Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks on Saturday that he “felt the pain” of a mother’s loss and the HRD Ministry’s order of a judicial probe into Dalit student Rohith Vemula’s suicide betray a growing unease in the party and the government over what many within call a “political misreading” of the incident.
Early on, at least four Dalit MPs of the BJP had disagreed with their party line and told The Indian Express that what was needed was a probe and an intervention by the Prime Minister himself. Their voices went largely unheard as the political firestorm spread. Sources said that over the last few days many leaders communicated to the government that its response to the suicide was being read by the “anguished” Dalit community as being anti-Dalit. This, they warned, could be politically damaging given elections in four states scheduled to be held later this year and the real battleground, Uttar Pradesh, next year.
Moreover, this comes, they said, just months after RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s remark in the Bihar campaign on the need for a rethink on quotas, a remark that many in the party claim hurt the BJP and prompted a series of clarifications. Incidentally, after these remarks, Modi had suggested that the Nitish-Lalu combine was plotting to steal away quotas meant for backward castes and give it to Muslims.
“Clearly, the interpretation given by the party to the (suicide) incident was wrong,” said a senior Union Minister. A senior BJP MP pointed out that if the party — and the government — does not promptly do damage control, Dalit MPs may have to come out in public. Of 84 Dalit MPs, BJP has 39.
Some Dalit leaders in the party also took strong exception to BJP general secretary P Muralidhar Rao’s remark that the “context of the clash between student groups was Rohith’s stand in support of terrorism, including against the hanging of Yakub Memon.” Rao even claimed — inaccurately — that Rohith’s family does not belong to the Dalit community. BJP’s ally LJP also demanded an independent inquiry.
Rao, when contacted today, declined to comment.
This shift in its public posture was visible on Wednesday itself when BJP spokespersons avoided any “negative” reference to Rohith but continued to allege that the campaign against the BJP on the subject was part of a “conspiracy” to damage the party ahead of Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation elections scheduled for next month.
On Wednesday, the matter came up for an informal discussion in the Cabinet and the Prime Minister asked three Ministers to address a press conference. The ministers, Smriti Irani, Nirmala Seetharaman and Thawar Chand Gehlot, did not answer any questions on the BJP’s reaction or its Dalit MPs’ criticism. Irani said that the suicide of the young research scholar was not a “caste” battle and alleged that the protests were “misrepresented” with “malicious intent” as a “Dalit vs non-Dalit confrontation” for political gain.
However, after Modi’s remarks today, the tone changed. Said BJP national secretary Siddharth Nath Singh: “What the Prime Minister said is the talk of a statesman and he spoke on humanitarian grounds. It also reflects on the political parties who try to politicise the death without getting know reasons.”
Tweeted Sanjay Paswan, a former Union Minister and a Dalit leader. “Thanks Naren bhai for breaking silence on Rohith episode and accepting mishandling by the authorities concerned at all level…yes we have hope.”
Paswan was among the few Dalit leaders who expressed their anguish against the BJP’s official stand that Rohith was “indulging in anti-national activities and fundamentalism” on the campus. Speaking to The Indian Express on Tuesday night, Paswan, party MPs Sunil Baliram Gaikwad (Latur), Ramesh Chandappa Jigajinagi (Bijapur, Karnataka) and Ashok Kumar Dohrey (Etawah) disapproved calling Rohith’s protests “änti-national.” Said Dohrey today: “I thank our Prime Minister for his intervention into the issue. His thoughts are in line with Ambedkar’s ideas.”
Meanwhile, the BJP today justified the NDA government’s move to remove the minority tag from Aligarh Muslim University. Party spokesperson M J Akbar said: “We should view this issue from the angle of Constitution and not through politics. For Government, there is only one book and that is the Constitution, as Prime Minister has said. All Central institutions have a character that is not for one or a particular section but it is secular…Now this matter is before court, Government cannot refuse its constitutional duties. It will take a position which earlier governments have taken.”
ABVP’s Uttar Pradesh organisation secretary Deepak Rishi asked the HRD Ministry to step in and stop AMU from “misusing” its minority institution status to not give quotas for SC/ST students. On January 18, Gehlot wrote to Irani thanking her for the ministry’s decision to scrap minority status for AMU and Jamia Milia Islamia University. He said this move was in line with the NDA’s Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas motto.