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Mainstream, VOL LV No 28 New Delhi July 1, 2017

Why I think Ramnath Kovind is not the Right Candidate to be President of India

Saturday 1 July 2017, by Ambrose Pinto

That the UPA and NDA have chosen Dalits to be candidates for the office of the President is an expression of the importance of the Dalit constituency in the politics of India. As a person with a public conscience, however, I tend to hold that the NDA candidate, Sri Ramnath Kovind, is a big disappointment. Though a Dalit, he has not served the Dalit cause all through the years of his politics. It is true, the BJP has an ideology of its own. One did not expect them to nominate someone beyond and above their ideology. Any person the BJP nominates has to serve the party’s political end. As a party, the BJP has been anti-Dalit and anti-minority. In choosing a Dalit in the person of Ramnath Kovind, the party has found someone who would further the cause of the party than the Dalit cause.

Context of Nomination

The fact is that Dalits are alienated from the BJP as a community. Ever since it assumed power, the BJP has lost further ground with the Dalit constituency across the country. It all began with the suicide of Rohith Vemula of the Hyderabad University where the ABVP caused much of the damage. In the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus in New Delhi there was an outpouring of anger against the BJP on several issues from the suicide of a Dalit to the cutting down of research seats, increase of hostel fees to other kinds of institutional discrimination against them. In UP, in spite of sizeable support to the party from the Dalits during the State Assembly elections, caste clashes have jeopardised the community’s support for the saffron party. With Adityanath at the helm, Dalits in the State of Uttar Pradesh have experienced the wrath of the upper caste. Saharanpur has witnessed violent clashes between Rajputs and Dalits with the latter’s houses burnt down, their men beaten. When the Bhim Army under Chandrasekhar Azad protested, fiery young Dalit men were picked up with multiple cases filed against some of them.

There are other instances of Dalit atrocities like the flogging of Dalits in Una in 2016 for skinning a dead cow. In more and more States one watches the Dalits as a constituency moving out of the BJP fold. Besides, allocation to primary education, health care and Dalit empowerment programmes have considerably declined since the BJP took over power. Reserved seats and jobs have not been filled up. There has been a ruling now to stop the advancement of Dalits at the level of promotions where the community was able to occupy proportionate percentage of jobs. With the collapse of the agricultural sector, Dalits remain further pauperised. It is in this context that one should look at the appointment of Ramnath Kovind as the presidential candidate of the NDA for the party to gain mileage.

 Credentials of Ramnath Kovind

The most important credential of Ramnath Kovind to be a presidential candidate is that he has toed the RSS/BJP line. Though a Dalit, he has had no revolutionary agenda for their transformation. As a party, the BJP is committed to maintain the hierarchical caste order and in many circles the party is known as a “Brahmin Jati Party”. The party has no programme to annihilate caste or treat Dalits as equals. Though academically competent and politically experienced with a legal degree, all through the years of his public life Kovind has served the BJP as a Member of Parliament and all his statements and pro-nouncements were in keeping with the ideology of the party. As a Dalit face of the BJP, he has been the head of the Dalit morcha of the party. There are no instances of his standing up either for Dalit rights or fighting against atrocities perpetuated against them.

He has not been a critique against India’s caste order which has caused damage to the Dalit psyche. Instead, he has supported the diabolical ideology of the BJP against the community. The objective of the BJP in selecting Kovind is to turn him into a model of what a good Dalit should be. For the BJP, Dalits should be Hindus and accept their position in the caste hierarchy. This is the political line of the Sangh Parivar. Any protest against caste and as a result moving into another religious identity is considered as anti-national.

Kovind prefers reforms in the caste hierarchy as entrenched in the Hindu puranic system, instead of a complete annihilation of caste as advocated by Indian leaders like B.R. Ambedkar, Phule and Periyar. In other words, the Hindu-ness of a Dalit for Kovind must subsume the Dalit-ness of her/his identity. Much of what Kovind has said and done exposes what he is and how he has served the RSS/BJP.

Dalits should accept Primacy of Education over Reservation 

In his understanding, Dalits should accept the primacy of education over reservations. Dalits are backward because they have no education. Once educated, Dalits will not be excluded, according to him. However, in a caste society even if Dalits are educated, the Hindu society is still unwilling to accept them as equals. Though he has said reservation has to a large degree been successful in protecting Dalit rights, he had advocated “primary education as a place to start the end of discrimination”.

No one disagrees that primary education is the place to begin but primary education cannot end discrimination. The Sangh Parivar sees primary education as replacement for the reservation policy. He has said Dalits should not demand reservations in the private sector.1 What Kovind does not understand is that democracies are all about representation. If Dalits or for that matter any community is not represented in all sectors of the economy and polity, they are likely to remain excluded.

Discrimination is because of Poverty 

Economics underlie the discrimination against Dalits, not caste, a view to which Kovind has subscribed while Dalit intellectuals and others have strongly disagreed with his assertion. “The true basis of discrimination is economic in nature rather than caste-based, as the haves discriminate against the have-nots and use the caste system to perpetuate differences between economic groups.” “Comparing the caste system to the trade guilds in feudal Europe, he had said that under the caste system, persons acquire their trade at birth, while the guilds allowed job mobility. Caste factors are now used to protect jobs and livelihoods more than anything else.”

Kovind’s arguments clearly mirror those of the Sangh Parivar. Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS Sarsanghchalak, in 2010 had stirred a political controversy when he had advocated that economic background, and not caste, should be the basis of the reservation system.2

There is Decreasing Violence on Dalits

In spite of the increasing atrocities and violence on the Dalits, Kovind has held that the practice has decreased considerably and even hiring personnel is usually free of caste prejudices. “Open” discrimination against Dalits has decreased dramatically over the last decade, while the number of persons who genuinely care about helping Dalits has increased. He maintained that while discrimination persists in the housing sector, employment decisions are usually free from bias.

While Kovind in an interview agreed with many others that the Hindu religion condones caste and therefore it will take longer for the Government of India to end caste discrimination, he also predicted that caste-based discrimination will exist for at least 50-100 years in India.

Kovind had desisted from demanding equal opportunity legislation in the private sector.3

His views on Dalit Christians and Muslims:

As a BJP spokesperson, he had objected to the proposed inclusion of Dalit Christians and Muslims in the Scheduled Caste category and had opposed the recommendations of the National Religious and Linguistic Minorities Commission (Ranganath Mishra Commission) to include Dalit Christians and Muslims in the SC list. Keeping with the ideology of the party he had expressed his reservation against the quota for religious minorities. “If the government accepts the Ranganath Mishra Commission’s recommendations, the convert Christians and Muslims would become eligible to contest on seats reserved for Scheduled Castes. Thus the people of Scheduled Castes would have to share their reservations in government jobs and political fields with convert Christians and Muslims.”

He had argued that Christians and Muslims had been getting reservations in government jobs under the backward class categories; so the demand to put them under the SC category was just to make them eligible for contesting elections in reserved seats. “Their special interest is not in getting reservations in government jobs, they want Scheduled Caste category reservation to contest elections from village panchayats to the Lok Sabha. As they know, they cannot be eligible to contest elections on reserved seats under backward class reservation,” he said.4

BJP Alone can Save Dalits

However, when it came to his party allegiance, Kovind was quite vehement about projecting the BJP as the only party that will “help” Dalits. Kovind had asserted: “The BJP is determined to help Dalits and shed the image that it is only an upper caste party.” He had argued that only a nationalist party like the BJP will succeed in fighting discrimination against Dalits, as India cannot become a world power until Dalits and low-caste persons are brought up to the level of the rest of society.5

Conclusion

In the person of Kovind, the BJP has a Dalit who would conform to the Hindu world-view without fighting for the cause of social justice and empowerment of the SCs. Kovind’s entry into the Rashtrapati Bhavan is therefore no symbol of Dalit assertion or pride. In fact, he may even turn into an obstacle for the Dalit cause as he would provide support for the Hindutva politics which is essentially anti-Dalit.

Parties, if interested in the Dalits, may have to first create an autonomous Dalit leadership with men and women who are more committed to the Dalit cause of annihilation of caste and fighting for justice than to political parties. In the person of Kovind the BJP has found a Dalit who would not prove an obstacle for the construction of a “Hindu Rashtra” but an active collaborator.

Footnotes

1. https://scroll.in/article/841342/not-a-masterstroke-bjp-picked-kalam-for-president-after-2002-riots-kovind-after-attacks-on-dalits

2. https://thewire.in/149571/wikileaks-ram-nath-kovind-discrimination-dalits-sangh-parivar/

3. https://thewire.in/149571/wikileaks-ram-nath-kovind-discrimination-dalits-sangh-parivar/

4. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/ram-nath-kovind-had-opposed-sc-status-for-dalit-christians-muslims-4712492/

5. https://thewire.in/149571/wikileaks-ram-nath-kovind-discrimination-dalits-sangh-parivar/

Dr Ambrose Pinto SJ in the Principal, St Aloysius Degree College, Bangalore.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62