Former Union Minister in the Indira Gandhi and Narasimha Rao Cabinets and a tribal leader from Chhattisgarh, Arvind Netam, 80, who returned to the Congress in 2018, blames his own party government in the State for undermining the interests of tribals.
In an interview with The Hindu, Mr. Netam said the delay in getting the Governor’s approval for two Bills that take the reservations in jobs and educational institutions to 76% was of the government’s own making and it was the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes that were the worst sufferers of this stalemate as the quota process had come to a halt.
The deadlock over the Bills providing reservations (Scheduled Tribes 32%, Other Backward Classes 27%, Scheduled Castes 13%, and Economically Weaker Sections 4%) has dominated the political landscape of the State for the past few months.
“In this whole episode the Schedule Tribes and Scheduled Castes are the worst sufferers because there is no dispute or confusion according to the Constitution for their reservation. It’s only for the backward classes that the quantum has to be decided. The Chhattisgarh government made a mistake by clubbing the reservations of all sections in a single Bill,” said Mr. Netam, who dons many hats but primarily identifies himself as a “social activist” associated with one faction of the Sarva Aadivasi Samaj, a tribal group.
“If the High court struck down 58% reservation [last year, that led to the two amendment Bills], how could the government go ahead with a Bill that proposes 76% reservation. This is why the previous Governor Ms. [Anusuiya] Uikey was hesitant to approve the Bill. Had the government brought a separate Bill to provide reservation to SCs and STs according to their population, nobody could challenge it in a court of law,” said Mr. Netam.
Expressing his disappointment over the State’s Congress government, the tribal leader said had the government consulted the SCs and STs who would be impacted by the decision, such an impasse could have been avoided. Without naming Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, he said leaders of the State unit of the Congress — that virtually made a clean sweep in the tribal belts of Bastar and Sarguja in the last elections — did not believe in consultations.
Mr. Netam also attacked the SC/ST leaders of the party, calling them “bonded labourers” who could not express their opinion on the party forum.
“The legislators who are from the Schedule Caste or Schedule Tribe communities have no voice and are virtually bonded labourers. They fear that if they make any suggestion that does not go well with the State’s leadership they might lose the ticket in the next election. Not a single MLA or minister has commented on the issue, whereas they are the only competent authorities to speak on the subject,” he said
While Mr. Netam backed the Congress on allegations that the BJP was playing backdoor politics on the quota issue through the Raj Bhavan, he said that as the ruling party, the Congress could not take the support of SCs and STs (who constitute nearly 45% of the electorate between them) for granted.
“It [the stalling of the Bills] may backfire, or at least cause some damage, because in recruitment there is no reservation as of now. For example the tribals are convinced that politics is being played and they constitute 33% of the population which is not a small number,” Mr. Netam says. However, he backs the Congress on allegations that the BJP was playing backdoor politics through the Raj Bhavan on the quota issue and said the tribals were disillusioned with both the parties.
Asserting that political change would only come through social movements such as the one his faction of the Sarva Aadivasi Samaj was running, Mr. Netam said he was working towards building a new tribal leadership in the State and the SAA would field candidates in the Assembly elections scheduled later this year. More than the results, he said, it was necessary for political awakening of the tribals.
“Once the Scheduled Castes were core vote bank of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh and they have only one Lok Sabha MP today. The late [Bahujan Samaj Party founder] Kanshiram started a social movement and the Congress gradually lost its hold over that vote bank. In Jharkhand, people are more politically conscious and that’s why all Chief Ministers barring one have been tribals irrespective of the party or group in power. If that has not happened in Chhattisgarh, the political parties are to be blamed.” he said.