Counterculture: Seeing Connections Between Ambedkar and His People

by Atul Anand

*All photography credit: Atul Anand

I feel deeply connected to issues of migration and work. Being an itinerant migrant from Bihar, I have moved from one city to another for education and work most of my life. Having a master’s degree in media from a well-known institution of higher education is helpful. However, my stay in a city has not been permanent or secure. My living arrangements in cities have been possible because of a scholarship, fellowships, and earnings from temporary work. I share this precarious nature of stay in cities with migrant workers of the informal economy. In many ways, Ambedkar has helped me find a sense of belonging in cities.

My neurodivergence also helps me see connections among people, and concepts, to find patterns that might not be very obvious. It helps with my skills in photography and visual arts. As an Ambedkarite-Bahujan person, who loves Babasaheb, I have used that skill over the years to spot Ambedkar and anti- caste symbols in places and cities.

In this visual essay, I have put together photographs that I have taken of Ambedkar and anti-caste symbols during my stay in Araria in Bihar, Ludhiana in Punjab and New Delhi. By “Ambedkar and His People”. I broadly mean Dalit-Bahujan people and people who are marginalized because of their place of origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, people who see Ambedkar as a beacon of hope. These images are not just visually connected, but show how anti-caste cultures across the country have common grounds.

Babasaheb Ambedkar’s portraitat a “Labour Mandi” (Labour Market) in Ludhiana, Punjab, August 04, 2016. A “Labour Mandi” is a place where daily wage workers find work opportunities and ge thired. At this “Labour Mandi”, both local and migrant workers gather to find work. A portrait on the right features Sikh Gurus and Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) in Amritsar, Punjab.

I remember an exchange between a local Dalit worker and a Bahujan migrant worker during my stay in Ludhiana, Punjab in 2016 which, notably, was a time after demonetization was announced in India. A local Dalit worker advised a Bahujan migrant worker, who was new to the “Labour Mandi”, to not get exploited by agreeing to a wage lower than the minimum wage decided for that particular “Labour Mandi”. It came across to me as a kind of advocacy and support shown by the Dalit worker from Punjab for a fellow worker from Bihar.

Saint Ravidas’s portrait at a village in Araria, Bihar, May 30, 2016. Saint Ravidas, also known as Guru Ravidas, envisaged “Begumpura”, a place devoid of sorrow, caste and class. Araria is one of the least developed districts of Bihar as well as the country. Many people from this village migrate to other parts of the country for work, decent wages and to break away form rigidity of caste occupations.

Sant Ravidas’s portrait at a “Labour Mandi” in Ludhiana, Punjab. August 04, 2016. A poster below the portrait features the Sikh Gurus. Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru, was against the caste system and established Sikhism as an egalitarian religion. At this “Labour Mandi”, portraits of Sant Ravidas and Ambedkar occupy more prominent space than the Sikh Gurus. It might signal the importance of anti-caste appeal of Ambedkar and Sant Ravidas.

Babasaheb Ambedkar’s portrait featuring the Buddha at the entrance of Ludhiana Railway Station, Ludhiana, Punjab, September 12, 2016. The portrait mentions All India SC/ST Railways Employees Association, Ludhiana at the bottom. According to its website, the Association is a welfare organization founded in 1959 in New Delhi to safeguard interests of Railway employees from Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes.

During 2014 to 2016, I have had the opportunities to attend Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations in Bombay and Panjim. I moved to New Delhi in late 2017. A friend told me about Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations at Parliament Street in New Delhi. The first time I attended the Bheem Jayanti celebrations at Parliament Street was on April 14, 2018. I remember describing the experience as one of those rare occasions when New Delhi, a strange city to me, resembled Bombay. More specifically, how it felt to be in Bombay during April 14 (Babasaheb’s birth anniversary) as well as December 6 (Babasaheb’s Mahaparinirvana Day). Bombay city’s soul feel more egalitarian than New Delhi, probably because the former is the city of Babasaheb and workers.

Celebrating Ambedkar Jayanti and other anti-caste days of significance are part of counter-culture for Dalit-Bahujan people who fervently attend these events across the country. These events are anti-caste festivals which create spaces that are truly inclusive.

Statues of Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Buddha during Bheem Jayanti celebrations at the Parliament Street, New Delhi, April 14, 2018. Babasaheb chose Buddhism as a religion to free his people from caste system.

People look at portraits of Ambedkar and the Buddha during Bheem Jayanti celebrations at the Parliament Street, New Delhi. April 14, 2018.

Portraits of Ambedkar and the Buddha at a stall during Ambedkar Jayanti celebration at the Parliament Street, New Delhi, April 14, 2019.

Ambedkar’s photo on a car dashboard, Punjab, April 21, 2019. Followers of Ambedkar proudly keep photos of Ambedkar and gift anti-caste souvenirs. Dalit people have been attacked for asserting their rights, for keeping Ambedkarite symbols and playing songs in praise of Ambedkar,

A banner featuring Ambedkar and the cover of the Constitution of India at an entrance gate of Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, February 10, 2020. The banner was put up in the wake of protests on campus against a new citizenship law in December 2019. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which was passed in the parliament in December 2019, excludes Muslims and also has potential ramifications for the rights of Dalit-Bahujan people of India across religions.

A copy of Ambedkar’s book, “Annihilation of Caste”, seen at a makeshift library named after Fatima Shaikh and Savitribai Phule near Shaheen Bagh anti-CAA protest site, Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, February 11, 2020.

The sign lets us know the makeshift library was named after Fatima Shaikh and Savitribai Phule, Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, February 16, 2020.

A copy of the book “We Also Made History: Women in the Ambedkarite Movement” by Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon, at a makeshift library near Jamia Millia Islamia campus during anti-CAA protests, New Delhi, February 17, 2020. The presence of books on Ambedkarite history and anti-caste topics by Dalit Bahujan scholars at this library and many other such libraries reflect the common interests of marginalized people.

A poster calling for a boycott of “CAA — NRC”, a citizenship law, widely perceived to be discriminatory, featuring a popular image of Ambedkar with a copy of the Constitution of India in his hand, Okhla Vihar, New Delhi, April 20, 2020. The poster at this grocery store also gives a call to save the Indian constitution and the country. A notice below the poster states “Bina Mask Saman Nahi Hai, Kripya Duri Banaye Rakhe” (No Goods without a Mask, Please Maintain Distance) reminding customers about the COVID-19 guidelines. Okhla Vihar in New Delhi and its surrounding localities have both a majority Muslim and migrant population who were especially affected by the COVID-19 lockdown.

During March-April 2020, a hastily imposed and very stringent lockdown by the Indian government forced millions of migrant people, most of whom were Dalit-Bahujan people, to rush back from the cities where they worked to their native places of origin. Many walked on foot when public transport was not available. Many of those people died while on their way back to home, due to exhaustion, hunger, or accidents.

At a more personal level, like many other people going through the lockdown, I experienced isolation and the fear of the unknown. Due to COVID-19, the usual Delhi Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations in April 2020 and April 2021 at the Parliament Street were not held. It is an important part of our history to know that during 2020, Shaheen Bagh and anti-CAA protests sites were probably the last public spaces showcasing Ambedkarite symbols before the pandemic.

April 2020 was the first time in recent years of my stay in Delhi when I could not go to the Parliament Street for the Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations. In 2022, the Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations at the Parliament Street return after a two-year hiatus. It was a joyful moment for me to attend the celebrations this year.

Shivram Sagar, 32, a resident of east Delhi, with his nephew and a blue flag that has the Ashok Chakra and “Jai Bhim” written in Devnagari script, Parliament Street, New Delhi, April 14, 2022. Mr. Sagar said that he had also missed visiting the Parliament Street for Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations during the last two pandemic years.

Statues of Manyawar Kanshiram, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Ramai, the Phule partners, Ashoka and the Buddha at the Parliament Street during Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations, New Delhi, April 14, 2022.

It feels significant to see Ambedkar and his people in public spaces celebrating him, organizing themselves, especially in the times when the rights of marginalized people have been under constant attack. Despite these adversities, the many images of anti-caste symbols such as Ambedkar, Sant Ravidas, the Buddha, the Phule partners, Fatima Shaikh, and Manyavar Kanshiram among others, show a living connection among people fighting for
their rights.

Atul Anand is a multidisciplinary visual artist and an itinerant migrant, currently based in New Delhi. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram @atulvisuals.

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