New Delhi: India should follow the teachings of Buddha if it wants to be proud of itself again, senior Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Rajendra Pal Gautam has said. Gautam resigned from the Delhi Cabinet Sunday after a row over his presence at a conversion event in the national capital.
In an interview with ThePrint Wednesday, Gautam said a large number of conversions to Buddhism still happen in India because of “oppression” in Hindu society.
“It is all about oppression in the name of caste. People feel suffocated. An IPS officer faced resistance for riding a horse in his marriage procession. Nothing seems to have changed in society. That is why people see hope in Buddhism. It is a religion of hope and humanity. The whole world has accepted it,” said the 54-year-old AAP leader, who follows Buddhism.
“If India wants to transform itself into a nation it can once again be proud of, then, in my opinion, India must follow the path of Buddha.”
A prominent Dalit face of AAP, Gautam identified himself as a “staunch Ambedkarite” and vowed to continue fighting for his community till the end.
Videos had surfaced of Gautam attending an event on 5 October where he, alongside Ambedkar’s great-grandnephew, was seen repeating the 22 vows the social reformer prescribed to his followers in Nagpur in 1956 after converting to Buddhism from Hinduism.
While Gautam appeared defensive about the silence of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his party colleagues over the episode, he was assertive in claiming that AAP’s biggest challenge is defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Gujarat polls.
He also accused the BJP of trying to “terrorise” people over the religious conversion issue.
No conversation took place with Kejriwal before resigning and the decision was solely his own, Gautam said, citing two broad reasons for the decision.
“I am immensely hurt by the way the Dalits are being attacked and killed for acts such as sporting moustaches, entering temples and touching religious idols. Dalit women are being raped, murdered. And the prime minister, the home minister and other senior ministers remain silent. It hurts further to see large congregations taking place in support of perpetrators of caste-related hate crimes. What is happening is shameful,” Gautam said.
Discussing his second reason, he accused the BJP of indulging in “dirty politics” over an Ambedkar-related event that has been held every year for over six decades now.
“Taking the 22 Ambedkar vows is a routine event that happens every year across India, often coinciding with Vijayadashami. It has happened in Delhi before, but never been a political controversy. I have been attending such events for the last 25-30 years. Over the past few years, several BJP leaders have participated in such events… even the Government of India has published the 22 vows in its publications… Then why this hate?”
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‘Conversions because of oppression’
The BJP has accused Gautam of ‘denouncing Hinduism’ by taking an oath to ‘boycott’ Hindu deities. Delhi BJP leaders have also accused AAP of “hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus”.
The former Delhi social welfare minister linked the BJP’s actions to the upcoming Gujarat election. “AAP cannot let the BJP win at any cost. The BJP is trying to make it an issue in the light of the Gujarat polls. But we will not let that happen… BJP leaders are terrorising the masses with the issue. But they must remember that the whole nation is watching.”
AAP national convener Arvind Kejriwal and the party’s top leadership have so far been silent on the controversy.
“Look, in politics, decisions are supposed to be taken on the basis of existing circumstances. Currently, the most important thing for the AAP is to defeat the BJP. I am a small political worker in the larger scheme of things. I shall continue being a staunch Ambedkarite and a staunch patriot. Giving up a ministerial position is no big sacrifice,” Gautam maintained.
“Even Ambedkar had resigned from his ministerial position [as India’s first law minister] in 1951 after he faced resistance in Parliament over the Hindu Code Bill — which was aimed at bringing equality in Hindu society in several ways… I am sure he must have been proud of what he did. I, too, am proud in a similar way for taking a stand on behalf of my community,” he said.
AAP & Ambedkar legacy
AAP has been trying to expand its footprints across states and has been laying a strong claim on Ambedkar’s legacy. In January, Kejriwal directed that Delhi government offices should have photographs of only Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar. After the party took over Punjab in March, Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann took the same decision. In Delhi, the party held a grand play on Ambedkar’s life in February and set aside Rs 10 crore for organising programmes based on Ambedkar’s life.
To a query on why AAP remains silent on an episode involving Ambedkar, which also lies at the centre of its politics, he asserted that the issue was entirely political.
“The real political issue, in my opinion, is not over Ambedkar or the 22 vows. See, I have just engaged in reciting his oaths…But they [BJP] went on to publish it in hoardings and posters in Gujarat… The BJP has only selected excerpts and have been trying to spread hate. This is simply dirty politics. The BJP is losing in Gujarat, and so they are playing the Hindu victim card.”
Gautam said the decision to resign from the Delhi Cabinet was solely his own. “He [Kejriwal] was busy. He was campaigning in Gujarat. I had to make a decision on my own. And I did what I thought was right. I am getting immense support from my community.”
The Seemapuri MLA, meanwhile, continues to be a member of AAP’s national executive.
(Edited by Tony Rai)
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