In the Sahookara neighbourhood of Sirauli town, on the margins of Bareilly district in Uttar Pradesh, a small tempo-truck arrived on the night of November 6, carrying a freshly painted, five-feet-tall statue, made in Meerut with money crowdfunded over eight-12 months. The platform on which the statue was to stand was ready, work on which had been on for weeks now. There was excitement in the neighbourhood of Jatav families. The statue was installed that very night.
While the face of the statue did not bear a very good resemblance, the blue suit, red tie and dark-rimmed spectacles, with one arm raised and the other carrying the Constitution of India, made it unmistakable. The community’s idol, B.R. Ambedkar, now stood in their town square.
But 24 hours later, a harsh police crackdown followed. Battered locals stood around, some bleeding, others bruised, and all they could see was the work of a bulldozer that had reduced the statue to a rubble of brick and mortar.
The Sirauli police and the district administration have maintained that the statue was installed “illegally” on public land and that when they asked the locals to remove it, they were met with stone-pelting, as a result of which “light force” was used to disperse the crowd and remove the statue “respectfully”.
However, the residents who now remain in Sahookara said that personnel from five police stations arrived in their town, some of whom had climbed atop the roofs of their homes, from where they fired tear gas shells, while others “came into our homes to beat us up brutally while using casteist slurs”. They added that the statue was eventually removed by the authorities with the help of a bulldozer.
Amid political parties engaging in “competitive statue-building” — from that of Sardar Patel and Netaji to that of Ambedkar and Periyar, the practice of Dalit communities in northern India installing statues of Ambedkar as a way of asserting their identity has witnessed a rise in recent years. This comes even as defacing or vandalising these symbols has increasingly become a way for upper caste Hindus to counter-assert their identity, say activists working in the area.
In the last one year or so, more than half-a-dozen cases have been reported in Uttar Pradesh of statues of Ambedkar either being vandalised or defaced by what the police called “miscreants”, which have from time to time triggered protests from organisations like the Bhim Army. As many similar incidents have also been reported in States such as Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Vikas Babu, an advocate and a Bhim Army activist in western Uttar Pradesh said that incidents of vandalising Ambedkar statues installed by and in Dalit communities have only risen in the last few months. “While some break the statue’s fingers or damage it in other ways, others try to dirty the parks where the statue stands. And this has increased since more and more Dalit communities are seeking install such statues all over western U.P.,” Mr. Babu said.
He added that in several villages across areas like Badaun, Bareilly, Shahjahanpur and Pilibhit, Dalit communities are increasingly seeking to install Ambedkar statues, either in parks named after Ambedkar or on private land. “Sick of asking local officials to get the statues built, many are crowdfunding from amongst themselves to get the statues made,” he said.
While in Sirauli’s case, locals had managed to collect ₹85,000 for the statue to be commissioned by artisans in Meerut, and ₹50,000 to build the areas around the statue, activists said that most villages trying to install Ambedkar statues are collecting as much as they can and getting the statues built in their homes or by local artisans. The cost of the statues ranges from ₹20,000 to up to ₹1 lakh, depending on whether it is made by local artisans or workshops in towns like Meerut.
Citing the example of locals in Ambiyapur village, where an attempt to install a statue was made last year and the police soon removed it, booking the locals, Mr. Babu spoke of more villages trying to do the same.
In the Mugarra Nagla village of Badaun, locals from the Dalit community had a few weeks earlier crowdfunded money to install a statue of Ambedkar in a park, in the presence of the village head, but this statue was also removed by the local administration within a day, and the locals booked by the police, “which keeps citing convoluted permission procedures for installing Ambedkar statues”, Mr. Babu said.
The November incident of the administration forcibly removing a similar statue of the Dalit icon in Sirauli town has only led to anger and resentment rising among Dalit communities in the area against the local administration.
“We raised funds from our neighbourhood, town and even Bareilly town over the last eight months to one year. Some people had been saving up for years to contribute to the building of a statue of Babasaheb. For weeks, we had been building the platform to place the statue, the police would regularly patrol the area and they were already aware that we were installing the statue. We had submitted a letter to them about it as well. Two police patrol cars also visited the area when we were installing the statue the day before it was removed and never did they say we were not supposed to do this,” said Rohit, a teenager from Sahookara, who was among those raising funds for the statue.
Mamata, one of the many women injured in the police action resulting in the removal of the statue, said, “We would not have installed the statue, if the police or authorities even hinted that it was not allowed. Why would we have gone ahead with it if we knew it would be taken down the next day?”
After the statue was removed in Siruali, locals are slowly finding support from smaller Jatav communities such as the one in Tanda village, a few kilometres west, where a similar-looking statue of Ambedkar stands in a children’s park. It was built by Sompal Singh, a resident. “We had initially built the statue on our rooftop but after some children defaced a part of it while playing, we decided to build a bigger one in a public place for all to look at,” a local said.
Mr. Singh said they had carefully removed the defaced statue and buried it in the foundation of a cemented platform in the children’s park, atop which now stands a new statue of the Dalit icon.
When the police arrived with a bulldozer in Sahookara to remove the statue of Ambedkar, the men fled in fear. The women who remained pleaded with the authorities to give them time. “We asked for a day so that we could respectfully remove the statue but they started hitting us,” Ms. Mamata said.
Learning about what had happened in Sahookara, Mr. Singh said, “How can someone remove a statue of Babasaheb in this manner? Despite these things, the ruling party keeps getting votes from members of our own community.”