A comedy of errors is on display in both Congress and BJP camps. While it was an abhorrent sight to see Congress leaders trying to play messiah to India’s Dalits some months ago by merely eating in Dalit households, we now have the BJP playing catch-up with party president Nitin Gadkari ‘doing a Rahul Gandhi’ by having lunch in a Dalit home last month.
But what is downright comic is the Congress’s knee-jerk reaction to Gadkari’s gesture. Congress spokespersons claimed that their party has facilitated the “elevation of Dalits to [the positions] of Chief Justice of India and Lok Sabha Speaker”. This is the same Congress that had silently watched the then President K R Narayanan getting dragged into a media controversy on the issue of him supposedly overstepping his constitutional role and seeking to impose a policy of affirmative action on the judiciary.
The Congress also seems to have forgotten that it was the Telugu Desam Party that ensured the elevation of a Dalit to the post of Speaker for the first time in the choice of G M C Balayogi, that too in a BJP-led NDA regime.
The Congress and the BJP are not only trying to hoodwink the Dalits, but they are also fighting it out for the elusive Dalit votebank in Uttar Pradesh. Gadkari stated last month that Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar was like American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Someone should tell Gadkari that by the time the struggles of King Jr and others led to equal rights for African-Americans in 1964, it had already been 14 years since Ambedkar had introduced civil rights in the Constitution of India, having already achieved getting political rights and the right to representation in political offices and employment for Dalits as early as 1932. Next, Gadkari will say that Mahatma Gandhi was like Martin Luther King Jr, rather than the other way round. It is entirely a different issue that Indian and US societies are alike in denying civil rights to their oppressed communities.
The Congress is equally at fault for not criticising BJP leader Arun Shourie for his book, Worshipping False Gods, in which the author makes ridiculous attacks on the Dalit icon. One would go on to say that the Congress has done nothing to further the ideals of Ambedkar and has shown no interest in the upkeep of the Ambedkar Foundation created by the National Front government during the leader’s centenary celebrations. It was the NDA regime that bought the Ambedkar Memorial on 26, Alipore Road in Delhi and also pushed the 81st, 82nd and 85th amendments of the Constitution in favour of creating reservations for Dalits.
It is time the Dalits call this Congress-BJP bluff. If the BJP and the Congress indeed care for Dalits, both the national parties should first ensure that the practice of manual scavenging is eliminated from the states ruled by these parties in the next one year.
They should also ensure that these scavenging families never have to fall back into this ignoble profession. They should also earmark a part of the annual Budget under the Scheduled Castes sub-plan for Dalits to make sure that enough is spent on the educational and economic uplift of Dalit communities. This, especially at a time when the budget of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has decreased in the last Budget.
The first issue for any political party is to respect the rights of Dalits. They should also respect the rights of Dalits to protest, demand and claim remedies, safeguards and action from the government that ameliorate their conditions quickly. Let’s first learn to respect Dalits. Then maybe one day they will invite us home for lunch.
D. Raja is National Secretary, Communist Party of India and Rajya Sabha member
The views expressed by the author are personal