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The debate on Dalits in Parliament shows how little we care

columns Updated: Aug 20, 2016 23:20 IST

Dalits hold placards during a protest against attacks on the people of the community, in Ahmedabad on Saturday.(PTI)

I’ve received a fair amount of flak for last Sunday’s sentiments that we’re a nation of hypocrites. My critics say I was exaggerating. Yet if working yourself into a froth but failing to act is proof of hypocrisy the Lok Sabha debate on Dalit atrocities was undeniable proof we don’t mean what we say and, often, don’t say what we mean. The bald facts of that debate prove my point.

The debate was the culmination of widespread concern about the attacks on Dalits by gau rakshaks. It was intended to express our solidarity with our Dalit brothers and sisters. It should have been a moment Indian democracy was proud of. Alas, it wasn’t. Here’s why.

First, the attendance. Business Standard claims of the Lok Sabha’s 543 members only 69, including the Deputy Speaker, were present. Of the Congress’s 44 MPs eight were present. Of the government’s 76 ministers six were present. Both the PM and Rahul Gandhi were absent.

Read: Scindia leads Opposition charge against govt on Dalit issue

Unfortunately, that’s not all. Even the MPs present were hardly listening to the debate. You often saw them on TV chatting to each other, looking backwards at the row behind rather than forward to the speaker of the moment.

Udit Raj made a second telling point. Why was it that the vast majority of speakers were Dalits or members of scheduled tribes? Why did the rest of our MPs keep silent? During the first four hours there were 12 speakers, of whom nine or 75% were SC and ST. Yet SC and ST only represent 24% of the Lok Sabha. By the end of the debate the tally had improved. Including the home minister there were 21 speakers but 11 were still SC and ST.

In the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain and the 19th in America it was white men like William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln who fought to end slavery. Where are their counterparts when it comes to battling Dalit atrocities in India? After Gandhi there are few upper castes at the forefront of this battle. Even Arjun Ram Meghwal, the holder of a scheduled tribe constituency, was absent when he was called to speak in the Lok Sabha. Such is his commitment to this cause.

Read: Punish culprits of atrocities against Dalits: Centre to states

Alas, there’s more to shame us. When Dr K Gopal, an AIADMK MP, was speaking he was interrupted by the Deputy Speaker so that a motion to send the Citizenship Bill to a standing committee could be passed. Why? Surely this motion could have been passed after the debate or the next day? By interrupting a debate on Dalit atrocities to pass this motion did not the Deputy Speaker clearly suggest this technical motion was more important than the substantive debate? Indeed, could there be better proof of the lack of seriousness that surrounded this debate?

The day before the Lok Sabha debate on Dalit atrocities the Rajya Sabha debated the Kashmir crisis. The House was full and all the channels cut to the debate and stayed with it, sometimes for an hour or more. In contrast, the Dalit debate was ignored by television and tucked into the inside pages of newspapers the next morning.

Read: Attack me, shoot me if you want, but don’t attack Dalits: PM Modi

Now let’s return to the question I started with: Do the facts of the Dalit debate suggest we’re hypocrites? Is our rage hollow? Are we just posturing? Indeed, was the performance put on by the Lok Sabha tokenism rather than a serious expression of concern?

I won’t answer. The facts can speak for themselves.

The views expressed are personal