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'Hard-line' Hindu to Ambedkar fan

 Lokesh and Shweta Sharma at the celebration on Sansad Marg

New Delhi: Lokesh Sharma says he was a "kattar" (hard-line) Hindu till love opened his eyes.

"I did not really know who Ambedkar was till six months ago," he told The Telegraph.

On Saturday, this newspaper had caught him exchanging phone numbers with the largely Dalit youths celebrating Ambedkar's birth anniversary on Sansad Marg.

It was while working as a salesman in Amravati, Maharashtra, in 2016 that the Delhi boy's life changed. He met Shweta, a Dalit who had graduated from a Bangalore college.

The couple, who are in their mid-20s, remained in touch through Facebook and got married last year.

"Our parents initially opposed us but had to relent," Sharma said with a shy smile. The couple now live with his parents in north Delhi.

"Facebook facilitated our marriage but most of Facebook is filled with hatred. Even the few upper caste people who are not casteist develop a hatred for the lower castes reading the fake quotes and wrong factual claims circulated on Facebook."

He added: "Before I met Shweta and got to know her family, even I believed all that. I've stopped reading these posts and now rely on Rajya Sabha TV, Doordarshan and Ambedkarite YouTube channels for news."

Sharma used to be an opponent of reservations too. "The world is unjust to everyone in some way, why should a few get extra benefits because of their birth?" is how he used to think, without any irony.

"But working outside Delhi, particularly in Maharashtra where I got to know her people, changed my outlook. I saw from close the discrimination they face every day - all around us - while we don't even notice," Sharma said.

Shweta said she was from a "Bahujan family" but was apolitical until "Koregaon Bhima" happened.

Koregaon Bhima is where the East India Company's predominantly Mahar Dalit force of 824 men defeated the 28,000-strong, Maratha-dominated army of Peshwa Baji Rao II on January 1, 1818. This ended the century-long rule of the Brahmin Peshwas, known for imposing denigrating laws on Dalits.

In 1926, Ambedkar began an annual gathering of his mostly Mahar Dalit followers at the site. On the war's bicentenary this year, Ambedkarites were attacked by radical Hindu mobs, the flying stones killing a 28-year-old Maratha passer-by.

"Politicians make us fight. Social media poisons minds, which led to the attacks on us. I began to take an interest in Ambedkar after that and that's why I'm here," Shweta said.

She exchanged phone numbers with a group of Marathi Dalits living in Delhi: WhatsApp groups are the thread that binds them.

Sharma motioned towards the stalls selling Ambedkarite and Marxist literature, Bahujan T-shirts and accessories, and floats of Ambedkar and Dalit saint Guru Ravidas.

"I must admit, I haven't read much," he said. "But the commentaries on Ambedkar on YouTube are very good. What struck me is that the man struggled so much, suffered so much, but still said, ' Badla nahi, badlav chahiye (We need reform, not retribution)'."

This newspaper could not cross-check this quote, but there are several instances of Ambedkar shunning retaliation as a political instrument, such as after the Mahad Satyagraha (1927), where Dalits faced attacks for trying to drink water from a tank.

The bestsellers at the bookstalls were a Hindi translation of Ambedkar's Annihilation of Caste, S.P. Kashyap's Ambedkar on Hindutva, J.V. Pawar's history of the Dalit Panthers and Bhagat Singh's essay, To Young Political Workers.

The Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations on Sansad Marg date back to the installation of Babasaheb's statue in Parliament in 1967. They took their current form - of stalls put up by Ambedkarite and Dalit unions on both sides of the road - in the 1980s.

The occasion is usually festive but on Saturday there were also groups of youths chanting slogans against the "dilution" of the SC/ST Atrocities Act and the department-wise implementation that has reduced quota jobs in universities.

Some youths, apparently Bahujan Samaj Party supporters, disrupted a speech by BJP parliamentarian and Dalit activist Udit Raj.

Raj told this newspaper: "The atmosphere was heavily charged. Many asked questions about employment, the roster (quota implementation) system and the Atrocities Act.... The Prime Minister has to take a call on issues like recruitment."

At the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry stall, young Dalits walked in and introduced themselves in halting English. Most of them were engineering students who asked about entrepreneurship opportunities.

L. Chandra, the chamber's vice-president for Uttar Pradesh, said: "The youth don't ask us for jobs. They want to start something on their own."

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