or go out and fight against casteist forces. I wrote my first book there, I wrote so many of my songs there. If I hadn’t found Siddharth Vihar, then whoever I am today, the little work I’ve done in music, drama and activism would not have been possible.”
His sentiment is echoed by journalist Raja Adate, an editor at Dainik Mahasagar, who came from a small village in Sangli district to study at Siddharth College in 1986. “ My entire life changed when [admission to Siddharth Vihar] happened,” he says. I got a crash course in the Dalit movement. I didn’t know anything before I came here, and I got to learn everything while at Siddharth Vihar.”
Sable narrates an incident which illustrates the special place that Siddharth Vihar still holds in the heart of many of its alumni. During his first stint in the hostel in the late 1990s (he took a break from studies for a few years before returning to study law), he was visited by a former student who had become a gazetted officer in Aurangabad. “He came to Mumbai on work and the government gave him accomodation at a government rest house in Worli,” Sable says. “But he came to the hostel and came directly to my room because that used to be his room. He told me that he already has a place to stay but he wants to spend one night in his old hostel room. I said, of course, this is everybody’s hostel.”
“That’s why [our] relationship with Siddharth Vihar is stronger than with [our] home,” he adds.
But by this time the slow decline of Siddharth Vihar was already underway, mirroring the state of Dalit politics. The PES was caught up in a power struggle between two factions led by Ramdas Athawale and Prakash Ambedkar. Amidst the confusion of court cases and property disputes, Siddharth Vihar fell by the wayside. By the late 2000s, it was in a decrepit state with no repairs having been undertaken for several years. When I visited in 2012, many of the window panes were shattered, there were cracks in the walls, and the entire building had an aura of decay. The BMC had declared it an unsafe structure that needed to be demolished. In April 2014, the BMC issued an evacuation notice to the hostel authorities. Soon after, the water and power supply were cut off. Earlier this month, the BMC finally made good on the threat. And so the story of one of the most interesting and historic buildings in Mumbai came to an undignified end.
In a statement to Mid-Day earlier this month, the principal of Dr Ambedkar College Sidharth Kamble claimed that PES was unable to repair or run the four-storey hostel because of lack of funds. The former residents I spoke to rubbished that claim.
“The government had given funds and money to the PES, but we don’t know where the money went,” says Sable.
Whatever the truth, it is already too late for Siddharth Vihar. In its fall, Sambhaji Bhagat sees a damning indictment of the current Dalit leadership, and its failure to take forward Ambedkar’s ideas and legacy.
“This is what the Ambedkarite movement has become today,” he says angrily. “They cannot keep his [Ambedkar’s] dream alive, they just keep him alive in their speeches, in their prayers [...] They have failed. That is all I have to say.”
Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist who writes about music, art and cultural politics. Follow him at https://twitter.com/StonerJesus.