On the morning of January 2, 2019, as the news broke that two young women had entered the Sabarimala shrine, Udit Raj, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) member of the Lok Sabha from North-West Delhi constituency and national chairman of the All India Confederation of S.C./S.T. Organisations, welcomed the development, saying that it was a shot in the arm for gender parity and women’s empowerment. Excerpts from an interview.
You have welcomed the entry of women into Sabarimala temple even as your party, the BJP, is opposed to it, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi terming it a matter of “tradition” in a recent interview. Could you elaborate on your position?
I see the issue from the perspective of regressive conventions and reforms. Our country has never seen major reform movements, save those steered by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in Maharashtra, [E.V. Ramasamy] Periyar in Tamil Nadu and Sree Narayana Guru in Kerala. Reforms are necessary not only to empower Dalits and other backward classes and integrate society, but also to accelerate the growth engine of the country. States that have had a history of reform movements, such as Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, outshine others in social welfare, education, health and growth indices.
In Kerala, the state uprooted caste-based discrimination and introduced reservation as early as 1935. In Tamil Nadu, the Justice Party introduced reservation in 1941, while in Mysore it was introduced even earlier, by the early 1920s. In Maharashtra, reform movements were pioneered by Shahuji Maharaj and later by Jyotirao Phule and Ambedkar, and their efforts fostered overall development. In Karnataka, the Sir Leslie Miller Committee, set up under the colonial regime, initiated welfare measures. It is by virtue of reforms that south India is ahead of the northern States in terms of employment generation, investment, and creation of workforce in the Information Technology sector, and giving the country eminent scientists. South India also fares better than the northern States when it comes to religious tolerance and showcasing the liberal face of religion.
In the context of the Sabarimala row, what do you think of the so-called “Save Ayyappa” movement, essentially led by a clutch of upper-caste organisations.
Allowing the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple is nothing but the implementation of Ambedkarism; it also vindicates the Constitution and the judgment of the Supreme Court. When you obstruct the entry of women, it has a cascading effect that eventually hurts Dalits. The same logic is applied to discriminate against people belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. In the name of upholding traditions and customs, Dalits are treated worse than animals. Breaking a regressive tradition would yield indirect benefits to the S.Cs and the S.Ts. In the past, evil practices such as sati, child marriage, female infanticide, untouchability and not letting women belonging to the lower castes cover their breasts were all discarded. It is time we discarded this discriminatory practice of not letting women enter the Sabarimala temple.
Do you see the current impasse over the Sabarimala temple as a reflection of the limitation of the Indian engagement with modernity? Do you see any parallels with the temple entry proclamation in Kerala, which got implemented properly more than a decade after it was pronounced by the Travancore king in the mid 1930s?
Things are moving faster now than they did in previous decades. The advancement in technology and the emergence of social media have contributed to people’s awareness. There is also widespread consciousness [of issues] among Dalits and the lower castes, which was not hitherto seen. In the age of the Internet, it is not possible to perpetuate orthodoxy.
But it seems that the BJP and the Congress, the two mainstream parties, do not seem to understand this. They are the people who are actively promoting and facilitating a section of upper castes agitating in Kerala.
I don’t want to indulge in a political debate. I want to focus on the social aspect of the Sabarimala row. The views that I have enunciated are also the views of the lower castes and Dalits. Collectively, these are the voices for gender parity and social justice. These voices need to be heard and shared to usher in an era of social equality. Indulging in a political debate will dilute that purpose.
There are similar movements that have underscored the same concept, such as the movement for women’s entry into the Shani Shingnapur temple. A group of Muslim women from Kerala have also appealed to the Supreme Court seeking the right to offer open prayers in mosques. However, in spite of all this progress, a counter-movement to obstinately stick to tradition with reactionary and revivalist overtones has also come up.
There is polarisation in our society and we have people who espouse social change and those who are opposed to it. But, I would say that the fundamentalist elements in the upper castes are getting isolated by the day. Service to the nation involves upholding equality and liberal values and focussing on research. Sloganeering will not lead to progress. How can a slogan such as “Bharat mata ki jai” herald progress if the sons and daughters of the country continue to be discriminated against?
You have been consistently focussing on the issue of sloganeering in your political and organisational interventions. You have said that welfare measures for Dalits have become gestures of tokenism. Could you explain?
The privatisation of the economy, initiated by the P.V. Narasimha Rao-led government in 1991, has led to the gradual shrinking of the public sector. All important service sectors are owned by corporate houses which, unlike in the West, do not have a human face. The imitation of laissez faire economy has led to the further marginalisation of Dalits and S.Cs/S.Ts, who are systematically denied a share in the decision-making or managerial berths in the private sector. Our private players, unlike their counterparts in Europe or the United States, are not committed to fostering research and development or taking up corporate social responsibilities. Entrepreneurs in the West make it a point to give back to society in one form or the other, even if only through corporate social responsibility donations running into billions of dollars. Do you have such examples in our country? Our corporate houses have only displayed a hedonistic, animalistic instinct to accumulate and hoard wealth.
But successive governments have claimed that in terms of S.C/S.Ts’ empowerment, there has been substantial progress?
There are three ways to empowerment—participation in government, reservation and welfare measures. As far as the lower castes are concerned, welfare measures have not happened. It is not reassuring when it comes to reservation in government and private-sector jobs, in education and in politics. As many as 2,000 Rajiv Gandhi fellowships, meant to facilitate the pursuit of higher education of SC/STs, have been discontinued—now only those who qualify for JRF [junior research fellowship] and NET [national entrance test] will be entitled to it. More than 70 per cent of the education sector is privatised, with the consequent exclusion of the backward classes.
Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad recently underlined the need to make the judiciary more representative. Would you like to comment on the current composition of the judiciary?
The judiciary is completely an opaque house and there is no merit in the appointment of judges. Judges appoint judges, and this arrangement allows caste-based discrimination. Although our parliamentary system is modelled after the British system, we did not emulate their mechanism of having a selection commission to appoint judges. In India, they struck down the proposed National Judicial Appointment Commission. Our political class allowed the judiciary to usurp the Constitution. The Attorney General, K.K. Venugopal, was right when he said that our Constitution was no longer the sovereign and that the judiciary was sovereign. How can we expect justice for the people?
We were talking about the need for reforms, but reforms are the outcome of debate and dissent. In the current political climate, do you think there is space for debate and dissent?
Our society is a very rigid society.
What about the ruling elite?
What I say is more comprehensive. In India, people believe in anything. A live snake is killed and a dead snake is worshipped. If one person stands with folded hands in front of a tree, you would soon see several others emulating him. This is an environment that seeks to suppress or limit change.
Talking about beliefs, there are people who worship the cow also, and of late, even people who head or are part of the State and Central governments seem to be saying that cows are more important than human beings. What is your view on the ongoing spate of mob lynchings?
Of course, those who lynch people value cows more than human beings.
The lynchers often find solidarity in the political class.
That is very unfortunate.
Currently there seems to be a clash between people who want reforms and those who side with convention. The American political scientist Samuel Huntington said that the clash of civilisations is going to be the defining ideology in the post-Cold War era. Do you think that what we are seeing corroborates such a world view ?
Given the current situation in the country, particularly in the light of the killings involving cow vigilantism, I will not call this civilisation. This is un-civilisation. Civilisation is a higher form of humanity and it entails respecting the sentiment and ideas of others, tolerating, and believing in scientific temperament. Otherwise, what is the difference between the primitive and the modern eras?