India Insight

Photo gallery: A walk through Mayawati’s Dalit park

October 15, 2013

On a hot Tuesday afternoon, I walked into the recently reopened Dalit park in Noida, outside New Delhi. This is the park built by Mayawati, the 57-year-old former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, as a memorial to the class of people long known in India as “untouchables.” A Dalit herself, Mayawati is a symbol of what traditionally oppressed classes and castes in India can do with their lives.

Of course, Mayawati has been accused by her political opponents of wasting money — lots of it. She seems like an easy target, especially when she has commissioned statues of herself. For a senior Congress politician, erecting one’s own statue was an act of ‘megalomania’. But the symbolism that this structure seeks to attach itself with — asserting Dalit identity and acknowledging “sacrifices” made by people of backward classes — is hard to miss.

The high central chamber of the Dalit park, which is a short drive into Uttar Pradesh from Delhi, draws heavily on Buddhist architecture. It houses statues of B. R. Ambedkar, who helped draft India’s Constitution; Kanshi Ram, founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party that Mayawati now heads; and the former chief minister herself with her ubiquitous handbag, an uncommon thing for a living politician to do.

The 40-metre-high structure is surrounded by 20 sculptures of elephants, 10 on either side. The remaining complex, built at a cost of nearly 7 billion rupees ($113 million), includes bronze statues of Ambedkar and other “pioneers of social transformation,” and replicas of the Ashoka Chakra.

“The Dalits fought like anybody else in the struggle against the British. She is underscoring it that it is this part of history that you have not talked about for the last 65 years,” said Sohail Hashmi, a Delhi-based historian.

The park was inaugurated by Mayawati two years ago. But when the Samajwadi Party came to power last year, led by Akhilesh Yadav, a probe was ordered into alleged irregularities in its construction. The investigation is still on but Yadav threw open the park on Oct. 2, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, a decision that caused controversy of its own.

Spread over some 80 acres, the “Rashtriya Dalit Prerna Sthal” (or the national Dalit memorial)  is located on the banks of the Yamuna river.

One of the 4,000 visitors to visit the park in the week since it was reopened was Rajiv Prasad.
“I wanted to witness the history and achievements of our people. The history of the oppressed people that has been written gives us self-confidence. If money has been spent on this, it’s good,” said the college principal from Bihar, born in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh.
Neeraja Choudhury, a political analyst, said there probably are better ways to assert the identity of India’s so-called backward classes.“If I were to do it, I would certainly go in for Dalit education because the largest group of illiterates in the world is Dalit girls. Seven hundred crores would have gone a long way in building those high quality institutions to bring about educational revolution for Dalits.”
(Editing by Robert MacMillan; follow Ankush on Twitter at @Ankush_patrakar and Robert @bobbymacReports. This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced in any form without permission)

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