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Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Rajendra Pal Gautam has been in the eye of the storm since his presence at a conversion event in Delhi was questioned by several Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders including Union Minister Kiren Rijiju and two-time Delhi MP Manoj Tiwari.
Four days after hundreds of Dalits embraced Buddhism at the Buddha Dhamma Deeksha Samaroh on 5 October in the Capital, Gautam tendered his resignation as Delhi's Social Welfare minister.
The conversion event was organised by the Buddhist Society of India, and Mission Jai Bheem, which is run by Gautam. As a part of the ceremony, the AAP leader, along with those present, had repeated the vows to not worship any Hindu gods or goddesses.
The vows -- which are the same that Dr BR Ambedkar took in 1956 -- came under the scanner with the BJP claiming that the event was 'anti-Hindu.'
In his resignation letter, Gautam wrote, "I will continue to work for the party to strengthen India and will follow the teachings of Babasaheb Ambedkar all my life. The BJP has a problem with me following the teaching of Babasaheb Ambedkar and is using this to play dirty politics."
In conversation with The Quint, the AAP leader talks about his resignation, the AAP's silence on the controversy, scope of Ambedkarite politics in India, and more. Excerpts from the interview:
It is an established fact that the 22 vows taken by participants at the conversion event are the vows which were taken by Ambedkar when he converted to Buddhism. Do you think the BJP leaders who fanned this controversy were not aware of this or was this done on purpose?
Some BJP leaders intentionally created a controversy where there was none. On 5 October, when this event was held, a similar event ceremony was organised at the Deekshabhoomi in Maharashtra's Nagpur. That ceremony was attended by two prominent leaders, BJP's Devendra Fadnavis, and (Republican Party of India's) Ramdas Athawale. The vows were repeated at that ceremony too. This isn't anything new. This tradition was started by Ambedkar on 14 October 1956. Since then, people not just in India, but across the world take these vows and convert to Buddhism on Ashok Vijayadashami. There is no question of hurting the sentiments of any religion here.
The AAP leadership is yet to comment on this controversy. Do you feel let down by the fact that no big leader from the party has come forth to defend you like they came out to defend Manish Sisodia or Satyendra Jain?
If they (party leadership) come out and say something now, they will be playing into the hands of the BJP. We are smart people. We know when to react and when not to. We are educated professionals from all walks of life who have come together to do politics of welfare unlike the BJP where the leaders are only working to spread hatred along the lines of caste and religion. Their own ministers participate in such events. They, however, created an issue here keeping the (upcoming) Gujarat elections in mind. I will die but I won't let BJP's dirty politics flourish. Do our Prime Minister and Home Minister react when a Dalit child is murdered for touching a pot of water or Dalit women are raped and hanged?
In an interview you said that the "Constitution of India allows people to follow a religion of their choice." If you and your party believe in this statement, what is the reason behind your resignation?
There are two reasons behind my resignation. First, it is my protest against the silence of the tall leaders of our country on the atrocities against minorities. Second, conversion ceremonies are held across the country. It is an annual affair in Nagpur, and is attended by multiple BJP leaders. Nobody has ever raised an objection to that. It was to malign my party and my leader Arvind Kejriwal, that this malicious campaign was started by the BJP. I am deeply hurt by that.
Don't you think that as a minister you could have done far more for the oppressed communities in India as compared to what you can do now?
A ministerial post comes with certain limitations. I feel I can do much more for my community now. In the Legislative Assembly, a minister is almost always answering and rarely gets an opportunity to ask questions. I am still an MLA and as an MLA, I will be able to ask questions. I will now take the cause of the community to the Assembly and to the streets alike. I will restart my law practice and will fight cases on behalf of the oppressed.
Since there has been no official reaction of the AAP on this issue, can you tell us what Kejriwal said to you when you tendered your resignation? Was the resignation by choice or were you pressurised to resign?
The party is towing a very thoughtful and carefully curated line on this subject. Rajendra Pal Gautam as a person is not important. What is important is our mission to defeat the BJP in Gujarat. And as far as pressure is concerned, a lawyer can never be pressurised to do anything.
Do you think that had you continued as a minister, it would have dented AAP's chances in Gujarat? Was this resignation a calculated move?
For that, you will have to wait for the election results. I wasn't pressurised into doing anything. I must say, however, that I have achieved some victory already. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Mohan Bhagwat have for the first time called for an abolition of the caste system. Even if he didn't mean to say it, the fact that he did is already hinting at my personal victory. Before you point fingers at AAP, you should seek accountability from the BJP over hate speeches delivered by their leaders. You should ask the Prime Minister and the Home Minister to speak on crimes against caste and religious minorities.
The AAP has often claimed that it is a party with a difference but if Arvind Kejriwal is also silent on such issues just like Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, what is the difference between the AAP and the BJP?
The AAP raises relevant issues time and again. My mother used to say that one silent person can defeat hundreds of those creating unnecessary noise. So, if winning the ultimate fight means we have to stay silent for a while, we are ready to do that.
How is Kejriwal's silence different from that of Amit Shah's or Narendra Modi's?
It is different. Their silence propagates hate. Our silence is to eliminate hate.
Recently, in a tweet, Manish Sisodia called himself a descendant of Maharana Pratap, a "Rajput who won't give up." If there was no action against Sisodia for asserting his caste identity, why did you have to tender your resignation for asserting your Ambedkarite identity?
Sometimes depending on our conditioning, even the best of us falter. Sisodia ji is a progressive person who is concerned about our education system and the future of our youth. As far as the comparison between the action taken against him and that against me is concerned, we must remember that in politics, we must react as per time and circumstances. We need not react on everything and must exercise reason and logic. Else, we will lose the game.
The Delhi Police has questioned you in connection with the 5 October event. We also saw that you were targeted by BJP leaders at a rally called the 'Virat Hindu Sabha' held in Delhi on 9 October. Tell us about the investigation, and do you think this rally was a pressure tactic implemented by the BJP?
The comments made by the BJP leaders at that rally were meant to terrorise us. I was summoned by the Delhi Police but no action has been taken against leaders present at that rally. This only goes on to show how all investigative agencies and independent bodies in India, such as, the Election Commission, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Enforcement Directorate, and state police forces are being used by the BJP as a toolkit.
I am receiving threats on Facebook, Twitter, and even on phone. I am a lawyer by profession and would want to tell them that I will not be silenced or threatened by these tactics. They can kill me if they want. They should, however, remember that if they kill one Gautam, thousands of Gautams will be born.
This fight will continue till we eradicate casteism from our society. Till our people are killed for keeping a moustache, for entering temples, and for drinking water from pots, this fight will not stop.
In today's political climate, parties across board are trying to appropriate Ambedkar. They, however, seem reluctant to accept his teachings and ideals.
As an individual, I follow Ambedkar's teachings. I am not saying anything controversial or using language used by terrorists. I am not even trying to create tensions along the lines of caste and religion. Leaders of the BJP, however, occasionally use language that invokes terror. We regularly see videos where they can be seen threatening an entire community. The police is not taking any action against them.