Calcutta Notebook


Much to its own surprise and embarrassment, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) found itself in the awkward position of being forced to vote against a Resolution to ensure that Dalits are treated equally all over the country.

Nobody knows how it happened. Perhaps it was because of the fact that a brand new Deputy Chairman was in the chair at that time. Perhaps it was just complacency. Whatever it was, despite all the meticulous planning and alert floor management throughout the rest of the day, there was a momentary slip-up. Unwillingly the ruling party vindicated the Opposition charge that the Modi government is anti-Dalit.

It was the last afternoon of the last day of the Monsoon Session of the Rajya Sabha. It had been an action-packed day. The entire morning had been tumultuous and there were still some important Bills that to be passed late in the evening before the House was adjourned sine die. The House was taking up a few items of a Private Member's business which are normally conducted peacefully and without any surprises.

The actual debate on the Private Member's Resolution moved by Vishambhar Prasad Nishad of the Samajwadi Party was also along expected lines. Passionate but peaceful—it was greeted with nods of approval and agreement from all the one hundred Members present in the House.

The problem cropped up when Nishad insisted on a vote. Normally, such non-official Bills and Resolutions are withdrawn by the Member who moves them. But on this occasion, the Samajwadi Member insisted that it should be put to the vote.

Deputy Chairman Harivansh proceeded to ask for a voice vote—and, as expected, declared that it had been 'negatived'.

However, Nishad and some others demanded a 'Division', which means actual voting that is recorded and tallied. The Deputy Chairman went right ahead and ordered the "lobbies to be cleared" and set the voting process rolling.

There were howls of protest from the Treasury benches. Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad jumped to his feet and raised objections. BJP president Amit Shah, who happened to be present, was seen frantically conferring with those sitting near him. The ruling party seniors had obviously realised the political implications of putting on record their vote against the welfare of Dalits.

Social Justice Minister Thawar Chand Gehlot joined his Law Minister in saying that only Bills are put to the vote and not Resolutions. Ravi Shankar Prasad tried to contend that a "new precedent" would be set and therefore the Chair should not allow a Division.

It was too late. Acting on the advice of the Secretary-General, the Deputy Chairman ruled that since he had already ordered the lobbies to be cleared, the voting process had effectively been started and could not be stopped.

There was no way out. Electronic voting took place. The result was 32 in favour of the Resolution and 66 against. The Private Member's Resolution had been defeated—but there were red faces on the Treasury benches for having voted against ensuring equal treatment of Scheduled Caste citizens in all the States of the country and bringing about a uniform reservation system free of discrimination.

During the debate, the concerned minister, Thawar Chand Gehlot, had fully endorsed the points raised and accepted that there were many discrepancies across different States and that these had to be looked into and rectified. He also agreed that a proper procedure had to be laid down to add, delete or modify the Scheduled Caste lists so that certain castes were not deprived of the benefits of reservation for no fault of their own.

The detailed discrepancies outlined by Vishambhar Prasad Nishad had been appreciated by members from all sides of the House and some had even come out with more examples of how—due to spelling errors and various other kinds of confusing nomenclature—several castes and sub-castes were being left out in the cold.

The flaws in the system are legion. There was a consensus view that many people belonging to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes or Denotified Castes are being deprived of facilities and concessions and are being neglected because of the lack of a uniform reservation system in the whole country.

For instance, those belonging to the fishermen community in many States face difficulties when they migrate to other States in search of employment—they are rendered ineligible for availing reservation benefits as they are issued the requisite certificate only by the State from where they have migrated.

In almost all the States, the people belonging to fishermen community whose castes have names similar to others are deprived of reservation rights.

In the complex maze of sub-castes having names which are different in different States, the problems lead to confusion and discrimination. For example, in Uttar Pradesh, the caste of 'Beldar' is included in the approved list, of Scheduled Castes, but a sub-caste having similar name 'Bind ' has been excluded.

There are numerous such discrepancies—Under the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order 1950 and in the Schedule-VIII of the Madhya Pradesh Reorganisation Act, 2000, the caste of 'Manjhi' has been notified at Serial Number 29 and the caste of 'Majhwar' has been notified at Serial No. 30 as Scheduled Tribes throughout the State of Madhya Pradesh. However, the sub castes like Dhimar, Dhiwar, Kevat, Kahar, Mallah, Nishad, which are actually directly linked to 'Manjhi' and 'Majhwar' have been left out due to which these sub-castes are deprived of the facilities of reservation.

What the Resolution sought was to provide standard and uniform norms to end discrimination. This can be done only by amending Articles 341 and 342 of the Constitution to include the homonymous and synonymous sub-castes of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in accordance with the castes registered State-wise in the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950 in all the States.

All political parties across the ideological spectrum agree to this. But the BJP voted against it on the floor of the Rajya Sabha—much to the delight of the Opposition parties.

Vol. 51, No.9, Sep 2 - 8, 2018