WITH its Dalit leaders speaking up and its attempt to highlight Dalit student Rohith Vemula as someone who “supported terrorism” finding few echoes, the BJP on Wednesday went into damage control mode.
Sources said the growing protests from the student community and the anguish expressed by Dalit leaders, including the party’s own MPs, came up for informal discussions at the Cabinet meeting. Party sources said it was Prime Minister Narendra Modi who suggested that Union ministers Smriti Irani, Thaawarchand Gehlot and Nirmala Sitharaman should address a press conference clarifying the government’s stand on the matter.
At the press conference, Irani repeatedly said the suicide of the young research scholar on the Hyderabad Central University campus was not a “caste battle”. She claimed that the protests were being misrepresented with “malicious intent” as a “Dalit vs non-Dalit confrontation” for political gain. However, she did not reply to questions on the BJP leaders’ allegations that Rohith was indulging in anti-national activities inside the campus.
BJP had earlier said that “the context of the clash between student groups was Rohith’s stand in support of terrorism, including that against the hanging of Yakub Memon”. However, Dalit leaders, including three MPs belonging to the BJP, took strong exception to Rohith’s activities being branded as anti-national.
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On Tuesday, party leaders at the BJP headquarters maintained that whatever action was taken against Rohith was against his alleged anti-national activities. On Wednesday, they argued that the entire episode looked like a “conspiracy” against the BJP.
“Before every election, there will be a debate on intolerance. Before Delhi elections, churches were attacked and there were a number of incidents in which Dalits became victims ahead of Bihar polls. There were fabricated protests too to malign the BJP. When the truth came out on these issues, everyone was silent,” said party secretary Shrikant Sharma.
He alleged that the latest campaign against the BJP was a “conspiracy” to damage its chances in the run-up to the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation elections, scheduled for next month. Pointing out that there were suicides by Dalit students on the campus earlier too — one in 2008 and two in 2013 — Sharma said, “No one even sent a condolence message then.”
With sources claiming that Dalit party leaders from different states had expressed their displeasure about the “way the BJP reacted to the incident”, there seemed to be a clear shift in the response to the crisis on Wednesday.
Speaking to The Indian Express Tuesday, BJP leader Sanjay Paswan, party MPs Sunil Baliram Gaikwad (Latur), Ramesh Chandappa Jigajinag (Bijapur, Karnataka) and Ashok Kumar Dohrey (Etawah) had disapproved the branding of Rohith’s protests as anti-national. Paswan and Gaikwad had also sought a statement from the Prime Minister on the issue.
When asked about their demand, Irani repeated that the government just wanted to clarify that the facts were “misconstrued and misrepresented” to “ignite passions” and that it was not a “caste issue” at all.
But the press conference failed to satisfy the party’s Dalit leaders. “The interpretation given by the party in the incident was wrong,” admitted a Union Minister.
“If the party does not do damage control, more Dalit MPs will come out and speak. Of the 84 Dalit MPs, the BJP has 39…They feel that they are always considered a votebank, but never as thought-bank,” said a party leader. Sources in the party admitted that the anguish among the Dalit leaders might acquire significance given the run-up to the spring-summer Assembly elections in five states.