A few journalists met Buta Singh, chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, about two years ago, when the issue of reservation of jobs in the private sector was at its peak -- should the private sector be forced to reserve jobs for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and if a statutory arrangement including a constitutional amendment needs to be moved for this purpose.
Singh detailed all the atrocities that are visited upon the Dalits and then, almost casually, said, "You know if they (industry) don't do what I ask them, I have the power to send them to jail. I have summoned Ratan Tata in one case." He asked his staff to collate information on a case where a Dalit complainant, working in a telecommunications company in which the Tata group had a share, had alleged caste discrimination.
A former director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences got calls from Buta Singh for the same purpose: Stop caste discrimination in x or y case or you may be put behind the bars. Some top university administrators -- vice chancellors and IIT directors -- were told they must promote failed scheduled caste candidates and appoint the 'right person' in the SC quota, or face a jail term.
"We get calls from other Dalit leaders. But they are unfailingly polite -- "if it is within the rules and if the candidate meets the requirements, could you keep his name in mind? But this man I have nightmares about the bars of a jail," said the vice chancellor of a central university, shaking his head.
How did a leader, once as important as Buta Singh, suffer such a precipitous fall from grace? After being Home Minister and governor, Singh is looking at a Bihar government probe at some of the actions he had taken as the governor of Bihar and his family is caught up in a clutch of court cases -- most of a criminal nature.
The tragedy of it: The people of Jalore-Sirohi in Rajasthan -- the Lok Sabha constituency reserved for Scheduled Castes till 2009 -- have only good things to say about Buta Singh who represented it four times.
He first came to the Lok Sabha as an Akali Dal leader from Ropar. He moved to the Congress when the movement for the Punjabi suba fizzled out. In the 1980s, along with Giani Zail Singh, he had to make reparations to the (largely upper caste Jat Sikh) Golden Temple theocracy for his role in the government-initiated rebuilding of the Akal Takht after Operation Blue Star. A mazhabi Sikh, he was excommunicated from the Sikh Panth. To be taken back, he cleaned devotees' utensils and shoes at the Golden Temple as an act of penance.
In 1984, he left Punjab since elections could not be held there, and contested Lok Sabha elections from Jalore in Rajasthan, which he represented for four terms. He had the distinction of being the candidate to win by the highest margin in Rajasthan once -- upwards of 1,50,000 votes. The reason is clear. The roads in Jalore were a sight to behold -- you felt you were flying.
Sirohi and Jalore, the twin districts in this constituency, got a network of optical fibre cables and were the envy of many larger cities at the time. This helped Jalore become a deeply networked region. So if you call the helpline, you do get help -- whether it is for blood when a loved one is in hospital or for legal assistance or anything else to do with the services the state provides. Jalore is Rajasthan's granite capital. Buta Singh arranged aid for industry.
A local journalist concedes that Jalore continues to be very backward. He says, however, if on a scale of 10, other MPs representing the constituency get a 1 or a 2, Buta Singh gets a 5. Bharatiya Janata Party President Bangaru Laxman's wife, Sushila, represented the constituency in 2004. She returned maybe once after being elected.
Buta Singh has been in all parties but in the Left ones. As home minister in 1989, Singh stood by and watched as bricks inscribed with Ram's name were consecrated, brought to Ayodhya and 'temple construction' for the Ram temple began on land that was still disputed. Later, he said that all the Vishva Hindu Parishad leaders did was 'to place seven bricks at that site'. Later still, he went on record to say the elections were lost to Ram lalla. And then defected to the BJP.
He become a Cabinet minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government in 1998. But as minister for civil supplies in the P V Narasimha Rao government, Singh tried to assist Rao in attaining a majority by getting Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MPs to vote for the Rao. Around the same time, he became the communication minister in the Vajpayee-led government, the court charge-sheeted him in this case. J Jayalalithaa, seeking a way to part from the BJP, demanded that charge-sheeted ministers resign. Within 29 days, Buta Singh had resigned -- but only after spending Rs 25 crore on his constituency.
He tried to float his own party which sank without a trace. Then the Congress took him back and made him the governor of Bihar. The party thought the least damage he could do would be in this state. Instead, President's rule was declared in 2004 when no one could form a government. Buta Singh found ways to hold benefit cricket matches and raise money. He awarded contracts that the Bihar government is now examining.
When he was removed as governor, the Congress told him it would give him something else. In May 2007, he was appointed chairman of the National Scheduled Caste Commission (a three-year term), with the rank of cabinet minister. He can be removed only if he resigns or if the Supreme Court conducts an enquiry and recommends to the President that he be dismissed. Or if he is convicted of 'moral turpitude'.