"I married a Brahmin woman. Our relatives exchange greetings. Even Babasaheb Ambedkar believed that merely exchanging rotis (bread) will not abolish casteism, exchange of betis (daughters) is also necessary. If you want to bring communities together, there have to be inter-caste marriages," said Ramdas Athawale, Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment and the leader of the Republican Party of India (A).'
One of the most prominent Dalit faces of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), Athawale is also known as the people's leader who never refuses to meet anybody who wishes for an audience with him.
After decades of association with the Congress and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), Athawale's RPI (A) officially joined hands with the BJP in 2012.
Athawale's legacy comes from decades of public movements to fight atrocities against Dalits in Maharashtra and other parts of the country. Most recently, he became viral for coining the term 'Go Corona Go' during the pandemic. But social media fame isn't new for Athawale either. His poems, rhymes, and couplets often lead to riots of laughter in the Parliament.
In an interview on 'Badi Badi Baatein!', The Quint spoke to Athawale about the country's struggles to curb caste-based atrocities, his demands for a caste census despite the BJP's cold shoulder to it, the political turmoil in Maharashtra, and the spontaneity of his couplets.
Welcome to Quint and Quint Hindi. and welcome to Badi Badi Baatein. I ask all my guests this - Badi Badi Baatein can mean a lot of things. What does it mean to you politically in present times?
There should be 'Badi Badi Baatein' in politics if the work done is great. When great work doesn't happen, smaller problems start arising. But there are some people in politics who only make tall claims. But only making tall claims is not our job. We believe in going great work. Some people might call it 'Badi Badi Baatein' but we don't do that.
We are seeing a lot of atrocities against Dalits and minorities in the country today. We are in the 76th year of Independence. Do you think successive governments through the years have failed to meet goals of equality?
I think it is the responsibility of state governments to control the atrocities against Dalits and other minorities. But as far as my experience in government, Opposition, and public life goes, discrimination against Dalit atrocities need to be seen from a social perspective rather than political.
Even Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar faced atrocities despite being so highly educated and coming from London School of Economics (LSE). Another point is that the Dalits considered discrimination as their fate. So, they would not realise when they are being subjected to any atrocities.
They would cite tradition and give in to untouchability and ostracism. They would think that abusing them is the right of the upper castes. Today, we are talking about caste census. It's a technical difficulty before the government that since caste system has been abolished, how can a caste survey be conducted.
Hence, no other governments before conducted caste census either. Even now, there are calls for a caste census to be conducted despite such technical difficulties. What I mean to say is - the casteism has been abolished by law by my experience is different.
I married a Brahmin woman. Their relatives and mine exchange greetings. Even Babasaheb Ambedkar believed that merely exchanging rotis will not abolish casteism, for that exchanges of betis (daughters) is also necessary.
If you want to bring communities together, there have to be inter-caste marriages. It is not right to just hold the governments accountable for atrocities. The government, of course is responsible but the bigger responsibility is with the society - the political parties, the social workers, etc. There are people who still believe in casteism. Some people think that a Dalit groom doesn't deserve to sit on a horse, not wear good clothes or own any property.
There are people still with such a mentality and hence there are atrocities. The state and central governments both need to work together to control them. But to put an end to atrocities, you need unity and equality and we all will have to work together for that.
You spoke about caste census. There is caste census happening in Bihar. Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said that if Congress wins in Madhya Pradesh, there will be a caste census there too. Do you think there should be a caste census at the centra, national level?
The stand of my party is that there should be a census of all castes and not just SC/STs. There is no census for OBCs. My party and I have spoken about this in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha as well. A caste-based census will not necessarily propagate casteism.
If you go to a village, even a kid knows who's a Patil, Deshmukh, Buddhist, or Maratha. Everybody knows these things. So, if a caste census is conducted, we will know what's the percentage of each community. My party's stand is that there should be a caste census.
Do you think a caste census will affect voting patterns?
I don't think caste census will affect voting patterns. People vote for those they want to vote for anyway. Congress ruled for 60-70 years. Our government is doing good work. We have nothing to worry in 2024. We will win with 350 seats.
Speaking of Sharad Pawar - you have worked with him before. The Maharashtra politics is in turmoil. How have your relations with him been all through these years?
I had very good relations with Sharad Pawar when I worked for Dalit Panthers of India and I would campaign in villages.
Sharad Pawar knew me well at the time. When we allied with the Congress party and it won because of the RPI's support, a government was formed with the help of 11 independents. It was because of Sharad Pawar that I took oath with the first four ministers. There can be different views in politics. When I did not get me a cabinet berth in UPA 1 after being elected from Pandharpur, there was conspiracy to make me lose in Shirdi. Hence, I quit the Congress-NCP alliance.
In 2011, I was staying at Bandra. Bal Thackeray lived there. He told me that 'Shiv Shakti and Bhim Shakti should unite.' He said that he has been aiming for an alliance for years. He said that his father and Babasaheb went way back and he was also a part of the 'Samyukta Maharashtra campaign.'
So, I allied with the BJP and Shiv Sena. But my relations with Sharad Pawar have remained good. He understands the pulse of Maharashtra. I have never taken a stand against him.
Ajit Pawar has joined hands with the Maharashtra government. Had you expected anything like that?
We were predicting it in ways. In 2019, the BJP won 103 seats, the RPI won two and we had the support of 11-12 independents. But the BJP did not have a clear majority. It was not possible to form the government without the support of the Shiv Sena. Devendra Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar took oath as CM and deputy CM. But Ajit did not get a support of a lot of MLAs back then. He always wanted to be with the BJP. What is the issue? This happens in politics.
I have said it several times that Sharad Pawar should also join the NDA. It is not right to be so stubborn. I used to oppose the BJP and the Shiv Sena too. But Narendra Modi's ideology is that of development and unity. Pawar should rethink his decision. People change, so do societies. The BJP is not what it used to be before. Today, there are Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs, and Muslims supporting the BJP. Pawar should have taken all these factors into consideration.
If Sharad Pawar had switched sides, the NCP would not have split. If Uddhav Thackeray had stayed, Eknath Shinde would not have engineered such a big split. Their parties split because these leaders were too adamant. Ajit Pawar planned it and now 40-45 MLAs are with him.
Sharad Pawar campaigning around so much at this age is something I don't like. He is a good man and him taking so much trouble to campaign should not be the case. Sharad Pawar is still the leader of the NCP and I respect him. Hence, the NCP split because Ajit Pawar wanted to join hands with the BJP. If Sharad Pawar had taken the decision himself, he would have gotten a better share in the government.
Do you think there is instability in Eknath Shinde's Shiv Sena after Ajit Pawar's entry?
We don't see any instability or disgruntlement there. We didn't really need Ajit Pawar. We had a strength of 164 MLAs. But Ajit Pawar wanted to join the alliance and the doors were always open.
Many say that Sharad Pawar knew this was to happen and he still let it. They say he is playing both sides. Do you think that's true?
I don't think he is keeping both options in hand or anything. He has clarified his stand. Earlier, he would say that those who want to go with the BJP they can but he won't. He might have known that there are many in the party who wanted to.
Even Ajit Pawar was visibly upset. When the working Presidents were appointed, Supriya Sule was named. He might have felt that he is being sidelined. So, he took a decision to part ways. Despite separation, he uses pictures of Sharad Pawar, cites his legacy, and says that there is no ill will between the two.
There are several such accusations against Sharad Pawar but he is known to be a daring leader who takes stands unapologetically. But Sharad Pawar has made his mind to not join hands with the BJP. That should not be the case, he should change his mind and join the NDA.
You are inclined towards various forms of art. You are a poet and who have acted in films in the past. If you were not a politician, what would you be?
If not a politician, I would have been a film personality. I am not a published poet as such. Some things just strike me in some situations. I am good with rhymes. I was recently at a Maharashtra Sadan event where Manoj Tiwari was also in attendance. I reached there a little late. So I framed some lines saying:
मेरी इस प्रोग्राम में आई है लेट सवारी,क्यूंकि मुझे मालूम था यहाँ आने वाले हैं मनोज तिवारीमनोज तिवारी जैसा मैं भी हूँ कलाकारइसलिए ज़िन्दगी में नहीं मानता हूँ हार
You have a fan following on social media. People say that if you are given a name, you can immediately come up with some lines. If you wanted to say something about Rahul Gandhi, what would you say?
I would say:
सारे देश में आज नज़र आती है नरेंद्र मोदीजी की आंधीकैसे बनेंगे प्रधानमंत्री राहुल गाँधी?गाँव गाँव की बोल रही है दादी,कब करेंगे राहुल गाँधी शादी?
Rahul Gandhi is a good friend. We have worked together. I was elected thrice when Congress alliance was in power. I have good relations with Rahul Gandhi but he should tread carefully. He will not have any political gains by attacking PM Modi every day.
The sentiment of the people today is that all these 25-26 leaders are coming together only against Narendra Modi and to defeat him. Narendra Modi is working for development and they are uniting to defeat him.
The Chandrayaan recently reached the moon. The scientists have to be credited for it the most. The funds of Rs 13,000 crore required for the project were sanctioned by the government and the scientists were motivated. The scientists need to be credited for Chandrayaan's successful landing but the fact that it happened under PM Modi's tenure is something the Opposition refuses to acknowledge. They remember Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru for founding ISRO. We have respect for him and for founding ISRO. But when something good happens, that should be appreciated. But that doesn't happen these days. That's why, I feel, the Opposition needs to change its strategy.