The Maha Vikas Aghadi Government on Friday was forced to postpone the foundation stone-laying ceremony for a statue of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar at the proposed Dr BR Ambedkar memorial at the India United Mills in Dadar, following disagreement among its ruling partners and protests, especially by Dalit leaders. Because of a slip-up by the Chief Minister’s Office and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, only 16 people were invited, with the notable exceptions being opposition leaders, Union Minister of Social Justice Ramdas Athawale and prominent Dalit leaders. Not even Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar and Minister of Social Justice Dhananjay Munde, whose department is the nodal department for the memorial development, were aware of the function till Thursday evening.
Realising that he was heading an alliance government and Dalit voters were crucial, especially in the coming BMC elections, CM Uddhav Thackeray intervened and instructed the MMRDA to prepare a new schedule for the pilling ceremony of Dr Ambedkar memorial and ensure that all the necessary dignitaries were invited to the function. Dalit voters constitute 14 per cent of the electorate in Mumbai and ruling and opposition parties can neglect them at their own peril.
Thackeray also appealed to all the parties and Dalit organisations, in particular, not to blow up the issue and politicise it. Although the Shiv Sena is heading the MVA government, it has accepted the 'secular' principle in the common minimum programme arrived at with its ruling partners, the NCP and the Congress, in the functioning of the government. Although Thackeray has reiterated that he has not sacrificed Hindutva nor his party's saffron flag, he knows that he cannot afford to hurt his allies and Dalit voters.
The NCP and the Congress were perturbed at the manner in which the programme was scheduled, without alerting them in advance. Congress ministers Balasaheb Thorat and Nitin Raut and Deputy CM Pawar, who had come from Pune as far as Navi Mumbai, had turned back on being informed that the function was cancelled. Most ministers have blamed the bureaucrats for organising the function at a time when Mumbai Police have imposed section 144, which prohibits the gathering of more than five persons. Further, they also blamed the babus for not inviting ministers, opposition leaders and Dalit leaders, keeping Thackeray in the dark.
Moreover, Dr Ambedkar’s grandsons Prakash and Anandraj, who had in the past quite aggressively pushed for a memorial, were left out. Anandraj received the invitation after much uproar, before the function scheduled at 3 pm. However, Prakash Ambedkar suggested that instead of spending such huge amounts of money on the memorial, the state government should spend on welfare and development projects.
MMRDA sources justified the function saying that it had been organised by strictly observing social distancing norms, to avoid gatherings in open space. MMRDA is the nodal agency for the memorial, which is being built at a revised cost of Rs 1,089 crore. As per the revised plan, the 350-feet statue will be built on a 100-feet platform, making its overall height at 450 feet.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had performed the ground-breaking ritual at the memorial site in December 2016. After the MVA came to power in November last year, NCP Chief Sharad Pawar and DCM Pawar had separately visited the memorial site. Ajit Pawar had said the government would make efforts to complete the grand memorial in three years.