Minister of State of Social Justice and Empowerment, Ramdas Bandu Athawale, who is a veteran Dalit leader from Maharashtra and president of the Republican Party of India (RPI), speaks to The Indian Express on a wide range of issues — from the flogging of Dalit youths in Una to the political fallout in UP of BJP leader Dayashankar Singh’s remarks against Mayawati and the quota system — and said that “Dalits should embrace Buddhism”. Edited excerpts from an interview:
You have become a minister at a time when the BJP is being questioned among Dalits over the suicide of Hyderabad student Rohith Vemula and other incidents that have raised concern among the community. Are you feeling the heat?
Not at all. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, personally, is not anti-Dalit. The BJP, too, is talking about Babasaheb Ambedkar, saying that it is their duty to protect his Constitution. I agree that the Rohith Vemula incident was very serious. No student, Dalit or non-Dalit, should commit suicide. Before Rohith, nine other students, some of them Dalits, had committed suicide. Narendra Modi has offered me this ministry at an appropriate time. Babasaheb was in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet. After 67 years, I feel proud that I was inducted in the Union Cabinet. It will be an advantage for BJP. My party works all over India, and there are believers of Ambedkar all over the country. Since I have become a minister, it will help the BJP in UP, Uttarakhand and Punjab. If they had taken me before, they would have benefitted more. It’s late by two years but nevertheless, Narendra Modi has taken a good decision.
Is it alright for you to see the BJP supporting Swati Singh (the wife of Dayashankar Singh who was suspended by the party for his abusive remarks against Mayawati) against the Dalit leaders of BSP?
Dayashankar used an incorrect word against Mayawati. The BJP has suspended him from the party. I was perturbed by the dirty remark and condemned it, too. But now, it seems the BJP has come out to protect (him) because BSP leaders have spoken wrongly against Dayashankar’s family members.
When a powerful upper-caste group goes to a police station to lodge a complaint, how will the Dalits in UP feel? Won’t they have fear?
No. Nobody can scare Dalits just like that. Dalits have become very strong now. The BJP is not scaring Dalits. They are talking about some BSP leaders. I think both sides should clear things between them and calm down. I appreciate the BJP for taking stern action against Dayashankar. It was well done.
Following this incident, will Dalits once again consolidate behind Mayawati?
She does have Dalit support, there are Dalits who consider her their leader. Mayawati is blaming the BJP today but she could become the chief minister of UP thrice only with the help of BJP. Mayawati opposes manuvaad (casteism), so do I. But she took the help of BJP to get power. She can’t forget that. Once upon a time, the RPI was all-powerful in UP. We had ministers in the Charan Singh government. The elephant symbol once belonged to the RPI. It was only due to Kanshi Ram that she got the base. Kanshi Ram made an alliance of Dalits, Muslims and some OBC castes. He branded Brahmin, Baniya and Thakur as enemies. Kanshi Ram used to say in public rallies if any Brahmin or Thakur was in the audience, he should leave.
But Mayawati has changed the slogan of bahujanhitay, bahujansukhay (welfare of majority) to sarvajanhitay, sarvajansukhay (welfare of all). Ten years ago, Mayawati took the help of (her aide) Satish Mishra and gave tickets to Brahmins in big numbers. She will get some gains from the current controversy but we will go to the villages and explain that she had become CM four times in the past. She doesn’t have the sole right over Dalit votes. UP is our land, the land of RPI. Mayawati has encroached upon our land. I will reclaim that land from her. If not all, I will get back some part of my land, at least.
Many Dalits perceive the BJP as a Brahmin-Baniya party. How do you respond to them now?
It was a Brahmin-Baniya party, today it is not. The BJP got 71 seats in UP in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, which means that Dalits of UP have voted for it. It means Dalits have accepted the leadership of Modi and not viewed his party as anti-Dalit. But I believe it’s the duty of the government to protect Dalits.
How do you view the continuing atrocities against Dalits? What’s your view of the incident in Una, where a group of Dalits were flogged for skinning a dead cow?
I have condemned it. My workers have gone to Una. But during Congress rule, so many such incidents have happened. How have you forgotten those? The BJP has condemned the Una incident, as well. You saw how strict action has been taken against the attackers. The common man doesn’t think the BJP is responsible for atrocities against Dalits.
What’s your view on gau rakshaks who attacked Dalits in Gujarat and Muslims in MP?
The Una incident is very serious. I want to ask gau rakshaks: There is a law against gau hatya (killing of cows), you continue with gau raksha (protection of cows), but why do manav hatya (killing of human beings)? If you do gau raksha, who will do manav raksha (protection of human beings)? They should not beat people. If we don’t skin dead cows, who will do it? It’s not illegal to make leather from the skin of dead bulls and cows. By protecting cows in a violent way, they are defaming their state and the government. The government should deliberate on how to take action against these people who take the law in their hands. The government should ensure that such incidents are not repeated.
What is the impact of these cow protectors and their vigilantism on Dalits and Muslims?
I respect the feelings about cows, let us not kill them. I am a Buddhist. I still respect the sentiments of Hindus. (The ban on cow slaughter) is a law belonging to Babasaheb’s Constitution. These gau rakshaks should follow rules so that such violent incidents are not repeated.
Dadagiri (bullying) should be avoided. Dalits face a lot of trouble on other fronts, too. Often, inter-caste marriages are opposed if a Dalit boy or girl is involved. The families of Dalit girls or boys suffer so much when murders take place due to such marriages. Police take the entire Dalit family into custody for no fault of their own. We should do something about it. I am a firm believer that to remove casteism we should encourage inter-caste marriages. We should give protection to such marriages. It will unify Indian society. I am married to a woman from a Brahmin family. She is from Benaras. They didn’t come to murder me. People should accept inter-caste marriages. My ministry will work to promote inter-caste marriages. I believe there should be arranged marriages among different castes.
As a Buddhist, how do you find the state of your religion in India when the BJP, which mainly represents Hindu sentiments, is in power?
Buddhism is doing fine in India. RSS ka chehara Hindutvawadi ho sakta hai, lekin BJP ka chehara utna Hindutvawadi nahi hai (The face of RSS may be Hindutva, but the BJP’s face is not so much about Hindutva). Narendra Modi kept a statue of Buddha at his home in Gandhinagar. At his office, too, he had one. On many occasions, he has said that he is where he is due to the Constitution of Babasaheb Ambedakar. I have a desire, to keep the statue of Buddha in Parliament. For the sake of peace, we should have it. It’s my regret that it’s not there. I will work for it. I will meet the Prime Minister soon and request it.
Do Buddhists feel safe in India? Mayawati once spoke about it.
Mayawati is doing politics over Babasaheb. But she is not following him truly. Mayawati criticises Hindutva but she has not accepted Buddhism. Mayawati is a Hindu. Why is Mayawati not Buddhist, yet, if she claims to be a true Ambedkarite? She keeps criticising Manuvaad, talks about conversions but has not accepted Buddhism. She announced her conversion many times but remains a Hindu. Dalits should embrace Buddhism. The other castes are fine if they merely support Ambedkar and Buddhism. There is no pressure on me because I am a Buddhist. I have a very good relationship with Narendra Modi, I have a good relationship with (BJP president) Amit Shah.
What are the top three suggestions from you to the Modi government for the upliftment of Dalits?
During the Indira Gandhi government, a decision was taken to keep 15 per cent of Budgetary allocation for the SC plan. It’s not a law but a government order. The condition of Dalits is improving but more needs to be done. Two, reservation should be there for promotions in government jobs. A Reservation Act should be made and the government should see that its implementation is done strictly. If any government officer shows laxity in filling up reserved posts, he should be punished. And, provision of reservation should be added in the ninth schedule of Constitution. It will protect the reservation system better.
Right now, SCs (15 per cent), STs (7.5 per cent) and OBCs (27 per cent) have 49.5 per cent reservation. But their population is much more. The SCs are 16.6 per cent, tribals are 8.6 per cent and OBCs 52 per cent. So, for a population of 77 per cent, you are giving a reservation of only 49.5 per cent.
In effect, those who are 23 per cent of the population have access to 51.5 per cent non-reserved space. So, in view of the agitations for reservation by Jats, Patels, Thakurs, Marathas and others, we should think fresh. We should not touch SC, ST and OBC reservation but consider 20-25 per cent reservation for the remaining 23 per cent population on the basis of economically backward criteria. We should apply the creamy layer criteria and keep economically forward people out of the scheme. It will end the quarrel over reservation because then, 100 per cent Indians will get reservation. Three decades ago, OBCs were saying that they are not backward but today they have reservation and asking for more. Babasaheb were not against any castes, he was against casteism.
Should Muslims get reservation, too?
In the Mandal commission, 80 per cent of poor Muslims are covered. The Constitution doesn’t allow religion-based reservation. For them, we should think separately so that they can get an advantage.