‘Caste discrimination will not go unless the international community speaks up’

— Praveen Rashtrapal, Congress MP

At the preparatory meeting for the WCAR held at New Delhi recently, Praveen Rashtrapal, a Congress Dalit MP from Gujarat, made a forceful presentation on the utter voicelessness of Dalit demands in Parliament. He spoke to Teesta Setalvad in an exclusive interview. Excerpts.
You mentioned that there was lack of unity and impact of Dalit demands issue Parliament despite there being a fair number of Dalit members. Why is this so?
In the Lok Sabha, there are 79 SC members and 40 ST members; in the Rajya Sabha there are in all 18 SC/ST members). Still we are unable to bring the Lok Sabha to a standstill over substantive issues like land rights for Dalits or atrocities against Dalits.
For at least 20 years, we have had the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Members of Parliament Forum. But this forum is largely inactive. Only recently have we begun to reactivate the forum. But at the root of the problem is how all parties, whatever the ideology, have treated the Dalit issue. Among Dalit representatives, too, the tendency has been to limit ourselves to issues concerning the while-collar Dalit – the issue of reservations – at the cost of issues concerning 70 per cent of the Dalit population – land rights, access to basic amenities, atrocities perpetrated consistently against our population.
How does this state of affairs continue?
It is a bitter testimony to the fact that whatever the party, whether it is the Congress that I belong to or others, a deep-rooted caste bias has influenced all programmes. The worst type of atrocities against Dalits in Gujarat has taken place during earlier regimes as much as during the reign of the BJP.
For example, look at two similar cases of atrocities under two different regimes, Congress and BJP. In 1980, two Dalits were burnt to death in Billia village, near Sidhpur in Patan taluka. Following this ghastly incident, the government directed that a new residential colony for Dalits be constructed on the Ahmedabad-Palanpur highway.
But what has happened? The magistrate acquitted those guilty of arson and murder and the state government did not go in appeal. Until today, the Dalits of the village live in slums, while others have occupied the colony built for them 20 years ago!
Just after Diwali last year, from New Year’s Day, Dalits from Tokrala village (Surendranagar) were attacked by armed Rajputs from Gedhi village; until today, the culprits have not even been arrested.

Among Dalit representatives, too, the tendency has been to limit ourselves to issues concerning the white collar Dalit – the issue of reservations – at the cost on issues concerning 70 per cent of us
What is the SC / ST MP Forum supposed to do?
It was set up during Mrs Gandhi’s regime when Yogendra Macwana was Union minister. As I said before, it has not been very effective. But we have recently tried to revive it. We have submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister making significant demands for the rural section of Dalits. These include the demand for land to the landless SCs. We have recently unearthed government figures to show that six crore acres of land in the country is wasteland: cant this land be converted to cultivable land? We have demanded 10 acres each to every SC family.
Another important demand relates to monies earmarked by the Planning Commission for the Special Component Plan (SCP) and the Tribal Sub-Plan. These are large allocations made by the Centre to be matched by respective state governments and are specifically earmarked for welfare measures for SCs (under the SCP) and STs (under the TSP). But because of deep-rooted caste bias, they have never been utilized for the purpose intended.
Major defaulters have been state governments who simply do not allocate the amount they are obligated to do. For example, under the last plan, Andhra Pradesh was required to allocate Rs. 250 crore to match the Centre’s contribution; it did not. Our demand, therefore, is that the Prime Minister monitors the implementation of the SCP and TSP effectively and in a time-bound manner.
Yet another demand relates to the issue of disinvestments by governments in the public sector undertakings (PSUs). This will severely snatch away employment in PSUs guaranteed through reservation to Dalits. Our demand to the government, therefore, is not to disinvest more than 49 per cent of equity so that controlling and decision making powers, including retention to reservation, remain with government. If that is not possible, we have asked for a new central legislation to ensure that all units in the private sector, particularly those that have been turned over to the private sector by disinvestments, are compelled to implement the policy of reservation even after change of ownership. These are only some of the demands.
Do you support the Dalit demand that caste-based discrimination be raised at the forthcoming WCAR?
How else will caste discrimination ever be removed? Did apartheid against blacks go until the international community intervened? Besides caste bias here is so deep-rooted; it affects all structures and organisations. Dalit rights are not regarded as human rights at all. Human rights organisations would happily fight for the rights of prisoners but not so easily for the rights of Dalits.
Do you know that despite the existence of the POA, 1989, the judiciary has worked in unison to contravene the provisions of that law? Under the Act, there is no provision for bail; yet, in every single case since 1989 all those accused of atrocities under the law are released on bail! Should not the Bar Associations be raising this question? There are also few convictions by judges under this law.



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