Reward for spreading hate: why Katheria was made SC commission chief
If you are in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it is easy to get yourself picked for rewards. All you have to do is get yourself involved in starkly communal actions – like a riot or, at least, a hate speech. If you are still fumbling, you can take tips from senior UP BJP leader Ram Shankar Katheria.
The Lok Sabha member from the Agra reserved constituency has been appointed chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, a year after being dropped from the Union Cabinet.
Katheria had shot to instant infamy in February 2016, when reports emerged of his hate speech at an event in Agra. Speaking at a condolence meeting for a VHP worker who was killed earlier, Katheria exhorted the gathering to show strength to force the 'murderers' to flee.
The meeting itself was an attempt to fan tensions by branding the murder as an organised communal act against the Hindu community, and Katheria's speech tried to establish exactly that narrative.
Many other speakers, all linked to the RSS, addressed the gathering, and took the rhetoric several notches up, moving on from hatred to sheer vitriol. One of Katheria's colleagues in the Lok Sabha, Babulal, declared “if you want to test Hindus, then let's decide a date and take on Muslims”.
Local BJP leader Kundanika Sharma had given an open call to violence, exhorting people to “raid them... cut 10 heads for one”.
Jagmohan Chahar, the Bajrang Dal district coordinator, had said: “If you want to live in India, live like Rahim and Rehman. If you try to be Akbar and Babar, we will raze your homes. We are the descendants of Rama. We will destroy the descendants of Ravana.”
Days later, the issue triggered a massive uproar in Parliament, with Opposition parties demanding action against Katheria and all other speakers. Of course, no action was taken, and the government gave Katheria a clean chit.
A complaint was also made to the National Commission for Minorities wherein the complainant, Shehzad Poonawalla, demanded the arrest of the 'hate mongers'. The Commission took strong note of the speeches, and shot off four strongly-worded letters to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi, then-Union Minister for Minority Affairs Najma Heptullah and then-Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav.
Naseem Ahmad, then-chairperson of the NCM, called the speeches “vitriolic...utterly shocking and provocative” and “a serious breach of constitutional principles”. The commission had demanded “quick action to reassure the minorities that such behavior will not be tolerated”.
However, little action was taken. The UP police did register an FIR into the matter, but only against VHP leader Ashok Lavanya, BJP leader Kundanika Sharma and one Prashant Chaudhary. They were booked under sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups) and 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings) of the Indian Penal Code.
However, Katheria's name was missing, meaning that he was clearly let off.
It is easy to see that the party was obviously pleased with his speech as well as other speeches. And why not? The BJP eventually won the Assembly elections in the state a year later, riding a wave of clear communal polarisation.
Katheria had also faced allegations in 2014 of submitting a forged educational degree in his election affidavit, all the more embarrassing for him, given that he was junior education minister in the Union Cabinet then.
He was subsequently dropped in the cabinet reshuffle in July 2016, but continues to be an MP.
Looks like the Narendra Modi government wants to revive the memory of those speeches in Agra.
But it must answer – does it behoove one commission to have a chief against whom strictures have been passed by another?