(This article was first published on 6 December 2022. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives on the occasion of Ambedkar Jayanti.)
American journalist and writer John Gunther, in his book Inside Asia (1939), mentions that Dr BR Ambedkar had a library of 8,000 books. Books were Ambedkar’s most prized possessions as he gave utmost priority to cultivation of mind, a fact acutely grasped by his followers after his death.
Ambedkar died on 6 December 1956 in Delhi and was cremated at Mumbai’s Dadar Chowpatty, a place now known as Chaityabhoomi. Every year, Ambedkarites from across the country flock to Chaityabhoomi in thousands (now lakhs) to pay homage to their dearest leader.
“Every person who comes here, compulsorily leaves with a book in their hand. Old people who can’t read themselves also make it a point to buy a book or two for their children,” Gautam Sangle, a bookseller, told The Quint.
Sangle, who is 49 years old now, started selling books when he was just a schoolboy. “We would set up our stall in the sand. If the waves brought water onto the shore, we would scramble to save our books and magazines from getting wet,” he reminisced.
The Early Days
The idea of selling books on the Mahaparinirvan Din started around 1970, and the Dalit Panther founding members like Raja Dhale and JV Pawar were at the forefront of it.
“At that time there were no facilities the way you have now. There was no electricity,” Pawar states in a video on the YouTube channel ATM Network.
Dhale and Pawar would keep their own books and various magazines that were coming out around that time as a part of the Little Magazines movement, for sale at the event. But they were not enough. So they started soliciting booksellers such as Nimjibhai in Mumbai and Sugat in Nagpur and convinced them to set up their stalls on the two days of the event. Gradually, the number of booksellers increased as they realised that the visitors were hungry for books, and bookselling on Mahaparinirvan Din became an organised activity.
Sangle, who used to assist Dhale and others in his teenage years, set up his own book stall, Prashant Pustakalay, in 1992. As the event grew in size, the Mumbai municipality, around 1999-2000, gave permission to move all the stalls to Shivaji Park, the area adjacent to Chaityabhoomi. Sangle informed that the number of book stalls at the turn of the millennium was around 200-250, which now has grown to about 600-700.
Earlier, audio cassettes about the important figures in the anti-caste movement, such as the Buddha, Jotirao Phule and Ambedkar, and their photos, would have a great demand. “With the change in technology, the audio cassettes have vanished and as the number of booksellers, writers and book publishers has increased, books now overshadow everything else,” Pawar told The Quint.
He informed that some people publish special issues on the occasion of Mahaparinirvan Din, with a print run of 1,000-2,000 copies, which easily get sold.
Rewat Kaninde, who is a doctor by profession, has been visiting Chaityabhoomi on Mahaparinirvan Din since 2005. He said that here, you mostly find books aimed at the adult population.
"Children who accompany their parents miss the fun. So I thought why not distribute books to children," he told The Quint. Kaninde raised Rs 25,000 through crowdfunding so that he could distribute books about science to children for free. "Ambedkarite in the making should be the one with scientific temperament," he stated.
Bookselling Has Become an Important Part of the Entire Ambedkar Circuit
Sangle says that books written by and about Phule and Ambedkar have the most demand, and since people from across the country visit Chaityabhoomi for this event, you will find book stalls in all languages such as Kannada, Gujarati, Tamil and Hindi.
Delhi-based SS Gautam, whose stall has books in Hindi and English, started coming to Chaityabhoomi in 1996. “Babasaheb Ambedkar is probably the only icon in the world whose death anniversary has turned into a book fair,” he told The Quint.
It is not just 6 December, all the other important dates associated with Ambedkar’s life and work have become an occasion for Ambedkarites to congregate. They gather at Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur on Vijayadashami as that was the day when Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in 1956; they visit Mahad on 20 March to celebrate his satyagraha for water in 1927; and on 14 April, on his birth anniversary, there is a huge celebration in Delhi near Parliament.
Book stalls are the major attraction at all these events. Sangle’s book stall is an integral part of this Ambedkar circuit and you will find him at Shivaji Park on 6 December, at Dehu Road in Pune on 25 December (where Ambedkar had installed a Buddha statue in 1954), at Bhima Koregaon on 1 January, at Mahad on 20 March, and at Deekshabhoomi on Vijayadashami.
The total book sale at Deekshabhoomi this year was about 6.5 crore rupees. This number is expected to go up to 10 crore at Chaityabhoomi. Sangle himself sells books amounting to Rs 3-4 lakh.
Even established publishing houses like Lokvangmaya Griha, Granthali and Shabd put up their stalls at Shivaji Park. But it is the smaller, movement publishing houses that make up the majority of the books at the event as their books are relatively smaller and cheaper.
Gautam entered book publishing in 2000 and since then has published hundreds of books about Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram, Buddhism, caste and Dalit heroes; he himself has penned many of these. On the other hand, Sangle started his publishing house, Sudisha Prakashan, last year and has published two books so far.
More than profits, it is the commitment towards the Ambedkarite movement that keeps them going. “When someone comes to my stall to buy a book but doesn’t have enough money, I readily forgo my margin and sell it to them at buying cost because I want them to have the book,” says Sangle.