Interview: P.L. Punia

‘Protests by Dalits a good sign’

Print edition : September 02, 2016

P.L. Punia. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

Interview with P.L. Punia, Chairperson, National Commission for Scheduled Castes.

THE increasing number of incidents of atrocities against the Scheduled Castes, more recently in the context of “cow protection vigilantism”, prompted reactions from various sections. P.L. Punia, Chairperson of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), a nodal body appointed by Parliament with the specific mandate of looking into the welfare of the Scheduled Castes, feels that the atrocities have risen in recent years. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

As Chairperson of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, how do you view the rising atrocities against Dalits?

There has been a very large increase in the number of atrocities. In 2014, as many as 47,000 cases were reported, in 2015 the number was 54,000, while in 2013 it was 39,000. Similarly, cases against minorities are also going up. A sense of fear is there among minorities and the Scheduled Castes. This has happened never before. The Constitution provides for freedom of expression. There is no scope for atrocities based on religion or caste.

Do you think the Una incident was an isolated one?

The Una incident is part of the entire setting. The Dalit is not even as important as a dead cow. That is why there were so many protests all over the country. It is a good sign. When Babasaheb Ambedkar said educate, organise and agitate, this is what he meant. So, in that sense, it is good that this is happening. Had such unity been there earlier, such atrocities would not have happened. It is important that Dalits should organise themselves and raise their voice against all such cases happening anywhere in the country. So if they are rising in protest, I would say they are treading in the footsteps of Babasaheb Ambedkar.

The BJP says that atrocities against Dalits is a legacy of the past. And that it is not peculiar only to BJP-ruled States.

It is a fact that a number of atrocities had taken place earlier also. But the pace of such attacks has increased. The state or the administration in BJP-ruled States is seen as a supporter of the perpetrators rather than the victims. Take the case of Una. The victims named 30 people. It was after pressure from the NCSC that they arrested a few more. We asked them about the rest. The video shows policemen silently watching the caning. They are mute spectators; it was almost as if they were in connivance with the attackers. But they arrested only 11 people. Were the rest connected to some political party? In fact, they [the policemen] are seen in connivance with the culprits. The baton with which they were beating was a police baton. So there appears to be a close nexus between the police, the culprits and the administration. The people in the video are recognisable. Further, no action has been taken under Section 4 of the S.C. and S.T. Act. Section 4 provides for action against police officials who are supposed to control the atrocities but deliberately do not do so. We took a fact-finding team to Una and our team member, Raju Parmar, met the family members. The incident took place on July 11.

We have given our recommendations to the State government and fixed a date for the action taken report. Atrocities had been taking place earlier also, but if you take the case of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh, the State [government] is seen to be conniving with the culprits rather than helping Dalits.

You had mentioned some time ago that cow protection laws need to be reviewed given the kind of attacks that are happening.

There is a race to show who is a greater nationalist or more Hindu. In the process they are taking the law into their own hands. Who are the gau rakshaks? Who recognises them? No one has given them the authority to take the law into their own hands as they did in Una. At best, if they felt that it was a case of cow slaughter, they should have taken the matter to the police. If they have a grievance, they should agitate against the administration. But they suppressed facts. The CID team in Una revealed that the cows were already dead and that a lion had killed them. The gau rakshaks are ruffians and antisocial elements. Cattle trade takes place in these areas and there is regular transportation of livestock. They can at any point stop the vehicle and harass people. They also collect money and do all kinds of blackmailing.

A demand for a Central law on cow protection comes up every now and then. The Rajasthan government has a dedicated cow welfare Ministry as well.

The only formula that the BJP has to win elections is to divide the country on the basis of religion. The cow is one such issue. It is connected to Hinduism and is considered sacred. That is why in the early 1950s, all States enacted cow-protection laws barring a few exceptions—Goa, Kerala and West Bengal. The slaughtering of cows is banned, but carrying beef, eating it or being in possession of beef is not an offence. It is the slaughter which is the offence. But they create an environment where a rift is created among religions.

The BJP claims that it is doing a lot for the S.Cs and the S.Ts, including the Deen Dayal Antyodaya Yojana, and it also held a special session of Parliament to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar.

The BJP does a lot of tokenism. Yes, it called a special session, but what about the things that Babasaheb Ambedkar stood for. There are instances to show that it supports the perpetrators rather than the victims. Everyone is worried about reservation in promotions, and there is a demand for a constitutional amendment Bill for reservation in promotion. No one is prepared to speak on this. Employment to Dalits is talked about, but where are the posts. There are no vacancies. No new schemes or undertakings are coming up in the public sector.

There is no employment in the public sector and they are not taken in the private sector. There is an urgent need for reservation in the private sector. Then there is not even a single judge belonging to the S.C. or the S.T. in the Supreme Court. There are a few judges, fewer than 20, in all the High Courts.

The Special Component Plan and the Tribal Subplan were made to ensure that they got some opportunities in the private sector, and it was an acknowledgement of the special needs of the S.Cs and the S.Ts. But the funds are being diverted and the money is spent on general schemes.

The Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka governments made the diversion of such funds punishable. We made a demand for a law for the targeted flow of such funds. The S.Cs and the S.Ts are mainly from poor sections; they depend on government schemes for sanitation, housing and other purposes.

For all the Centrally sponsored schemes, they made a reduction of Rs.66,268 crore in the 2014-15 Union Budget. The cuts affect the S.Cs and the S.Ts the most as it is they who use Centrally sponsored schemes. There were budgetary cuts in the Subplan, too, for 2015-16.