Ram Vilas Paswan is credited with helping remove the tag of ‘political untouchability’ from Narendra Modi by becoming the first prominent leader to rejoin the NDA after having quit it following the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Known for correctly judging which way the wind is blowing, the Lok Janshakti Party leader had left the Congress side right before the 2014 polls and is now a significant Dalit face in the NDA. A nine-time MP from Bihar, he is now serving as Union minister under a sixth prime minister.
ANAND MISHRA: There are many Dalit faces in this government, including you. Despite that, there is growing discontent in the Dalit community against the Centre. Do you think this will have a negative impact on the results of the coming state elections for the NDA?
These incidents should not be politicised. This (the atrocities on Dalits) is a sickness and shameful for our country. After B R Ambedkar drafted the Constitution, it brought a certain sense of unity among Dalits and they began fighting for their rights. A volcano erupts when pressure is put on it, and that is what we are seeing now.
These incidents that are happening… the country must bow its head in shame. But not all incidents should be seen through the prism of caste. So let’s say you believe that the Shudras are your feet. Now if your legs and feet are paralysed, then what purpose will strong hands and a healthy body serve? How will you walk? The poor condition of Dalits is hampering the progress of the country.
But you can’t say that these incidents are happening because of the NDA government. These cases are being reported from states. There are incidents in Uttar Pradesh, do you have an NDA government there? Similar incidents are happening in Bihar, there is no NDA government there. These incidents are shameful and every section of society should oppose them.
ANAND MISHRA: But with such incidents on the rise, don’t Dalit ministers and MPs risk losing their vote base?
No, no. The speed and efficiency with which the NDA government has responded to these attacks, no other government has been able to do this in the past. Immediately after the (Una, July 11) incident, Home Minister (Rajnath Singh) made a statement in Parliament. Under which government has a special court been set up for speedy trial? (The Gujarat government ordered a CID probe and set up a special court for the Una trial.)
The Home Minister has said that the Prime Minister is concerned about the Una incident. Which prime minister would want such an incident to happen?
When I became a Lok Sabha MP in 1977, I saw that there were photographs of many ministers in the Central Hall, but none of Babasaheb Ambedkar. In 1989, when the VP Singh government came, Babasaheb’s portrait was put up. Now we have Modiji’s government and Babasaheb Ambedkar is respected by all. The Prime Minister has also bought the place where Babasaheb stayed while studying in London and made it a memorial.
Dalit ministers and MPs, such as me, are pained by the atrocities against members of our community. There is a law to handle such cases, the SC and ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. But then I keep saying that the Act is different, fact is different and tact is different. The Act needs to be implemented strictly.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: Why has Prime Minister Narendra Modi not made a statement on the Una incident?
When you are in the Opposition, your job is to speak and demand. But when you are in the government, you must act. Look at the prompt reaction of the government after the incident. A special court was set up and a chargesheet was sought in 60 days.
ASHUTOSH BHARDWAJ: Don’t you believe that a certain Brahmanical mentality is responsible for the crimes against Dalits? And one of the biggest supporters of this mentality is the RSS.
I agree with your first point that these incidents happen because of a mentality. There is a caste system in this country and it has a very big role to play… The caste system has ruined this country. We all are against it. Time and again we say that to end the caste system, we need to find a solution for roti (food) and beti (women). We have tackled the food problem to some extent, but there has been no solution to the issues that women face in the country. We still have khap panchayats, honour killings continue… Changing this mentality is important.
When we talk about issues confronting the Dalit community, there is a lot of hue and cry. There is tension in society… Who will lift the dead animals? Who will clean our homes?
Speaking of the RSS… we have people with different mentalities in this country. In a parliamentary democracy, the prime minister is the head of the country. I can say this with conviction that in the last two years, the Prime Minister has raised neither the Babri Masjid case nor Article 370. He has only been working for development. His statements never reek of caste or religion.
ASHUTOSH BHARDWAJ: But doesn’t the RSS, and in turn the BJP government, nurture this mentality?
I do not agree with this Brahmanical order, that people from upper castes have a different nature and temperament. There are Dalits who go to the temple every day and pray and then there are Brahmins who do not pray at all. So in such a case, who among the two is adhering to tradition?
Take V P Singh’s case. He was from Uttar Pradesh, he was neither a Dalit nor a Muslim, he was born into an upper caste family — in fact he was born into a royal family — and he was praised by all. But when VP Singh brought the Mandal Commission for Dalits, he faced a lot of criticism from people of his caste. There are people who act like the Mandal messiah, be it Lalu Prasad or Nitish Kumar, but nobody remembers V P Singh.
So anybody, from any caste, who fights what you call the Brahmanical order, he will have to face resistance.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: But shouldn’t the Prime Minister send out a message to his own MPs and leaders who make anti-Dalit statements and speak out against members of other communities?
He talks to them. Whenever there is a meeting, he asks leaders repeatedly not to digress from the issue. He asks us to stick to issues that are important to us — development, youths etc.
LIZ MATHEW: The issue of cow vigilantes had come up after the Dadri incident too, after Mohd Akhlaq was lynched by a mob. But neither the Prime Minister nor people like you spoke out against such groups then. After Dadri, there were also warnings that such incidents could happen against Dalits too, and now these are happening. Are there people now who want to come out and speak against these groups and such incidents?
We talk at the right forums. After Una, the Home Minister made a statement in Parliament. In the case of Dadri, the matter is in court, what can the Prime Minister say about it? And as far as such incidents are concerned, the entire country is condemning it.
SUSHANT SINGH: Because of the PM’s silence, people might feel that Dalit issues are less of a priority for Modi and his government.
The Una case was handled with complete seriousness and swiftness by the Gujarat government, and the Central government also followed the case. There is no NDA government in Bihar, there is no NDA or BJP government in UP… in whichever state there are atrocities against Dalits, the culprits should face strict action.
SHYAMLAL YADAV: The RSS has demanded that the minority institution status of Aligarh Muslim University should be taken away, because Dalits and students from other backward castes fail to get admission there.
The demand is that if you call for reservations for Dalits, reservation should be everywhere and must be applicable to all universities, minority institutions or otherwise. It is a constitutional matter.
We are part of the NDA (National Democratic Alliance). My party’s (Lok Janshakti Party) manifesto is separate. But as a part of the NDA, we have a Common Minimum Programme. When it comes to matters of the government, we can’t say that we agree with this and disagree with that, though my party’s stand can be different. The AMU case is being heard in court and its decision will be accepted.
ANAND MISHRA: You said that the Prime Minister’s main agenda is development. Who then, in your opinion, is trying to derail his agenda?
I wouldn’t like to comment on the group that is trying to derail the Prime Minister’s agenda. In every party, in every religion, there are such people. There are always going to be people who will keep bringing such issues to the fore, but it’s the government’s duty to ensure social justice. Then comes economic and political justice. You cannot play around with social justice. It was the Prime Minister who said: “I won’t let reservation be abolished for as long as I am alive.”
SHEELA BHATT: Amit Shah recently said that your party too is encouraging dynastic politics.
I am an MP, my brother is an MP, my son is an MP; I cannot deny it. Ram Chandra Paswan (Paswan’s brother) has been an MP for 15 years, Chirag (Paswan’s son) fought elections from a constituency battling Naxalism (Jamui)… I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but it is what it is.
Amit Shah didn’t criticise… I got a call and (BJP MP) Bhupender Yadavji also issued a statement that it wasn’t criticism.
SHEELA BHATT: You have worked with several prime ministers in the past. Can you tell us the difference in working with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Prime Minister Modi?
When I write a book towards the end of my life, then I will write about these experiences. All I can say is that Narendra Modi is all about work, and no one can deny this. Work means Narendra Modi and Narendra Modi means work. In five days, he travels from Saudi Arabia to Mexico and the USA. He works all day, forgets about food, addresses international gatherings… He obviously has some charisma.
ANAND MISHRA: The Nitish Kumar government has brought several amendments to tighten the prohibition law in Bihar, including one that will hold culpable all the adults of a family if any member is found drinking, possessing or selling liquor from the premises they occupy. On the contrary, you have spoken out against the tax on toddy.
It is important to note that outside Bihar Nitish Kumar says that the consumption of alcohol needs to end, but in Bihar there are 16 places where alcohol is being made and new licences are being issued. I want to ask him why is this alcohol being manufactured in the first place? For international sales? You talk about banning consumption of liquor all over the country but you manufacture it in factories in your own state.
In the villages they (Bihar government) have given district magistrates the power to punish the entire village if a group of people from that place are found consuming alcohol. The whole family will be sent to jail if alcohol is found in someone’s house, including the women of the family. There is a penalty of Rs 10 lakh and jail term of 10 years. An inspector has been given the right to conduct searches. Isn’t this plain madness? I tweeted that if the family of a person who drinks or sells liquor can be punished, then why should the head of the state be spared, because that is where the incident is taking place. It is natural justice.
Go to Bihar and look at the condition of the people. They are all drowning but the head of the state is trying to distract people from the real problem by repeatedly talking about the “ban on alcohol” like a parrot. I have been protesting against this and will do so in the Vidhan Sabha too.
I am in favour of a ban on liquor, but you know what has happened after this ban on alcohol? The demand for opium, marijuana and cannabis has risen in Bihar. A person who is used to drinking a lot can lose his mind if it is suddenly banned.
VANDITA MISHRA: But then you are also saying that you are in favour of banning liquor.
I am in favour of the ban in the sense that a strong provision should be made, listing the kind of liquor which can be sold and which cannot be. If people in a village are consuming poisonous alcohol and dying, take action against that.
For 10 years in Bihar, the state government opened a liquor shop in every nook and corner. In 10 years, bottles have replaced books in Bihar, and then suddenly after 10 years, they get this brain wave, and now poor families are being sent to the jail.
SHYAMLAL YADAV: You have been a supporter of reservation in the private sector. Have you shared your views with Prime Minister Modi?
Our party has been demanding reservation in the private sector. We have also sought reservations in promotions. We want the SC/ST atrocities Act to be implemented strictly. Dalits and Adivasis constitute the most downtrodden sections of the society. Today, many members of the Adivasi community have become Naxals because they feel that they are not getting justice.
SHYAMLAL YADAV: In Agra, the BJP failed to draw even 500 Dalit supporters for the Dhamma Chetna Yatra backed by it. You will be heading to UP to campaign for the BJP soon. Do you think Mayawati will gain from these episodes of Dalit violence?
I said earlier that it’s not about the BJP or NDA, it is about equality and justice. I was the first to criticise the comments against Mayawati (expelled BJP leader Dayashankar Singh had compared Mayawati to a prostitute). What he said was wrong and today he is in jail. But Mayawati’s people also did the same thing to his (Dayashankar’s) wife and daughter. Why haven’t they been punished? This makes people in the state angry.