Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale insists that Dalit anger is not directed at the government.
SHALINI NAIR: In its March 20 ruling, the Supreme Court said there were ‘instances of abuse’ of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by ‘vested interests’ for political or personal reasons, and laid down guidelines for arrests under the Act ‘to avoid false implications’. It was only after protests from several quarters that on August 1, the Union Cabinet approved an amendment to the Act to undo the ‘dilution’ of the law. The government has faced criticism and anger from Dalits over the delay.
I agree that there is anger and resentment among Dalits. However, it is not in particular for this government. The Atrocities Act was first made in 1989 and before that there was the Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) Act, 1955, despite which atrocities against Dalits kept increasing — from 45,000 cases a year to 47-48,000 a year. People were murdered, houses were burnt down, women were raped and murdered. There were long debates in Parliament and MPs from all castes admitted to the atrocities against Dalits. The MPs agreed to a law to protect Dalits.
Under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, committing atrocities was a non-bailable offence. The Act was meant to create fear of law and worked as a deterrent. There was a person named Subhash Mahajan against whom one (Bhaskar) Gaikwad had filed a case under the Atrocities Act. Mahajan’s bail plea was rejected by the Mumbai High Court but he later went to the Supreme Court. In March this year, the Supreme Court judge observed that 90 per cent of the cases of atrocities were false, which led to unrest among Dalits.
After this, we all, including (LJP leader) Ram Vilas Paswan, met the Prime Minister on the issue. The PM then ordered a review and we also filed a review petition in court. That case is still pending. However, the Narendra Modi government kept the sentiments of the Dalits in mind and the Cabinet took a decision.
We do not agree with the court’s observation that 90 per cent of the cases are false. When Dalits are murdered, their houses are burnt, it is not false. In Subhash Mahajan’s case, the court could have said that the evidence does not show enough proof to say that an atrocity has been committed and that he should be set free.
SHALINI NAIR: The Dalit anger is not just directed at the court. There is anger over several issues, including the arrests made in the April 2 Bharat Bandh.
I feel if the government is doing good work, there should not be objections. There was a lot of bayaan-baazi (tall claims) during the Congress government’s rule. The Modi government follows the principle of ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’ and has been promoting the ideals of Babasaheb Ambedkar. Narendra Modi has said that if it was not for Ambedkar’s Constitution, a tea-seller could not have come to power.
As far as the arrests are concerned, there was a lot of damage done in the Jat agitation as well, and their cases were heard and people were released. Cases related to the Dalit agitation should be fast-tracked too.
COOMI KAPOOR: At times, under the Atrocities Act, innocent people also get arrested. The Subhash K Mahajan vs State of Maharashtra was a clear case of misuse.
Upper-caste officers often insult people from lower castes, and so the cases are put under the Atrocities Act. There can be a controversy in one or two cases. The court could have just said that there was injustice in the Mahajan case. There should not be any misuse of the Act. If anyone misuses it, we always oppose it.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: How does the Dalit community view the Marathas’ demand for reservation in jobs and education?
Dalits and Marathas have a very good relationship in villages because the Marathas are zamindars and the Dalits are labourers. If Dalits don’t work in the fields of the Marathas, there will be no crops. After Babasaheb Ambedkar’s movement, after the movement of the Dalit Panthers, we taught our people not to commit any injustice towards anyone. But if someone disrespects us, we will not tolerate it either.
For admission to an MBBS course, the cut-off for us is around 93-95 per cent and the cut-off for the general category students is 97-98 per cent. But once a Dalit student gets admission, there is no other advantage; there is nothing to ensure that they pass the course. It is based on merit, for Dalits and the other students. Dalit children study under streetlights, live in slums, and then score 90 per cent marks. A student with all the facilities gets 98 per cent. This shows that a Dalit student is no less intelligent.
The Dalit position is that the Marathas should be given reservation. I have been demanding for 20 years that without compromising on reservation for the SC/ST community, of the remaining 50 per cent, 25 per cent should be given to those who are not in the SC, ST and OBC categories.
Every community has economically backward people. In the Maratha community too there are poor people and so I have supported their demand for reservation. However, we object to granting all forms of reservation solely on economic grounds.
The Supreme Court’s order preventing reservation above 50 per cent has stopped states from increasing quotas. But whether it is the Marathas, Thakurs, Patidars, or Rajputs, a separate list should be made and communities must be given 20-25 per cent reservation. There should be an amendment brought in Parliament and only then can the issues be resolved.
The Maratha agitation has intensified. Earlier, they took out peace marches but now they are burning cars, vandalising etc. Similarly, the Jat and Patel agitations have also intensified.
We are proud that there was a time when OBCs were not ready to consider themselves backward. They considered Dalits backward. Even the Maratha community was not ready to be treated as backward. But now since there is inflation, and since there is less opportunity in education, things have changed.
I raised this issue twice in NDA meetings. The issue should be heard in Parliament and the scope of reservation should be increased from 50 per cent to 75 per cent. This will automatically result in reservation for everyone.
SHALINI NAIR: Is there consensus on this — increasing the reservation from 50 per cent to 75 per cent? Why hasn’t it been taken up yet?
When NDA meetings happen, there is discussion on the issue. Every party puts forward its opinion to the Prime Minister. But my party also feels that reservation is also one of the reasons for atrocities on Dalits. The others feel that they (the Dalits) get reservation and we don’t. But once a law is passed (to increase reservation) — (NCP chief) Sharad Pawar has also said that the law should be passed — then automatically there will be unity in society.
Casteism will not end overnight but I feel that there has been change in society. People go to the homes of Dalits and eat food… So there has been some kind of change but casteism hasn’t ended.
There are still people whose minds are plagued with casteism and that is why we need inter-caste marriages. I feel that will stop casteism. Now, across the country, every year, there are about 50,000- 60,000 inter-caste marriages. My Ministry and the Dr Ambedkar Foundation give Rs 2.5 lakh to inter-caste couples. In Rajasthan, they give Rs 5 lakh and in other states you get Rs 1 lakh or Rs 50,000. I had an inter-caste marriage; my wife is Brahmin. Brahmins visit my home but they don’t consider me a Brahmin and I don’t consider them Dalit. But there is a relationship. Inter-caste marriages can help bring change in society.
RITIKA CHOPRA: The government has faced criticism for always ‘reacting’ and not ‘acting’ when it comes to Dalit issues. For instance, the Allahabad High Court’s UGC order came in April last year but the government only challenged the order in the Supreme Court in March this year, following protests by the SC/ST community. Finally, the order was stopped once the issue was raised in Parliament.
It is not that the government has taken a long time. That isn’t the case. I can understand the emotions of the Dalit community, but if issues are being addressed, there is no reason to remain angry. The UGC issue is being settled. (Following the Allahabad High Court ruling in April 2017, the UGC ordered that reservation in teaching posts should be calculated department-wise, instead of basing the quotas on the number of posts available at a university).
Reservation should be brought under the Ninth Schedule (any law under it can’t be challenged in court) because someone always goes to court and the issue is raised again.
LALMANI VERMA: Several Dalit MPs have objected to the appointment of Justice (retd) A K Goel as National Green Tribunal (NGT) Chairman since he is the judge who ruled in the SC/ST Act case. What is your view on this?
Even the PMO did not know how he got posted (to the NGT) after giving such a judgment. We still demand that he should be removed. It is not necessary for every retired judge to get a posting to the Tribunal.
SHALINI NAIR: While you support inter-caste marriages, when it is an inter-religious marriage between a Hindu and Muslim, it gets tagged as ‘love jihad’.
Hindu-Muslim marriages should happen but the problem is who will convert — who will become Hindu or who will become Muslim after marriage. I think that is why there are fewer Hindu-Muslim marriages.
LIZ MATHEW: You have been in a tie-up with the BJP for four years now. The past years have seen a lot of violence against Dalits in the name of cow protection. What is your view on that?
Even before this, Dalits and Muslims were attacked. It is not that since the BJP came to power there are atrocities against Dalits and Muslims in the name of caste and religion. There should be cow protection but we are against the objection to beef consumption. In Goa, Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar categorically said that the state has a large Christian community that eats beef and that they cannot be restricted.
It is true that under the BJP government, Dalits and Muslims are targeted but it happened under the Congress’s rule too. This mentality has not come about all of a sudden. Some incidents have happened but it is not that they are happening every day. About 14-15 per cent of the country’s population is Muslim and I tell them that they should not be scared. This government is about ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’ and the responsibility of the security of Muslims is on us. Whenever there is an atrocity, or some form of torture, people have been arrested. In Una (where seven Dalits were allegedly flogged by a group of gau rakshaks in July 2016), 10-12 policemen were suspended and all the accused were arrested. So, anyone who takes the law into their hands should be given the strictest punishment.
LALMANI VERMA: Will the Cabinet’s decision to approve an amendment to the SC/ST Act be beneficial to the NDA or a disadvantage?
In a democracy, everyone has the freedom to vote for anyone. We have not taken the decision keeping the elections in mind. Irrespective of whether we get votes or not, we have sympathy for Dalits and it is not for publicity. In 2014, the BJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi got over 70 Lok Sabha seats in UP. Mayawati did not get a single seat. This means that at least 12-13 per cent of the Dalit votes were cast in favour of the BJP. In the UP Assembly too, the BJP has over 300 seats and it means that there too the Dalits have voted for the party in substantial numbers. Not all people from a community vote for the same party.
The Modi government is good to Dalits and has high regard for Babasaheb. We are with the BJP and we will win the 2019 match. Under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, the Congress party will not get more than 80-90 seats. There are too many prime ministerial candidates in the Opposition and there is little scope for a unanimous decision. There can be a reduction in seats in UP but the NDA will form the government.
COOMI KAPOOR: Some people believe that the RSS is very casteist in its philosophy and thinking. What is your opinion?
I don’t support the Hindutva line of the RSS, but they too are trying to bring about some internal changes. The BJP was initially a party of Brahmins but today the BJP is a party for all. If Modiji had not given the slogan of ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’ then probably not all sections of society would have voted for him. We have differences with the RSS on a lot of issues but we are not with the RSS, we are with the BJP, we are with Narendra Modi. And, it is not as if Modiji listens to the RSS on every matter. There is a need for the RSS to bring about changes within itself and its view of the Hindu Rashtra.
It is the government’s responsibility to protect Muslims in the country. There are nationalist Muslims who have firmly opposed those who have carried out acts of terror. Several Muslim groups have also taken a stand. Creating and maintaining unity between Hindus and Muslims is our responsibility.
LALMANI VERMA: Do you think the BJP’s tally will come down in UP in 2019?
We lost three seats by small margins after the SP and BSP joined hands. In 2014, there was a Modi wave, which has not entirely lost its steam. Even in Bihar, where Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar and the Congress had joined forces, the BJP had bagged a few seats. Similarly, the BJP may get 20-25 less seats in UP, the party will have to accept that. It will not be right for the BJP to say that they will get all the seats.
But people did not have much interest in the bypolls and Modi didn’t campaign there. In 2019, we will go to the people with the list of all that we have achieved in the past five years. In the next few months, we will try to tackle price rise, reduce fuel cost etc.
Rahul Gandhi will not be able to stand before Modi. Even hugging him won’t help. In the past, the Congress used to win as there was no credible alternative. A large section of the youth believe Modiji deserves one more chance. The BJP will do well in the Northeast. If the Shiv Sena parts ways, the BJP will suffer some damage in Maharashtra. The BJP will also experience some setback in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan. But I believe it will retain power in 2019.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: Say the BJP gets around 230-240 seats in 2019 and parties in the NDA say they are ready to support the BJP but want Narendra Modi to be replaced as PM.
Even if the BJP gets something around 220-240 seats, Modiji will be able to run a stable government. Modiji will not be out of the picture. The YSR Congress may come with us, a united AIADMK might come. It is not as if Modiji’s name will not be considered. His name may not be considered in 2024. He will have to lead the country between 2019-2024.
LIZ MATHEW: What if the Shiv Sena parts ways with the BJP?
If the Shiv Sena does not stay with the BJP, it will suffer more losses. The party will not break but a large number of Shiv Sena leaders, including MPs, may break away and join the BJP. The RPI will remain with the BJP.