ThePrint Dalit History Month
The 37-year-old BJP MP from Bahraich in Uttar Pradesh has taken on her own party’s stand on Dalit issues.
New Delhi: Savitri Bai Phule was 14 when she first came under the spotlight. Mayawati was the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and was in Bahraich in 1995 for a public event where Phule addressed the crowd and spoke about Ambedkar and the constitution, earning rich praise from the BSP supremo.
Phule went on to join politics and the BSP as a teenager, switched to the BJP, contested elections and became a Member of Parliament, but her passion for Ambedkar and the constitution, and more importantly her Dalit support base, has evidently not dimmed one bit.
So much so that last week she stood up against her own party government and launched a scathing attack on its stand on Dalit issues in the light of the controversial Supreme Court ruling on the SC/ST atrocities act.
“I am not criticising anyone. I am demanding that the Constitution of India should be followed in the true sense and the ‘Bahujans’ should get their due,” she told ThePrint, speaking over the phone from Lucknow.
“Did I take name of any party or any leader? This is something all the parties should come together on,” she added.
On 1 April, Phule addressed a rally in Lucknow wherein she launched a veiled attack on the BJP.
“Some people are saying that reservations should be abolished, some are saying there is a need to have a relook at the Constitution,” she said while addressing the crowd.
“It doesn’t matter whether I remain an MP or not. But I shall keep fighting to protect the Constitution and rights of Bahujans in the country,” she told the rally.
Phule uses the word ‘Bahujan’ in every second sentence. “I am an MP because Bahraich is a reserved constituency and the Bahujans have supported me.”
Entry into politics
Born in Husenpur Mridangi village in Bahraich district of UP, Phule is the eldest of her three sisters and two brothers. Her family was associated with BAMCEF, a non-political organisation spearheaded by BSP founder Kanshi Ram.
After she was noticed by Mayawati at the Bahraich rally in 1995 and returned home, apparently all her relatives gathered to chat. The subject: If Behenji (Mayawati) can become chief minister, why can’t Savitri?
Akshyavar Nath Kannojia, a Dalit activist and a friend of Phule’s father, wanted to adopt her and the family agreed to his request. “Since then Kannojia-ji became my father, guru and guide. He exposed me to social work and fight for the Bahujan samaj,” Phule added.
Initially, she was known as Savitri Devi but Kannojia later named her after Savitri Bai Phule, the 19th century reformer and poet from Maharashtra.
From BSP to BJP
In her early days, Phule joined the BSP but was suspended by Mayawati in 2000 over some local controversy she is not keen to discuss. In 2001, she contested and won the zila panchayat polls. She joined the BJP and later contested the assembly elections in 2002, 2007 and 2012, winning only the last one from Balha constituency in Bahraich.
All these years, she remained a zila panchayat member. In 2014, she was asked to contest the Lok Sabha election from Bahraich, a reserved constituency. She won the seat by almost one lakh votes.
Phule runs an organisation, Namo Buddhay Jan Seva Samiti, and lives in a small ashram in the rural part of Bahraich. Kannojia is the president of the organisation.
“It has been 17 years since I have visited my house and parents. My life is dedicated to the welfare of the Bahujan samaj,” said Phule.
She mobilised Dalits on reservation and other issues on 6 December last year. A statue of B.R. Ambedkar was installed at Ambedkar Park in Nanpara, Bahraich, on the same day, Ambedkar’s death anniversary. She has since been organising protest rallies in support of the demands of Dalits.
A rebel with a cause
Her first big rally was on 1 April in Lucknow where she came down heavily on the BJP’s stand on Dalit issues. She is planning a similar rally in Delhi in October. In between, she plans to travel across the country.
BJP leaders in Uttar Pradesh, however, question what they call Phule’s “sudden activism”, and accuse her of using the rallies to pressure the party.
“Her performance as an MP is not commendable. People have a lot of complaints against her. She is doing all this just to put pressure on the party,” said a UP cabinet minister.
Party sources also claimed that Phule has been at loggerheads with the local BJP unit in Bahraich since 2014, when she allegedly wanted an assembly election ticket from the Balha constituency for one of her relatives, but the party rejected her request.
The Lucknow rally was seen as her first show of strength as a Dalit leader, after which questions are being raised on whether she will even contest the 2019 election on a BJP ticket.
“There is still some time to the election…But the fight for Bahujans has nothing to do with politics and I shall continue to make them aware of their rightful place in society,” Phule said.
Asked about her dream of becoming chief minister one day, she said: “If people find me capable enough, then they will make me chief minister. It is all in their hands and not mine.”