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‘Where is the honour in honour killings? A killing is a killing’

Union Minister for Tourism,Urban Poverty Alleviation and Housing,Kumari Selja was at the Express for an Idea Exchange. In this session moderated by Senior Editor,Politics,Vandita Mishra,she talks about khap panchayats,discrimination against Dalits,reservations and urbanisation....

Written by The Indian Express |
June 6, 2010 2:34:58 am

Vandita Mishra: What does it mean to be a politician who is a woman and a Dalit from a state which has been in the news for all the wrong reasons—the Mirchpur incident involving violence against Dalits or khap panchayat demands on gotra marriages? What do you have to say about these problems?

My father was a prominent leader of Punjab,and then Haryana. He happened to be a Dalit. In his time,there were no such labels. After he passed away,I was asked to join politics and contest in his place. I contested in 1988 from my father’s constituency,Sirsa—I belong to Hissar,and before the delimitation of 1975,our village was also part of the Sirsa parliamentary constituency. I was about 25 years old,absolutely new,raw. I owned just two cotton suits then. I remember,during campaigning,there were dust storms all the time. You could not see the sun. Often,we could not even see the road. We did not have AC cars. We travelled in an Ambassador. At one point the engine heated up and in some village,they put Rooh Afza in it because they thought it will cool the engine better!

Basically,Haryana is dominated by one caste,the Jats. But traditionally it hasn’t been like that. These are incidents which need to be tackled very sensitively. We—and I,as a Dalit—should understand people’s feelings and respond to that. I have to empathise,I have to act as a bridge. I think it is for the leaders to come forward,whether they belong to political parties,whether they are political activists or come from khap panchayats.

Most of us who come from villages subscribe to this concept of not marrying within the gotra. I do not think it is such an issue. We are Arya Samajis and the Arya Samaj has been at the forefront of social reformation. So we have always supported social change when it is for the better. We need to be forward-looking. Scientifically,you cannot dispute that marrying into the same gotra is not good. It is a complicated thing. But when these issues go to an extreme,it is wrong. Where is the honour in honour killings? A killing is a killing. You cannot take the law into your own hands,and I think the Congress is very clear on this matter: the Constitution is supreme.

Dhiraj Nayyar: Do you favour a caste census?

I will not give you my personal view because I am part of the government and we are still taking a view on it.

Dhiraj Nayyar: Do you think reservations,as they exist now,especially for SCs and STs,are helpful?

To some extent,they have helped. Take my own example: had it not been for reservations,through which my father came into politics,I would probably have been relegated to a corner in my village.

coomi kapoor: Would you agree with the argument about creamy layers in reservations?

I think the time has come to take a look at that. There are certain sections of the society that are the most deprived and they should be given the benefit of these schemes.

Vandita Mishra: In Bihar,Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has identified several of the state’s Dalit castes as ‘mahadalit’,ostensibly for better targeting of government schemes. How would you view such a strategy?

Many states have toyed with such ideas,some have taken steps towards this,but the last I heard was that the Supreme Court did not approve of a quota within a quota. When we talk about the poorest,by and large,they will be SCs. SCs faced double discrimination. Even today,you might say that I have ‘arrived’. Nothing in me suggests that I should be an SC in the sense of receiving benefits or to be treated as such.

But,at the end of the day,there is still discrimination. Many times,I have seen students,who are doing very well otherwise,getting very low grades in internal assessments. It still happens. Why? It is the mentality. Let us face it. Many of you might not be aware of what I am talking about because you have led a different kind of life in different circumstances in a different milieu. But it is the reality of this huge country where such things still do exist. I remember when I was in college,there were many girls who would,in my earshot,pass casteist comments. It did not bother me but it does leave some kind of a mark.

Amitabh Sinha: As tourism minister,a lot of what you would like to do depends on the decisions of other ministries. If you want to give tax breaks to hotels,you have to approach the Finance Ministry. If you want a relaxation in visa norms,you have to go to the Ministry of External Affairs or the Home Ministry. Is it a handicap that you are not empowered to take many decisions?

That is absolutely true. There is so much we want to do. But it is easier to do things in the states rather than at the Centre. There are so many ministries,so many departments we work with. Indirectly,we can benefit. For example,if there is a good airport in Delhi,tourism benefits. If the systems are better,tourism benefits. If you have a better economic scenario in the country,tourism benefits. Tourism does not mean only people coming to visit the heritage sites. In a growing economy,there will be business travellers,there will be people who come for holidays,there will be people who will come for adventure sports. Our country needs to become a more tourist-friendly nation,we need to welcome our tourists. That culture still has to develop.

Coomi Kapoor: There is this old complaint that the people who man the entry desks at the international airports are temperamentally unsuited.

I pointed out this fact to the Cabinet a few days ago. I said,it is good to keep track of the tourists,but we need to keep an eye on our own officers as well. We need to put our best foot forward. I have said that we will spend all the money we can on making improvements. I have written to the home minister about this too.

DK Singh: How do you assess the performance of the Bhupinder Singh Hooda Government in Haryana?

He is a Congress chief minister. Congress did come back as the largest party after five years even if we did not get a majority. We came down considerably,but we did form the government.

DK Singh: You are the Dalit face of the Congress in Haryana…

Why do you label us? I am a Congress face who is a Dalit.

DK Singh: How do you explain the fact that the only seat BSP has won in Haryana is in your stronghold,Yamuna Nagar?

BSP has been strong here more than in any other part of Haryana. Even during my election,BSP polled almost two lakh votes. We have weakened them,but they remained strong.

Seema Chishti: One year ago,Congress came in on the politics of aspiration. Why is there confusion on basic issues like the Women’s Bill,the sub-quotas you started talking about after a firm stand initially,and then the caste census?

I think much of it is in the media. Let us not forget that although we have come back stronger,it is still a coalition government. Our allies have their rights as well. If there is a certain way a certain ally wants an issue to be pursued,we have to take it into account. Let us not forget that if today somebody is from West Bengal,there is a state election coming up there,so they need to spend time there as well. Our partners are more or less regional parties. So they will have their regional interests. I do not think that you can brush that under the carpet. As for Congress,there has always been space for different points of view within the party. This is the strength of the Congress. Our leaders feel that they can say what they want if they feel strongly about it and that their views will be taken into account when the final decision is taken.

Shekhar Gupta: How would you assess the young MPs and Ministers of State from the Congress?

Every Lok Sabha throws up younger people.

Shekhar Gupta: But very few Lok Sabhas throw up the next Prime Minister.

That is true. I think the young ministers and MPs have a good opportunity and they have a leader in Rahul Gandhi. I think they will all be part of his future group. They will all go a long way. Many of them are quiet people and the media does not talk about them. But they are trying to do something.

Swaraj Thapa: You are also the Minister for Urban Poverty Alleviation. The Food Security Act is not able to move forward because of problems in identifying the number of BPL cardholders. Have you taken this up with the Planning Commission and do you think that the definition of a BPL cardholder should be revisited?

I had written to the Deputy Chairman,Planning Commission,that he must set up a group to evolve a methodology by which they can identify the urban poor so that we know whom to target. Also,I think the Planning Commission needs to take note of the fact that when the Tendulkar Committee submitted its report,it raised the number of rural poor to the level of urban poor. But it did not touch upon the number of the urban poor. I have asked them to look at the urban poor also.

Coomi Kapoor: Has poverty in urban areas been alleviated?

Poverty alleviation in the urban sector is not the same as in rural areas. Rural people are there,they exist. The urban sector is more dynamic,it is changing. Urbanisation is not a bad thing. Why should people stay in an idealised gaon? It’s not all that romantic,believe me. In the village,you will forever be born into and forever belong to a certain caste. Changes in social factors,income generation,livelihood opportunities are part of urban life. We need to engineer that kind of urban growth. Today,the urban growth we talk about in a city is that a municipality has become a corporation by simply increasing the boundary. You have included the villages. Does that mean urbanisation?

Shekhar Gupta: You have an excellent scheme in Mumbai,the Slum Rehabilitation Authority scheme. Delhi has also tried to take it up,but it is not working. Why?

There seems to be a bit of a problem because there are too many authorities. For instance,the Delhi Government does not own the land,which is with different agencies—DDA,etc. It is difficult for Delhi to put these things in place. I have flagged it a number of times. Delhi now has 49 per cent people living in slums; only 52 per cent of Delhi’s population has access to sewerage facilities. Delhi cannot mean only New Delhi. What we are saying is that every house must have a toilet and a kitchen.

SRA has come up with a good scheme. We are working on a new one: the Rajiv Awaz Yojana. Property rights are going to be the fulcrum of the Rajiv Awaz Yojana.

DK Singh: Do you think khap panchayats should be banned?

There are no simple answers or solutions. Khap panchayats have existed for a long time. I,too,belong to a khap. Traditionally,the khap panchayat intervened to help solve social issues. When there was marital discord,issues between families,between different villages,they would intervene to sort them out. Often,the police say,let the village elders decide such matters. On the other hand,as I said,you cannot be so drastic as to order honour killings. I do not think any right-minded khap panchayat will order that.

DK Singh: What about the demand for an amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act to ban same-gotra marriages?

My opinion is what the Congress Party has said. There is a rule of the law in this country,there is a Constitution,and the Constitution is supreme. In the Hindu Marriage Act,they have given due space to the customary laws.

Dhiraj Nayyar: On the issue of affordable housing,is the fact that the government wants to do everything on its own part of the problem? Why don’t you free up land and let private developers do the job?

The government cannot build affordable housing on its own. We have had any number of meetings,conferences with the private sector. It is the private sector which will have to come forward with affordable housing. The demand is in the middle segment group. What the private sector has been catering to during the property boom is the high-end segment. Even today,when the economy is getting back into shape,there are ads for Rs 6 crore villas. They want to make a quick buck. We have spoken to them and they agree with us that the greatest demand for affordable housing is in the middle income groups. That is where the economies of scale will work. The private sector must come forward on that,we have told the state governments they must act as a catalyst for the private sector.

Pradeep Kaushal: You won nine out of ten Lok Sabha seats in Haryana. A few months later,you lost in the assembly elections. What led to this decline?

When we won nine out of ten,that was the UPA election. The people saw a formidable line-up of leaders—Sonia Gandhi,Dr Manmohan Singh,Rahul Gandhi. This leadership appealed to the people. They perceived the UPA was doing well and felt they needed to give it another term,a strong term. So we won nine out of ten seats. In the Vidhan Sabha elections or local panchayat elections,issues become more localised.

Mihir Sharma: One of the successes of the UPA Government has been the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. The UPA credits that largely for winning a second term. Have you been tempted to extend it to urban areas?

There has been a discussion on this earlier and it was found that you cannot replicate the NREGA in urban sectors because they are a little more dynamic. But we do have a scheme called the Swarna Jayanti Shahari Rojgar Yojana,which addresses the needs of the urban poor.

Seema Chishti: Is there any data on the movement from villages to cities to indicate that it may have been reduced or stabilised because of NREGA?

No,we do not have any such data. What we did have were the patterns that indicate there is movement from smaller to larger cities.

Mihir Sharma: Are you concerned that the NREGA will pause what you view as a necessary urbanisation process?

No. These are very natural things. NREGA is meant for the poorest people who live in the villages and do not get any employment. But if the market dictates,if people feel they will get better opportunities in another part of the country,or in urban areas,they will move. In a fast-growing economy you do need properly trained manpower.

Swaraj Thapa: In a place like Goa,you have the chief minister coming up with the most shocking statements. He said rape incidents occur because women dress in a certain manner and that they should not. He also said they should not go out too late at night. What is your message as the tourism minister and as a woman?

My concern is with giving travel advisories to the tourists. Often they come from a different cultural background. This is not just for Goa but for any place. It is alright for them to dress up in a bikini and go to the hotel swimming pool. But in our cultural context,while we welcome tourists from abroad,I think we need to advise them.

Vandita Mishra: You have been in politics for nearly 20 years and this Lok Sabha has the maximum number of women. In your opinion,is there such a thing as a woman politician? Does she practise politics differently?

Personally,I have never viewed myself as a woman politician,just as a politician or as a political activist. But you do see things and do things differently. Women,I think,deal with things in a much more sensitive way.

Transcribed by Deepu Sebastian Edmond

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