"We will not be cowed down by the chief minister's arrogance or by brutal force. We will fight till our demand is met," declared Prafulla Majhi, an ST MLA from tribal-dominated Sundergarh. Majhi had joined dozens of fellow SC/ST legislators to agitate for the implementation of the Odisha Reservation of Vacancies Act, 1975 as well as 38% quota for tribal and Dalit students in medical and engineering colleges.
The Act provides for 38% reservation in state jobs and promotions for SCs and STs. But successive governments in Odisha have kept it under 20%.
Although SC/ST members of the opposition Congress and BJP are leading the agitation, several MLAs from the ruling BJD have expressed sympathy with them and their cause.
The protest began on 12 May when the MLAs staged a sit-in outside Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik's chamber in the assembly, only to be removed by marshals under the order of the Speaker. Undeterred, they took their protest inside the House the next day - begging the chief minister to agree to their demand, and when he was unmoved, prostrating before him.
Taken aback and visibly upset, Patnaik left in a huff, without uttering a word.
Refusing to give up, the MLAs staged a sit-in and launched a hunger strike inside the House, right below the Speaker's podium. The assembly officials tried to force them out by turning off the air conditioning, but the protestors stayed put, even through Saturday and Sunday when the House is closed. Air conditioning has since been restored.
A BJD spokesman criticised the protesting MLAs but, when asked, could not spell out when his government would implement the Act. "The sanctity of the assembly shouldn't be violated in any way," said Sashibhusan Behera. "They should protest in a democratic way."
The government's chief whip Anant Das said, "Resorting to hunger strike in the assembly premises is illegal."
SCs and STs were granted reservation in promotions in 1955, but it was discontinued following the Supreme Court's judgment in Indra Sawhney, wherein it was held beyond the mandate of Article 16(4) of the Constitution. However, the Constitution was amended in 1995 and clause 4A inserted in Article 16 to provide for reservation in promotions. Clause 4A was modified in 2001 to provide consequential seniority to SC and ST candidates promoted through reservation.
Promise not kept
Fifteen years on, the Naveen Patnaik regime, which has ruled all this time, is still to implement the provision, arguing that it would require an amendment to the ORV Act. This even after assuring the assembly last December that it would bring a fresh bill to amend the law.
Minister for ST, SC, Minorities and Backward Classes Welfare Lal Bihari Himirika gave this assurance to the House as members cutting across party lines made a strong plea for amending the 1975 law.
Previously, the bill brought to amend this Act in 2013 had became invalid, while it was lying with the select committee, as the assembly was dissolved in 2014.
In the new assembly, replying to a debate on his ministry's demand for grant, Himirika said, "Steps have been taken to bring a fresh bill within the term of the 15th assembly." That was two years ago.
It was against this background that SC and ST legislators of the Congress and the BJP decided to force the issue last week.
Prafulla Majhi of the Congress justified prostrating before the chief minister saying they had just followed the Odia tradition of putting forth their demand to protect the interests of SC and ST people, who comprise 38% of the state's population.
BJP's Rabi Naik said: "We have not brought any disrepute to the assembly. We have just raised a demand that is vital for the interests of 38 per cent of the state's population."
Speaker Niranjan Pujari had appealed the legislators to withdraw the protest, arguing that sitting on dharna inside the assembly premises was against rules. The MLAs responded that they had no choice but to protest since the Patnaik government had not implemented the 38% quota for tribal and Dalit students in medical and engineering colleges despite approving it in principle. It has, of course, not implemented the ORV Act either.
So, the MLAs said, they would continue their dharna in the well of the House until their demands are fulfilled.
"We will sit on a fast-unto-death agitation on the death anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar. The state government has been adopting anti-Dalit and anti-tribal attitude," said Congress MLA Krushna Chandra Sagaria, who belongs to the ST community.
Sagaria alleged that the higher education department was not implementing reservation for SC students in admissions to state-run educational institutions despite issuing a notification in this regard on 1 June 2015.
Edited by Mehraj D. Lone