An image of Dr Ambedkar was painted over without permission in Dharmapuri district on February 12, the management of the Dr Ambedkar School of Politics run by the well-known Tamil Nadu based anti-caste organization, Neelam Cultural Centre has alleged. The image which was drawn on one of the outer walls of the school, depicted Dr Ambedkar seated with his legs crossed on a chair. “This image has been irking a few members of the caste-Hindu community living nearby,” says Udhaya, a core-team member of Neelam Cultural alleges to TNM. “Ever since the school began, they have been unhappy, making baseless accusations that the children are too noisy, claiming that the school is a nuisance,” he adds.
As of Sunday, the Dharmapuri collector has offered support, appreciated the initiative and has promised to have the local teshildar look into the matter, Udhaya tells us.
The particular school where the incident occurred is situated in Maravadi village in Dharmapuri, a district that has been a hotbed for caste violence against Dalit people. The building and the site on which the school is housed is poramboke land (commons) leased out to a Pattunool (silk thread) Co-operative society in the 80s but has since gone derelict. “It has been out of use for ten years and we’ve been running the school there with permission,” says Udhaya. He also alleges that until Neelam Cultural took up the space, the land itself was being used by the caste-Hindu community for purposes such as washing clothes and was in a poor condition.
Neelam Cultural’s night school has images of Dr Ambedkar, Buddha, Tamil anti-caste leaders like Rettamalai Srinivasan, Periyar, Iyotheethass Pandithar, Immanuel Sekaran and LC Gurusamy. Apart from Dr Ambedkar’s picture, another one of Bhuddha was also painted over, both of which are on the outer walls of the building.
The school has been functioning since October 2020 as a tuition centre and as a social justice initiative. Neelam Cultural Centre is one of the several ventures begun by film director Pa Ranjith alongside Neelam Social (a YouTube channel), Neelam Publications and Neelam Productions. There are over a hundred such schools across Tamil Nadu and 25 others in Karnataka, says Udhaya.
Members of the Pattunool Co-operative painted over the two images on Saturday morning, Udhaya alleges, when no one was around. Fortunately, people from the colony realised what was happening and stopped them, he says. The Co-operative has done what it did at the provocation of the caste-Hindu community, he further alleges.
“For them, just the way Babasaheb is sitting in that picture is unacceptable. It is also unacceptable that Dalit students have a space to assert their voice, finding ways to come up in life. All of this is nothing new for Dharmapuri,” Udhaya added.
The wall as it used to be before the incident. Image courtesy: Neelam Cultural Centre
The vandalised wall after Saturday's incident. Image courtesy: Neelam Cultural Centre.
A member of the Marvadi Neelam Cultural Team said, “From the day the image of Babaseheb Ambedkar was drawn, there was a veiled pushback from the caste-Hindu communities. They haven’t been able to do anything openly provocative since there are legal ways in which they can be countered, so they kept things subtle. Now they are trying to act through the co-operative society that was running the handloom that used to be housed in the building used for the night-school,” she alleges.
“As a matter of fact, the person who was responsible for painting over the pictures, was the same person who was supportive of us when we started the night school. They told us that new looms are too huge and won’t even fit into this building,” she further alleges. “There is another question to be asked, even if the building is for textile related work, why should Dr Babasaheb’s face be erased from there? Are they saying that textile places cannot have his portraits?”
Most of the students who come to the night school are either in standards 10 to 12 or are college students. They’re almost all from the nearby Dalit colony and are mostly first-generation learners. Nearly all their parents are wage-labourers, Udhya tells us. “The school has been playing an important role. Students come here after the regular school or college hours. There are teachers here to help them with their homework. College students have a place to come together and discuss the day’s lessons. The school is also a place for them to learn about social justice, the anti-caste movement and progressive politics. When exams were being conducted online due to the pandemic, these students could log in and sit here undisturbed,” he adds. They also have space to learn various sports and the organisers have even brought in local police to help with physical training for students aspiring to join the force.
Children getting help with schoolwork at the tuition centre. Image courtesy: Neelam Cultural Centre
February 13, this afternoon, the students of the night school got together to repaint the image of Dr Ambedkar.
Restoring the vandalised picture of Dr Ambedkar on Sunday morning. Image courtesy: Neelam Cultural Centre