While the state of Karnataka is becoming world famous for all the wrong reasons, like the manufactured conflict over Hijab by the right-wing forces and their government in Bangalore, the state capital also witnessed an unprecedented solidarity in the form of a huge sea of humanity gathered on February 19, in the state capital to condemn the insult and disrespect shown to Babasaheb Ambedkar by a District Judge on Republic Day.
Unfortunately, other than the Varthabharathi and many alternate media platforms like Nanu Gauri, Pratidhwani, Kannada one channel and numerous other Facebook platforms, no mainstream media houses gave the due coverage deserved such a mammoth mobilisation and the issue it raised. According to police estimates, no less than 30,000 people had rushed to Bangalore voluntarily on that day!
On Jan 26, 2022, a group of lawyers in the town of Raichur in the North East Karnataka region, after celebrating Republic Day by showing respect to Gandhi and Ambedkar in the bar association, headed to Court premise where official celebration of Republic Day was to be conducted under the District Judge Mr. Mallikarjun Gowda. The judge, after learning that a portrait of Ambedkar was also placed along with Gandhi, on the podium where the program was to be held, refused to attend the program till the Ambedkar portrait was removed, because the High Court guidelines permit only Gandhi’s portrait.
A similar commotion had arisen on the same issue in the previous year, when the bar association of Raichur demanded to place the portrait of Ambedkar during the celebration of National days. The bar association had also written to the Registrar of the High Court to issue instructions to all the benches of the High Court and all the subordinate courts to place the Ambedkar portraits during the National celebrations. The Registrar placed it before the full bench of the Court which had not decided on the issue for more than a year. It is also reported that on Jan 26 this year, the Judge sought the directions from the Registrar of the High Court in front of the lawyers but the High Court did not give any definitive reply. Thus, the District Judge used his discretion not to attend the program until the Ambedkar portrait was removed.
This enraged the lawyers and the public at large, because there are no guidelines suggesting the placement of Gandhi’s portrait. But it is followed as a custom and a common sense. On the other hand, there are also portraits of Hindu gods within the court premises of the Raichur and many other Courts including temples in the premises of the Bangalore bench of the High Court. They continue to exist even after the High Court gave guidelines against it. The fact that many Hindu festivals are observed with official fanfare in the Court premises permitted by the subjective discretion of respective judicial officers, but only the portrait of Ambedkar’s needs a special written permission was unmistakably considered as casteist discrimination by the Judge who belonged to Lingayat Community which is a dominant caste in the Karnataka state.
This propelled a mass discontent, and a consolidation of otherwise disparate and divided Dalit organisations and progressive forces all over Karnataka, to unite on the single agenda of removal of Mallikarjun Gowda, the judge. There were almost one or other kinds of demonstrations with this demand in almost all the sub-tehsils and the district centres of Karnataka. Most of the districts also observed a day long bandh in the last two weeks in which citizens from all walks of the life more or less participated. While this momentum was increasing the leaders of Dalit and progressive organisation from all the 30 districts met and decided to mobilise all their energy for big demonstration in Bangalore on Feb 19.
On Feb 19, the main arteries of the City of Bangalore literally turned blue, with the blue flags bearing Ambedkar. After a long time, this spontaneous response from the people gave a new fillip to Dalit organisations and new spirit to other progressive forces.
Meanwhile, a week before the rally, the High Court issued a circular to all the courts in the state to place Ambedkar’s portrait in all the national ceremonies. A day before the rally, the High Court also transferred the Judge Mallikarjun Gowda to a tribunal in Bangalore, making people wonder whether it was a punishment or a reward. In hindsight, some of the participants were also wondering if an opportunity was missed by not targeting institutional Brahminism in the High Court bench which delayed taking a decision on the portrait of Ambedkar for more than an year. People were also reflecting on the unfortunate predicament of the state which demands a sustained movement to honour Ambedkar even after 75 years of independence.
*The author is an activist and freelance journalist who was also a columnist for Gauri Lankesh’s publication