Republican Party of India (A) president and Union Minister of State for Social Justice Ramdas Athawale believes the Bhima Koregaon episode has exposed the caste conflict between the Marathas and Dalits. In an interview to Shubhangi Khapre, he says the consolidation of Dalits was a display of their might and also a warning not to take them for granted.
Is the Bhima Koregaon violence a pointer to the resurgence of Dalits against the ruling BJP at the Centre and in Maharashtra?
The violence in Bhima Koregaon leading to mass protests by Dalits across Maharashtra has its roots in their conflict with the dominant Maratha community, which wants the scraping of the Atrocities Act. The attack against the Dalits appears to have been well-orchestrated by some sections to foment trouble. The consolidation of Dalits during the state bandh was a display of their might and also a warning not to take them for granted. It was to convey a larger social message. The objective was not political.
Why are attacks on Dalits increasing in Gujarat, UP and Maharashtra?
Yes, there have been instances of attacks on Dalits. Their economic prosperity, high position and power have thrown new challenges to the existing dominant class and caste. But an incident at Una does not mean all the Dalits across Gujarat are attacked. The Marathas’ anger is against the atrocities Act. Across the country, there are 42,000 cases under the atrocities Act.
As the RPI(A) president who is part of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, are you facing a dilemma after the Bhima Koregaon incident?
Let me make it crystal clear, my decision to support the NDA and join the Union cabinet was taken after adequate consultation and consensus within the RPI(A). On issues related to Dalits, I have been vocal both in Parliament and in the government. Nothing stopped RPI(A) workers from taking to the streets across Maharashtra. There are 3,400 cases registered against my workers for agitating in Maharashra.
Are you under pressure to withdraw support to the NDA?
There is no question of withdrawing support to the NDA. Nobody in the party has demanded that. The RPI(A) believes Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis have been pursuing policies for the larger welfare of the Dalits. Both these governments have promoted Babasaheb Ambedkar’s works. Why should Dalits oppose Fadnavis just because he is a Brahmin? It was his initiative to buy Ambedkar’s London House and make it an international study centre.
The Indu Mills land was sanctioned for Ambedkar memorial by Modi and Fadnavis. The BJP government decided to celebrate January 26, Samvidhan Diwas. There has not been a single policy reform which has been against the Dalits. So why protest in the name of caste and community.
What about the unease among the Dalits with right-wing Hindutva parties?
It’s an absolutely misplaced perception. Even if one member of my party was against the BJP, I would not have joined their government. Moreover, let me make it clear, Babasaheb Ambedkar never promoted narrow and partisan caste-and community-based politics. He was not against the Brahmins. His protest was against the dogmas and rituals which were discriminatory and caste-driven. Or else, what explains his decision to abolish the Scheduled Caste Federation after he failed to win the elections twice. He talked of uniting people across caste and community to make injustice and inequality a common cause.
Has the Gujarat polls indicated Dalits’ readiness to return to the Congress?
Across the country, including Maharashtra, there is still huge anger against the Congress. The Dalits still believe the Congress has always used them as a votebank. The rise of Dalit youth leader (MLA) Jignesh Mewani is good. But we still believe there is no credible alternative to the NDA at the Centre or Maharashtra.
Has Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh president Prakash Ambedkar replaced you as the Dalit leader of Maharashtra?
I am ready to accept his leadership and play a secondary role. But the problem is, does he elicit the support of all Dalit factions at the grassroots. The RPI(A) is still a major force to reckon with and has remained intact. Our workers played a significant role in the protests.
In the 1990s, we worked to unite all the faction-ridden organisations under a united Dalit democratic front. There was general consensus that our front should have an alliance with the Congress. However, Prakash Ambedkar was not in favour. Had he given his consent then, state politics would have taken a different turn.
What is the biggest challenge for Dalits?
Caste and class barriers are the biggest challenge as they are detrimental for the people, especially poor Dalits. We are launching a statewide drive to bring Dalits and Marathas together across districts from January 13.