Interview: P.L. Punia

‘Start of a second social justice movement’

Print edition : March 02, 2018

P.L. Punia. Photo: The Hindu Archives

P.L. PUNIA, Rajya Sabha member from the Congress and former chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, spoke to Frontline on the Bhima Koregaon incident. Excerpts:

The intensity of the anger among Dalits, especially the youth, after the Bhima Koregaon incident is unprecedented. What is causing so much anger among them?

What we are witnessing today is the explosion of suppressed anger for a long time. In the last three years, there have been many incidents of Dalits being oppressed, and the tormentors are known to everyone yet no action has been seen to be taken. It is not that atrocities were not happening during UPA [United Progressive Alliance] rule, but governments, both at the Centre and in the States, used to take action like punishing officials, transferring them or suspending them.

Ever since the NDA [National Democratic Alliance] government took over, there have been incidents that have happened openly; people see who the oppressors are, at times they are named in FIRs, but still nobody gets punished. The Rohith Vemula incident, for example. He kept requesting the authorities for relief, but instead he was suspended, his fellowship was stopped, and he was thrown out of the hostel. He was harassed so much that he was forced to end his life. He continued his agitation for a long time, yet he did not get support from any quarters. Those five-six youths who stood in support of him were also suspended, though five of them were taken back later. But no action has been taken against the person who was named as the main culprit in the whole unfortunate incident. Similarly, in Una, five-six Dalits were stripped and thrashed openly, in full public view, with everyone knowing who the culprits were. They were named in the FIRs, but so far there has been no action. All that this government does is set up a judicial committee to probe; the committee will take years, and by the time its report comes out, the issue loses its relevance. The Prime Minister has been talking so much in his Mann ki Baat but has never condemned those committing atrocities on Dalits. So many people have been killed by the gau rakshaks, yet there has been no action against the culprits. States ruled by the BJP are the worst: Rajasthan has the highest crime rate against Dalits, followed by Madhya Pradesh.

The feeling is gradually setting in that the government is deliberately not doing anything, and this is causing anger. Even in the Bhima Koregaon incident, Dalits who had gathered to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon battle were attacked by people who had links with the RSS. Everyone knows who these people are, but the government has taken no action. In fact, had the government taken prompt action in the desecration incident of a Mahar memorial a few days ago in a nearby village, the Bhima Koregaon incident would not have acquired the dimension it did.

The deliberate inaction on the part of the government in incidents involving Dalits is what is making educated, literate Dalit youths sit up and take note. They are now coming together, cutting across class lines, to demand justice. You can call it Dalit uprising or whatever, but the fact is that similar-minded people, irrespective of class, are joining hands and this is beginning to take the shape of a widespread movement now. It is spreading in its reach and it will not stop now. This is exactly how Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar had envisaged for Dalits to seek their rights.

But it has become centred around a few individuals and there is the danger it could lose steam after a while.

No, it is not about individuals any more; it is not one Jignesh Mevani or anybody else who is propelling this movement now. Over 250 organisations have joined hands, comprising people from all castes and classes. The movement has acquired a self-propelled mode now and is guided by public opinion. Public opinion will now not allow these people to stop; it will force them to take action wherever atrocities happen on Dalits. The fact that these people have deliberately kept political parties out of it makes it more long-lasting because once political parties get in, the same blame games, claims and counterclaims begin and the real issues get lost in the process. Fortunately, in the present uprising, we have not seen the involvement of any political party yet. Take Jignesh Mevani for example. He won with Congress help, yet he kept the Congress out of his “Hunkar” rally. I am very positive that this is the beginning of a second social justice movement.

Purnima S. Tripathi