Sadhvi Savitri Bai Phule represents the limits of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s strategy of social engineering, a term that describes the welding of upper and lower castes through Hindutva. Elected to the Lok Sabha from the Scheduled Caste reserved constituency of Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh, in 2014, the 37-year-old has been the voice of rebellion against the BJP’s alleged reluctance to promote the interests of Dalits and Other Backward Classes.
Phule grabbed headlines with her strident criticism of the Central government’s initial silence on the Supreme Court’s March 20 judgement diluting the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocity) Act. The court barred the arrest of public servants under the Act without a preliminary inquiry. Though the original provisions of the Act were restored in the wake of massive protests by Dalit groups, Phule was not mollified. She continued to lash out against BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, against whom few in the party speak out.
On Thursday, Phule announced her resignation from the BJP. In this interview with Scroll.in, the fiery MP discloses how she was stopped from raising matters pertaining to Dalits in the Lok Sabha, Modi’s silence when she met him to point to the rising incidence of atrocities against lower castes, the indifference of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath to the vandalising of BR Ambedkar’s statues, and how the party controls those elected from reserved constituencies, including Phule.
You had been unhappy with the BJP for many months. Why did you decide to quit the party now?
I am a follower of Dr BR Ambedkar. It was under the Constitution that he framed that I was elected from the reserved [Lok Sabha] constituency of Bahraich [in Uttar Pradesh]. It was Ambedkar’s dream that those elected from reserved constituencies would go to the Lok Sabha and work to give the rights granted by the Constitution to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and religious minorities. His idea was to bring the Bahujan Samaj [literally, people in the majority] on par with others [meaning, the upper castes].
It was because of Ambedkar’s inspiration that after being elected to the Lok Sabha [in 2014], I consistently raised the subject of atrocities committed on Dalits. Since I am a Dalit, they would simply ignore what I said. Or, when I raised issues pertaining to Dalits and backward classes, they would call me bagawati [rebel]. They would stop me from speaking in the Lok Sabha. Often, I was not even given the opportunity to speak.
When were you stopped from speaking in the Lok Sabha?
After 2015, following my persistent endeavour to highlight incidents of atrocities on Dalits. It is the party that intimates [the Lok Sabha Speaker] who its speakers will be. Whenever I expressed the wish to speak, I was told that if you want to speak, you will have to do so in accordance with the party’s line. I was also told that if this condition was not acceptable to me, I would not get to speak.
Can you name the leader who said this to you?
It was Ananth Kumar [who died last month] who imposed this condition on me. It was his responsibility as parliamentary affairs minister to prepare the list of speakers. When the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was discussed in the Lok Sabha, I requested Kumar to allow me to speak for five minutes. He said I should read the speech he would prepare or I would not be allowed to speak.
Did you not tell other BJP members about Kumar’s conditions?
The BJP’s MPs want to voice grievances [of people] but they are not allowed to. They are frightened into silence. They keep asking for time to speak, but their requests keep getting rejected. They choose to remain silent.
But you just said you raised the issue of injustices against Dalits in the Lok Sabha?
Yes, but even as I was speaking, my mic was switched off. It happened twice. I can show you video recordings of these two speeches. I said I should be allowed to speak for the length of time allocated to me and complete my speech. But the mic was switched off. Leaders of the BJP do not allow Dalits to raise issues pertaining to their community.
Did you not tell the prime minister [Narendra Modi] about it? After all, he too belongs to the Other Backward Classes.
He is an OBC [Other Backward Classes] only in name.
Why do you say that?
He is not an OBC at all. His caste was included in the OBC [category] to get the community’s votes. [Modi belongs to the Modh Ghanchi caste, which was included in the state list for reservation in 1994 and in the Central list in 1999. Phule is alluding to claims, made often without evidence, that Modi was behind the campaign for their inclusion, in the hope of using the caste card to challenge Keshubhai Patel, the chief minister of Gujarat at the time.]
Anyway, did you try to meet the prime minister?
I have met him several times, with regard to my constituency, Dalits, Other Backward Classes and the reservation issue.
What was the prime minister’s response?
No response, nothing at all.
Where did you meet him – at his office or residence?
In the Lok Sabha.
Did you just walk up to him and express your views?
I raised the issue of atrocities on Dalits in several meetings with the prime minister. There was just no response from him.
But the prime minister often speaks on Ambedkar.
The prime minister does not do what he says he will. He does what he never says he will. For instance, he once said that even if Ambedkar were to come and ask him to withdraw reservation, he would not do that. On the other hand, they have ended reservation.
Ended reservation? How?
Ambedkar gave reservation in government jobs to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. But what we see today is rampant privatisation. They have contracted out government jobs. There is no reservation for anyone in the private sector. Because of privatisation, Class 4 employees in the railways get just Rs 3,000. Out of the Rs 3,000, the contractor takes his commission. They do not get wages on time. They do not get overtime payments, and are made to work for 12 hours instead of 10 hours. When they complain, they are thrown out of their jobs. It is a form of atrocity.
I find it hard to believe the prime minister never responded to your complaints.
The prime minister delivers great speeches only from the dais. When the prime minister has to deliver a speech, MPs are asked to write speeches, so are BJP district chiefs. Some 100 people carry out surveys [in the area where he is to address a rally] to collate what the people’s problems are. All these inputs are then used to prepare the speech the prime minister delivers. His listeners then praise him for having delivered a speech that touched their hearts. They wonder how the prime minister knows what is in their hearts. I do not think the prime minister ever articulates what is in his heart.
Other than Ananth Kumar, who were the people in the party who did not allow you to speak?
They are the organisational people, most of all the Brahmins among them. They are the ones who get most perturbed when Dalits speak out.
You mean to say that they just order you not to speak.
Yes, they say it explicitly – you are not to speak, and if you still choose to do so, then do not come for the meeting tomorrow.
Did you take the problems of Dalits in Uttar Pradesh to the state’s chief Minister, Adityanath?
He has been an MP. We used to talk often. He is the chief minister. Anyone can meet him.
What was Adityanath’s response when you took the grievances of Dalits to him?
Well, the chief minister is angry all the time, so nobody is able to speak [to him]. Why will he listen to Dalits and Other Backward Classes? It is because of the backward communities that the BJP got a massive majority in Uttar Pradesh [in the 2017 Assembly elections], but when it came to choosing the chief minister, the BJP decided on someone else [Adityanath, who is a Rajput].
In today’s Uttar Pradesh, neither Dalits nor Other Backward Classes enjoy the respect of the administration. Forget Uttar Pradesh, across India, neither Dalits nor Adivasis nor Other Backward Classes nor minorities are given respect. The only people who are respected are Brahmins. That is why there is so much oppression; that is why Ambedkar’s statues are broken.
Ambedkar’s statues have been broken particularly in Uttar Pradesh. Did you not ask Adityanath to do something?
I wrote two or three times to Adityanath on my letter pad, complaining about Ambedkar’s statues being broken. There was no response. No action was taken.
Did you ever express your concerns to Social Justice Minister Thawar Chand Gehlot, who is a Dalit too?
He too cannot speak. Whenever there have been discussions in the Lok Sabha on Dalits and Other Backward Classes, he completes what he has to say in just five minutes or 10 minutes. He cannot speak frankly. In the BJP, only a person who is their slave is respected. Those who voice their opinions openly are removed from the posts they hold.
But the Modi government has such Dalit stalwarts as Ram Vilas Paswan and Ramdas Athawale. They are respected, aren’t they?
Not everyone can become Ambedkar, and not everyone can become Kanshi Ram [founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party]. Paswan and Athawale have their own parties [Paswan heads the Lok Janshakti Party and Athawale is a leader of the Republican Party of India]. They are greedy for power and money. They are not bothered about society. Unlike them, I am in politics to strengthen the Dalit voice. It is my desire to implement reservation granted to us under the Constitution. I am going to launch a movement on this subject with a massive rally in Lucknow on December 23.
The BJP says with immense pride that it has given India a Dalit president [Ram Nath Kovind]. But the president does not have the freedom to raises issues about Dalits.
How can you say that?
I have seen both the president and the prime minister together. While the prime minister is shown respect, the president is treated disrespectfully.
Give me an example.
The president has been shown disrespect during visits to temples. [For instance, servitors at the Jagannath temple in Puri violated protocol and brushed past the president.] These incidents were crafted to convey a message to Dalits that whether they become chief minister, prime minister or president, they will still be looked down upon. This is also the reason why Adityanath described Hanuman as Dalit.
What is the idea underlying Adityanath’s description?
Hanuman was a Dalit but he was a slave of the Manuwadis [those who believe in the code of Manu that upholds and legitimises the Hindu social hierarchy]. Whenever they needed the support of Dalits and backward castes, those who presided over the Manuwadi system took their assistance. If anyone helped Ram achieve his goals, it was Hanuman. It was he who should have been given the status of god. But because Hanuman was a Dalit, Ram turned him into a monkey – he affixed a tail to Hanuman and blackened his face. Ram insulted Hanuman. Dalits were insulted then, they are being insulted even today.
You have also said that what is being done in Uttar Pradesh today is an attempt to re-create the political climate of 1992, when the Babri Masjid was demolished. Why do you think that?
December 6 is the death anniversary of Baba Ambedkar. They want people to forget his death anniversary. It was to shred the Constitution into pieces that they decided to demolish the Babri Masjid on December 6 . They demolished the Babri Masjid because they want to rule the country by getting the minorities, backward castes and Dalits to fight each other. They just do not have any issue.
They want to repeat 1992. On November 26 , Ambedkar gifted the Constitution to India. On November 25, they [the Vishwa Hindu Parishad] convened a dharam sabha. What is the message they want to convey? Not only this, they say the Supreme Court must decide on the mosque-temple issue soon or else they [BJP] will take the decision on their own. They say this because they do not accept the Constitution; they accept Manusmriti.
When you declared you wanted to leave the BJP, did its leaders not warn you against it?
It has been conveyed to me that they will finish me off in a way that I will not be capable of doing politics. These threats have been coming from the BJP.
Were these threats issued directly to you?
It has been conveyed to me through others. These threats started four-five months ago.