Interview: P.L. Punia

‘This is an anti-Dalit government’

Print edition : February 19, 2016

P.L. Punia, chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes. Photo: G. SRIBHARATH

P.L. PUNIA, Chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, visited the University of Hyderabad on January 18, a day after Rohith Vemula committed suicide. The suicide, he says, cannot be viewed as something relating only to the rot in HCU but as one in a series of such instances reflecting the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s anti-Dalit mindset. “I plan to prepare a detailed report on such cases of discrimination against Dalits all over the country and present it to the President. I have the constitutional mandate to do so, and I am not obliged to submit this report to the government,” he says. Punia, who is also a Congress member of the Rajya Sabha, says that if the NDA government had not put pressure on the university authorities, they probably would not have taken such a partisan stand on a scuffle between two groups of students. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

On the basis of your interaction with people at HCU, do you think the issue was just one unfortunate incident that simply went out of control or do you see this as part of a larger issue involving Dalits?

I met everyone concerned there and spoke extensively to students, university authorities and those associated with Rohith. This definitely is part of a larger issue of the NDA government’s anti-Dalit mindset because the issue spun out of control only after the NDA Ministers intervened. Left to themselves, the university authorities might not have taken such a drastic step against the five Dalit students. After all, the incident occurred in July last year. The university had already set up two investigations, and both had given these students a clean chit, saying no violence had taken place. The security officer on duty, who was present on the spot and who still stands by his statement, had given a clean chit to all these students, saying no serious violence had taken place, maybe just a small altercation.

Then why did [Bandaru] Dattatreya [Union Minister for Labour and Employment] have to write to the HRD [Human Resource Development] Minister, and that too using such strong words, saying the university had become a “den of casteist, extremist and anti-national activities”? That, too, based only on a complaint by an outsider? It was only after this letter that the HRD Ministry wrote five letters to the university in quick succession—the fourth one was by a Joint Secretary. A very senior officer at the decision-making level, he wrote to the Vice-Chancellor directly, asking him to intervene personally in the matter. It was after this letter that the proctorial committee was set up, headed by Vipin Srivastava, which only took ABVP [Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad] leader Susheel Kumar’s statement, did not bother to ask the Dalit students about their version, and then recommended their suspension. That Rohith’s fellowship had been stopped in July was already a matter of concern, and then they were thrown out of the hostel and barred from entering the administrative area and interacting with other students on the campus. How do you think a PhD student will survive in such circumstances? How will he study, where will he stay, how will he do his research? The university pushed him to his death.

If it was not pressure from the government, then I would like to know what additional evidence there was against these students. Except for the statement by Susheel Kumar, there was no other evidence. The security officer on duty again said there was no violence, then why were they suspended? And why was no action taken against the ABVP leader? If there was violence, he too must have been involved.

And look at the irony of it all. The HRD Ministry sent a two-member probe panel which ended up giving a clean chit to its own Ministry, instead of probing the role of the Vice-Chancellor, the Registrar or the ABVP leaders. The entire exercise by the HRD Ministry was to shield those guilty of abetting the suicide.

What has been your follow-up action?

On the basis of on my interaction, I have made my assessment report and sent it to the Vice-Chancellor and the Chief Secretary and Police Commissioner and District Magistrate of Guntur, on January 20, suggesting four steps:

Revoke the suspension of other students [this has since been done].

Institute a high-power inquiry to ascertain what made the university take a U-turn in the matter and suspend these students when the facts of the matter had not changed and when two earlier investigations had given them a clean chit, saying there was no violence but only a mild altercation and had suggested warning both the parties involved.

Rohith’s family be compensated adequately, his fellowship be released, his brother be given employment, and the family given a house under Indira Awas Yojana.

Ascertain the role of the Vice-Chancellor, the Registrar, Dattatreya and ABVP leaders and file an FIR [first information report] under Section 306 [the S.Cs and the S.Ts (Prevention of Atrocities) Act] if they are found guilty.

I had also demanded an “action taken report”, which I should get in two or three days.

Are you also planning to do something on your own in your capacity as Chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes?

Yes, I am planning to write to the President because there has been a spurt in the number of cases of atrocities against Dalits since this government has taken over. In almost all cases, the government has been seen to be standing with upper-caste people against Dalits. Two recent examples are from Ratlam and Nagaur in Rajasthan.

In Ratlam, upper-caste people objected to a Dalit groom riding a horse to his wedding. The police, instead of taking action against the upper-caste people, made the Dalit groom wear a helmet and then go for his wedding. In Nagaur, four Dalits were crushed under the wheels of a tractor by an upper-caste man, but no action has been taken against anyone. Such reports are pouring in from all over the country. And the government has not been seen to be supporting Dalits in a single case.

But the Prime Minister looked visibly upset while talking about Rohith. How can you say the government is not concerned?

Yes, he choked on his tears while talking about Rohith. But all that is drama. Where is the action against the guilty? If he was indeed so upset, why did he not sack the Vice-Chancellor, why send him on long leave? Why appoint somebody with a past record of being anti-Dalit as Vice-Chancellor [Vipin Srivastava]? The Prime Minister’s show of concern is only tokenism, not real intention. He always ends up standing with his core constituency of upper castes. He is a showman who will only get a memorial built in London, or in Delhi, but in essence, nothing at all by way of solid action.

In its last Budget, the government cut Rs.66,258 crore from social justice programmes while the S.C. Sub-Plan saw cuts to the tune of Rs.20,000 crore. This government has not taken a single new initiative for Dalits. This is an anti-Dalit government.

Purnima S. Tripathi

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