‘Why Didn’t They Protest The 9 Suicides Under UPA Rule?’: Udit Raj
Udit Raj, one of the prominent Dalit faces of the BJP, poses this and other uncomfortable questions to the opposition
Thoughts of Udit Raj, a BJP Member of Parliament and known leader of the Scheduled Castes, are not run-of-the-mill stuff one hears from any politician who claims to represent the Dalit community. He urges them to pursue education and be a part of the mainstream. Asserting that a leader like Ram Vilas Paswan was a product of the movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan, he says, in the Indian polity, he is the only leader other than Mayawati who enjoys a mass connect. While saddened by the suicide of Rohith Vemula, he is not impressed by an assortment of leftist parties making common cause with activists of the Ambedkar Students Union of Hyderabad Central University. I meet him at his residence in the national capital for a tête-à-tête on a host of issues related to the downtrodden.
At the first instance, Raj is reluctant to answer questions on Vemula, saying he has already spoken on the issue. Then, gradually, he opens up.
“It is not an isolated case,” Raj says, adding, “Before this, nine students committed suicide in the same campus (HCU), where it was clearly established that they had been victimized. Why didn’t they (the Congress and leftists) raise the issue then? But in this case, Rohith writes in his suicide note that nobody is responsible for his death.”
Not too angry with the section of the media that is constantly raising this issue since Vemula’s death, Raj says, “Sometimes some incidents occupy more mind space,” and gives the example of the victim of the 16 December 2012 gang-rape in Delhi. “It is not that the ‘Nirbhaya’ kind of heinous crime had not happened earlier, but that has never caught the attention of the country and the world. It depends on the circumstances and more on the media, and the time and space we are in.”
He takes exception to the campaign for mercy and acquittal of convicted terrorist Yakub Memon by the ASA activists. “I did not support it. I do not support it. They should not have come in support of Yakub Memon,” he says, but insists that it has nothing to do with this unfortunate end of a promising life and career.
Raj “can’t rule out” the chances that Christian missionaries and foreign-funded NGOs are behind some of the activists who do politics in the name of Babasaheb Ambedkar. He mentions the protests in Tamil Nadu against the project of a nuclear power plant in Kudankulam, where a foreign hand is discovered and says he won’t be surprised if those who seek to destabilize the country from outside are playing a role in Dalit activism as well. “There are some individuals; for petty benefits, for personal benefits, they do it,” he says. On giving some names to him as examples, he seeks more evidence of their connections with missionaries, so we leave that out of the discourse.
“I am trying to take the party to the grassroots. It’s a never-ending process,” Raj says, adding that there should be more representation of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the ruling party, and that the onus is as much on the cadre as it is on the ministers and MPs. That too would not be enough to realize a casteless society, his dream, he says.
“I expect more from the middle class as it has been in some countries. Politicians have never brought about (social) reforms and revolutions. The intelligentsia has. Our intelligentsia has failed. Why don’t they give our society the right direction? Renaissance was brought about in Europe by thinkers, academicians and other intellectuals. Politicians as a class stand for status quo. The middle class is not bound; they are not in the game of gaining or retaining power. In this country, people have a wrong notion (that politicians will bring social change),” he says.
Raj adds that he does not mean that the government should shirk its responsibility towards the have nots, but believes that the state’s effort can bring forth only limited results. On floating the idea of inter-caste marriages, he agrees it is one field where society must take the initiative, as it must also ensure that the Dalits and tribal population are not deprived of education and good jobs.
The Dalit leader does not believe that RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat talked of reviewing the reservation policy with the implication of ending it. Raj met with Bhagwat the last year. “He said that, as long as Dalits want reservation, they should enjoy it. It depends on an individual Dalit to accept the offer or give it up, Bhagwat told me. Afterwards, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement came” allaying the apprehension raised by Lalu Prasad Yadav during the Bihar election campaign. “Then the RSS gave a statement, too, and finally he (Bhagwat) clarified that Dalits will continue to get the reservation facility. So the matter is dead.”
I share with him my experience of being part of review meetings post-Bihar where Dalit representatives wondered why the BJP was so shy of telling the people what it has done for the oppressed classes. Raj says, “The Dalit constituency is altogether different. Basically, social activists who believe in Ambedkarism must speak to them. Except the Bahujan samaj Party, none has a connect with that constituency. I do. Either I enjoy the connect or the BSP does.”
On asking whether Ram Vilas Paswan isn’t another leader of that league, Raj says, “You can carry out a survey. Either Mayawati can connect to the Dalits or I can. I know this because I rose out of that (brand of politics) — employees and officers. Kanshi Ram also… (Kanshi Ram had begun activism with the All India Federation of Scheduled Caste/Tribes Backward Class & Minorities Employees Welfare Associations, a group of government servants). Paswan ji became an MLA in 1969 and that was (a result of) the JP movement. So, the origin, the chain, the roots, the following,” etc determine whom the Dalits accept as their representative.
“Today the situation has reached a level—it applies to other castes also—where a Dalit wants to hear a Dalit leader. Similarly, if it is Brahmins, if I want to convince them on a point, they will not be convinced. When I floated a political party, for about 10 years continuously, they hardly went along with me. Therefore, caste matters. It does for Dalits, too. If you want to communicate what you have done for Dalits, choose a person from that constituency.”
One of the most prominent leaders from the Dalit community does not know whether he will be used in the party’s campaign to challenge Mayawati’s appeal among the SCs, but he is ready to play the role if the party so decides. “I hear it from some people. Whatever role is given, definitely I will do it,” he says
He says he continues to be a social activist as much as he is a politician now. “I will exhort them (the Dalit constituency), ‘First of all, you have to change your mindset. Come on! Go for education, go for training.’ And, of course, whatever the government is doing for them, I will tell them. I will talk about that also.” From his 7 December 2015 rally, one can figure out what ideology Raj stands for, he says.
“I am taking up some issues with the government — for example, getting the Bill for promotions in jobs passed. I am constantly raising this issue inside and outside Parliament,” he says. He finds his colleagues in the BJP supportive of the cause. “Look, it will take time. They are sympathetic. If they were not, I wouldn’t be here. Take the cue from the (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee government. It is he who amended the Constitution thrice (81st, 82nd and 85th Amendments)” to ensure that the benefits intended for Dalits reached them.
“In 10 years of the UPA rule, the Congress did not do anything. The Congress introduced just one Bill in the Rajya Sabha for the Dalits. So far, reservations are based on executive orders. There is no law for it. For 10 years, the Congress couldn’t get it passed. So, when I compared the Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh regimes, I reached the conclusion that the Congress doesn’t do what it promises.”
Raj spoke of his recent meeting with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley where he pushed the Special Component Plan (SCP) and Tribal Sub Plan (TSP). He is hopeful that the issues will be addressed in the Budget and/or the Budget Session of Parliament. He wants a proper law moulded like the Andhra Pradesh SC/ST Sub Plan Act, 2013, so that there is a interventionist code that governments follow to implement schemes meant for Dalits and Adviasis. “They never get the proportion they are entitled to. It’s always about half of that,” he says about the Dalit and tribe-oriented schemes. Even then, it does not reach the intended beneficiaries, Raj informs, adding the funds are underutilised or misused. “The Andhra government made a legislation to punish anybody who was found misusing or diverting the funds. An individual family or basti (human settlements) must be entitled to apply for the benefits. You cannot develop a whole area and say Dalits and tribal people have benefited from it because some from these communities live in that area; then you divide it proportionately and claim that the benefits have reached the needy.” That should not be how these schemes must reach the SCs and STs, Raj explains. “A scheme should be available exclusively to an individual, to a family and to a basti,” he clarifies.
But still there is a general impression that the BJP is a Brahmin-Bania party, I tell him. “We should include more Dalits in the party. Despite the fact that Babasaheb Ambedkar was so much against the Congress, it gave such a big responsibility (to be the nation’s first Law Minister and then chair the Constituent Assembly). After independence, the Congress’s roots deepened also because of Babasaheb Ambedkar.”
Raj does not bear a grudge against the Congress of Jawaharlal Nehru’s era for failing the Hindu Code Bill in 1951 and for ensuring Ambedkar’s defeat in the Lok Sabha election of 1952 from the Bombay (North-Central) constituency. “He was sent to the Rajya Sabha,” Udit Raj points out.
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