Open Letter to Ramdas Athawale: Why Do You Stand by the BJP? What Has it Done for Us Dalits?


Open Letter to Ramdas Athawale: Why Do You Stand by the BJP? What Has it Done for Us Dalits?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Krantikari Jai Bhim, Athawale saheb!

My name is Pratik Gaikwad. I am neither an official worker nor a member of any political party. I pride myself on being an Indian and an Ambedkar activist.

I have always been an ardent supporter of the Republican Party of India, but your recent defence of the BJP has left me dejected. You said that the 15 lakh rupees that the Modi government promised will “come slowly and not at a single time”. You even went ahead and blamed the Reserve Bank of India for the delay. Everyone, including Amit Shah, has admitted that the promised money was nothing more than an election plank. So your statement is nothing but a self-goal, something that you could have avoided in the run up to 2019. Moreover, aren’t formal proclamations like these the specialty of BJP politicians? Shouldn’t you cast a deeper eye on the problems affecting the lives of Dalit people on a daily basis?

And why go out of your way for the BJP, the party that has only made tall promises to us but has not fulfilled any? The Dalit community rallied behind the BJP in 2014; in fact, one-fourth of our votes went to the party. We believed in Narendra Modi’s dream of economic agenda, “Sabka saath, sabka vikas,” but four years on, these look like nothing but empty promises of development programmes.

The NDA, that you are a part of, has not done anything to minimise the atrocities we face – Rohith Vemula’s death, the incidents in Una and Bhima-Koregaon are proof. The government might have moved swiftly and introduced a legislation to overturn the Supreme Court’s order on the SC/ST law, but we all know that’s just because its eyes are fixed on 2019. The ground reality is not going to change and the community is fast losing faith, as we’ve seen with the results in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Our community is a sentimental one. Instead of breaking this community into factions, it is time for us to stay together.

Back home in Maharashtra, the Devendra Fadnavis government has given reservation to the Maratha community, which is not a socially backward community. And though this does not hurt our quota, this goes against the very grain of reservation. This demand for reservation has only been made so that they can check the progress made by our community. But through all of this, you, Athawale saheb, have remained largely mum. What happened to the outspoken leader I met 10 years ago, the one who understood the pulse of his people?       

I vividly remember when I first met you; I was working as a video editor with a music label in 2007-08. I was 19; you were someone I always looked up to from my childhood days. I was over the moon because I had the opportunity to interact with you during the shoots and admired the insights you offered before we recorded the songs sung by Marathi singers Anand Shinde and Milind Shinde.

This was more than a decade ago and yet one incident during the shoot still stands out in my memory. We had called for tea during the refreshments break from a tea stall nearby and it was served in ordinary glasses. Flustered, we were scrambling to organise cleaner and shinier tea cups to serve you, but you did not hesitate to drink out of the tapri glasses. That humble gesture left a deep impression on my mind: Here was a leader who had not lost his connection with the common man.     

Since then, I followed your brand of politics even more closely. In 2011, you joined the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance and contested the BMC polls with them, saying that it would benefit our community. But were there any tangible benefits? You’ve been an NDA loyalist, but despite being part of the ruling government you did not stand up for us when it mattered the most. The Dalits expected you to actively stand by us after the Bhima-Koregaon conflict. We thought you would join us on the streets and lead at least one of the protest rallies that were held in the aftermath of that incident. But you disappointed us. All we got from you were media bytes, like a perfect politician. What we needed then was not Athawale saheb, the neta, but the leader. What stopped you? Was it pressure from the BJP or your post as state minister?  

The Dalit Panther I grew up reading about, the one whom I had the good fortune to meet, has either lost his way or has become captive to his seat of power in the government. There was a time when there wasn’t a single public meeting addressed by you that I missed. I travelled to Aurangabad and Pune to hear you speak. The circumstances are a little different today. I have not lost any respect for you, and hence have great expectations.

Athawale saheb, you have helped a lot of people, but given the sheer number of people from the community who need your support that number appears little. Those whom you’ve stood by now form a coterie around you. And this coterie is what often increases the distance between a leader and the masses. In the long run, it is the community that suffers. If you observe carefully, you will realise that some party workers close to you have amassed huge wealth. I don’t deny that there are some dedicated workers among these too, but I think the time is ripe for some introspection. It’s time to look back and think what angered Pravin Gosavi, a worker who was with the RPI until 2017, to attack you. What has caused cracks in the party?

Our community is a sentimental one. Instead of breaking this community into factions, it is time for us to stay together.

You once said, “The direction of the winds will decide how the current flows.” You were right and you were that thunderstorm which showed direction to the masses. But today, that wind, that thunderstorm has lost its speed.   

It’s been almost a year since Bhima-Koregaon and the incident has brought the community even closer. We want to take more strident steps, grow, and establish a stronger political identity. And for that, we need your support.

As an ardent Bhim Sainik, I feel that the BJP is tying you down and it’s time to break free from its shackles. As long as you stay with the BJP, you will be restricted in taking firm action for the betterment of our community. Let the storm rise again, ahead of 2019. Athawale saheb, it’s now or never!

We miss the Athawale of the Panther days. We want him back.

Translated from Marathi by Aparna Joshi