He may be one of the most mild-mannered parliamentarians around, but Deo is no slouch when it comes to standing up against violation of parliamentary rules or tribal rights
Vyricherla Kishore Chandra Suryanarayana Deo" height="274" alt="Vyricherla Kishore Chandra Suryanarayana Deo" hspace="5" width="150" align="left" src="/newsimgfiles/2012/july/16072012/071712_07.jpg" />He may be a maharaja but he is the most courteous, polite and soft-spoken minister in the Indian cabinet. He has been a Member of Parliament, or MP, for five terms and has vast parliamentary experience. And yet, it took Vyricherla Kishore Suryanarayana Deo 33 years to become a minister. I asked him why, writes Aditi Phadnis.
He looks puzzled: “Because I was in the Opposition for nearly 30 years,” he says, as if this should be patently clear to everyone.
Sixty-five-year old Deo belongs to the Scheduled Tribe community of Konda Doras in the Araku hills of Andhra Pradesh. He belongs to a family of tribal hill chiefs. He was minister of state for coal in 1979-80 and was appointed Union minister for tribal and panchayati raj affairs just last year.
Deo first became a minister in the Charan Singh-led coalition because he joined the Congress Socialist Party when the Congress lost power in 1977 and was caught in the throes of intense soul-searching after the Emergency. He was one of the youngest MPs at the time. That government lasted just six months, but because he was in the Devaraj Urs-led Congress (Socialist), he contested the seat again in 1980 and won, and then again in 1984 from the same party. When P V Narasimha Rao came to power, he rejoined the Congress (Indira).
The advantage of such a long innings in the Opposition was that it gave him the opportunity to establish himself as a master of parliamentary tradition, convention and procedure. Gentle and democratic though he may be, Deo is no wimp and has managed to reduce great big hulks elected from Bihar into quivering masses of penitent contrition because they violated parliamentary rules.
I got all the more curious about this self-effacing man after he blasted the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) for firing on what he believes were unarmed tribals on the night on June 28 in Chhattisgarh, forcing Home Minister P Chidambaram to express regret if unarmed people had been killed.
We (no, that’s not right, I) decided on Taipan as the venue for lunch since Deo said he eats anything from flambé to Finnish cuisine and I could decide where to go. Taipan serves the best dim sum in town — so the baskets kept coming and we kept talking.
Deo recounts an incident in the 14 th Lok Sabha. Former Prime Minister Chandrashekhar had been appointed chairman of the Ethics Committee but because he was dying of cancer, the committee was virtually defunct. Unwilling to remove him, Speaker Somnath Chatterjee found a way around the problem — a number of ad hoc subcommittees were formed to address the issue of parliamentary ethics and misconduct of MPs.
This was the time when the Babubhai Katara case (in which a BJP MP had misused a passport to take abroad with him on an official visit, a young lady who was not his wife) hit the headlines. There were also reports of misuse of MP Local Areas Development Scheme (MPLADS) funds. For the period of Chandrashekhar’s ill health, Deo virtually ran the Ethics Committee.
For instance, when the committee investigated the misuse of MPLADS (MPs were alleged to be taking bribes to sanction MPLAD schemes) it found no evidence of commission, but did find instances in which MPs had negotiated for commission. The honourable MPs were suspended with retrospective effect for the first time in the history of Parliament. This meant they could not attend the Parliament session, they got no salary or dearness allowance and their pension for the entire period was withheld — because they were presumed to have committed financial improprieties earlier during their term. “In a court of law, with such scanty evidence, they would have got off scot-free. But the thought was that their action was unbecoming of an MP,” says Deo, as he samples some prawn siew mai.
Deo recounts another case. When Parliamentary committees go on tour, MPs can take their wives along only after the written permission of the Speaker. An MP from Bihar took his girlfriend along on the tour. When his wife complained (“the complaint came to us on a scrap of paper torn from a child’s copybook, written in pencil”), the committee immediately summoned the MP and his wife, separately. Before the meeting, a letter from the wife arrived, withdrawing her complaint. Members smelt a rat. Some said “she’s a colleague’s wife, let it go”. Others said her complaint was the property of the committee so it must be investigated. The wife arrived and at first said she wasn’t pressing her complaint, but she broke down later and said she was forced to write the letter withdrawing her complaint. “We asked her: ‘Who threatened you?’ Her husband’s PS [personal secretary], she said, who was loitering in the corridor waiting for her to come out. We asked the joint secretary to confine the PS to another room. We then summoned the PS who denied any role in the matter at first but later confessed.”
The MP was then called. He, too, denied any wrongdoing. “After that sitting, I went to Central Hall to have a cup of coffee to clear my mind. I didn’t know what to do next. But by the time I returned to my room, there was a letter on my desk from the MP, confessing to his role in the entire matter. He said he denied it at first because he didn’t want to be publicly judged by his peers. We suspended him for 30 sittings of Parliament, till the Budget session,” Deo says without emphasis but with a glint in his eyes as he tries some chicken dim sum.
Deo has hundreds of stories about the seamy underbelly of Indian politics – misconduct, defalcation, abuse of power – by men who believe in all seriousness that they are above the law just because they have won an election. I ask him about another set of people who have little and, at times, no recourse to law or justice — his constituents, the tribals of India.
The provocation was an incident that had taken place in a village in Chhattisgarh on June 28. About 60 adivasis had assembled around 8 p m on June 28 in an open area in Bijapur district to discuss Biju Pondum, the traditional seed-sowing festival. It was a cloudy night and visibility was poor. A contingent of the CRPF and Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) cordoned off the area. At about 10 p m, there was a burst of gunfire that hit three adivasis, killing them instantly. Firing followed from three other directions, sending the terrified villagers running and screaming. Sixteen, including six minors, died that night and one the next day.
Chidambaram had said he had ordered an enquiry that had revealed that the villagers had fired, resulting in the shattered jaw of one jawan and serious liver injuries to another. The CRPF had merely followed Standard Operating Procedure and retaliated when there had been unprovoked firing at night. But Deo had asked locals, including the local Congress unit, to provide him their own testimony about what had happened that night.
I ask him when he thought the adivasis would get access to justice. “It’s hard,” he admits. “One has to be sensitive and see their problems in totality,” he says. “The Forest Rights Act, when implemented in letter and spirit will correct the injustice history has done to forest dwellers.”
“But it’s more than that: it is social attitudes that see tribals as if they were not human beings — look at what the Jarawas were put through,” I say, referring to the tribals in the Andamans who were treated like performing animals by a tourist party some years ago.
We’ve been eating while talking and our table (much to my shame, mostly my side), was crowded with empty dim sum baskets. I ask him a question that has always puzzled me: “What is it like to be a raja of tribals?”
Deo laughs: “It is just a title given by the British. We were never like Kashmir or Gwalior. My family were chieftains just as in the Northeast, there is a system of syiem — or hierarchical chieftains. Titles mean nothing now. As far as land is concerned, my mother has around 70 acres of land. The Urban Land Ceiling Act ensured we lost our urban land. So, I have around 20 or 30 acres of agricultural land, and my salary as MP… .”
It is time for dessert. I try to tempt Deo with some coconut ice cream, but he declines. “I only wish Anna Hazare had read the reports we have prepared,” he says apropos corruption and Parliament. “He wouldn’t have been so disappointed. Some things do work.”