Consensus on caste a must: Bangaru
The Pioneer, 26th August 2000
Suman K Jha/New Delhi

The Bharatiya Janata Party elected Bangaru Laxman, a Dalit leader (a Madiga) from Andhra Pradesh, as its president recently. Laxman, who will formally take over the reins of the party at the Nagpur meeting of the BJP national council beginning on Saturday, is the first Dalit to have been chosen to head the party. In an interview with The Pioneer, Laxman asserted that the BJP is not a caste-based party and that his Dalit identity is only incidental.

However, he said that his election would send a positive and reassuring signal to the weaker sections at large.

Q. Many view your election as nothing more than a mere symbolic gesture. That the Prime Minister wanted you for the top job perhaps made it much easier for you.

A. If you are referring to the "Brahmin-Bania" character of the party, please tell me about a political party where these communities don't have a sizeable presence. Take the Left, who don't believe in caste; or the Congress -- in its 114-yr-long history it could find only two Dalit presidents -- or anyone else. The BSP, of course, is an exception.

As for a Dalit being made our party president, the BJP doesn't believe in caste politics. The party doesn't recognise its committees, right from the village to national level, unless they fulfil their constitutional obligations in terms of representation to weaker sections. As for my credentials, in my 50-yr-long association with the "vichardhara", I have held various organisational posts including that of State president.

Q. It's said that Dalits in your party are mere figureheads. Not many of you can claim to have mass following, say like that of a Kanshi Ram or a Ram Vilas Paswan.

A. We don't believe in exclusivity. BJP Dalit leaders aren't caste leaders. And this has been appreciated by the Dalits too. Otherwise, how do you think the party could have got the largest chunk of Dalit MPs and legislators in State Assemblies.

Q. You will formally take charge of the party in Nagpur. Do you attach any significance to it?

A. Nagpur is the land of inspiration, one provided by Dr Hedgewar and then by Dr Ambedkar. I think this is the closest one can get to an ideal framework for Hindu society.

Q. Do you think the influence of caste in society has weakened? You head the country's largest political party. The President of India and the Lok Sabha Speaker belong to the weaker sections of society.

A. There has been a change, no doubt, but it is not significant enough. But what we need is a massive movement to bring about a change in the social psyche of the people. The BJP has set an example for others to follow. The weaker sections, who feel alienated from the mainstream, must be reassured that they are very much a part and parcel of this very nation.

Q. But a beginning has to be made. And instead of accusing Christian missionaries of "luring away" the downtrodden sections, don't you think the BJP, the RSS, and the allied organisations should devote more time, energy and resources towards creating an egalitarian Hindu social order?

A. The RSS and the allied organisations are already working in this direction. The Seva Bharti, Samajik Samrasta Manch and other organisations are active in the field. But yes, this needs to be re-focused and this is one of my priority areas. We also need to evolve a national consensus on the issue.

Q. An oft-repeated charge is that Dalit leaders in your party have to be sanskritised for upward mobility. Christophe Jaffrelot, in one of his works for instance, asks why does Satyanarain Jatia, a Dalit trade union leader, need to take oath in Sanskrit to prove his credentials?

A. Not many are aware of the fact that Ambedkar himself was a great lover of Sanskrit. In fact, he was barred from pursuing a course in grade VIII because he happened to be a Dalit. For the simple reason that one happens to be a Dalit, do you think we must disown our traditions? In any case, adopting what you refer to as the "sanskritised way of life" only proves that the Dalits are not inferior to anyone else.

Q. Are you comfortable with the idea of working with ideologues like Arun Shourie? Apart from his well-known views on Ambedkar, he now heads the Disinvestment ministry. It is also feared that the weaker sections would be the worst-hit as a result of the disinvestment process.

A. He wrote his "Worshipping False Gods" much before joining the party. Also, I have condemned the book on many occasions and I firmly believe that everyone, howsoever big he might be, will have to fall in line. The party won't be dictated by someone's personal agenda.

As for disinvestment, you cannot stall the process. Loss-making units cannot be allowed to run like this. But yes, the party would see to it that the weaker sections' interests are protected. After all, I have been a trade union leader myself.

Q. What is the biggest challenge that you, as the BJP president, are likely to face? How do you propose to deal with religious leaders who want separate swastika temples for the so-called low-caste converts?

A. As I said, we need to have a national movement, involving politicians, social activists, "mathadhipatis", caste leaders to transform the social psyche of the nation. Birth-based identities cannot be allowed to determine one's destiny. As for the said Shankarcharya's statements, we condemn them in strongest terms.

Q. How do you assess the role of the Ayodhya movement?

A. People from all walks of life participated in the movement. The so-called low castes, backward classes, all were there and the "caste feeling" had receded to a great extent during the movement.

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