As minister of state for labour and employment in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, Oscar Fernandes made headlines recently when he described the murder of a CEO of an Italian car-parts company in Noida, just outside New Delhi, as a warning to management, and then profusely apologized for saying so. A practising Roman Catholic, Fernandes, who hails from Udupi, Karnataka, has been a major voice in the Congress party to speak up against the Christian violence in Karnataka and Orissa. Edited excerpts:
I would like to start by asking you about the violence against Christians in Karnataka and Orissa which has been going on for some weeks now and the Centre seems unable to control. Why?
You would have heard the PM (Prime Minister) himself almost giving an ultimatum to Orissa government because of violence that has broken out again. He has given a warning and advisories (under Article 355) have already been sent to Orissa and Karnataka. I don’t recall any advisories sent earlier. Our government has taken a very firm stand in advising the state governments to bring about a solution in the states.
Click here to watch part - I of the interview
But despite the advisories, the violence continues. A nun has been gangraped in Orissa, sister Nirmala of the Missionaries of Charity has written both to the PM and the chief minister… What now?
We have a Constitution, and according to the Constitution law and order comes under the state. But this kind of situation cannot be termed only law and order, that is why the Centre has to intervene effectively in these matters.
The Centre has to take strong action to see that the situation is brought under control. If the state fails to bring things under control, then the Centre will have to review the situation.
Click here to watch part - II of the interview
What does that mean?
We will have to see. In Karnataka it was happening repeatedly. The chief minister has gone on record that the police has mishandled the situation.
On the contrary, the chief minister and the home minister were justifying what was happening. After the advisory went under Article 355 they have changed their tune and said what has happened is not correct. But they have to advise their cadre, it is their cadre that has resorted to these things.
In Karnataka, when the cadres claimed they had done and said they would do it again, the chief minister and home minister said they had not done it. So this is a very sad spectacle in Karnataka.
In Orissa, their plight is evident. We need a kind of assurance for the people to live peacefully in their villages, they’re not attacking anybody, on the contrary they are being attacked.
If both these governments don’t take action, there could be a case for dismissal of these governments...
I would not want to say that, it is up to the home ministry to advise.
But what would you say? You are a senior member of the party.
I am a senior member of the party, I want democratically elected governments to take responsibility.
What if they don’t?
Then it is up to the Centre, we have the governors there, they have to give a report.
Inside the churches, you’ve said the state police was part of this.
The chief minister has blamed the police, whatever violence has happened inside the churches, it is the police that has attacked inside the prayer hall and the churches, broken their statues and destroyed whatever there was to destroy.
And hurt nuns?
It is a sad spectacle. Women and nuns are being (beaten) black and blue. If you have to attack women, you need to take women police. These days to beat women by lathis by police, it is not acceptable, it is condemnable.
Firm stance: Oscar Fernandes, minister of state for labour and employment, says he wants management and workers to work together in the interest of the country. Peace and amity is a must for the country. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
So the state police is colluding with organizations such as the Bajrang Dal?
Instead of taking action against people who have done crime, they are attacking people who are protesting against what has happened. Protesting is a right of the citizen. When the state fails to protect the people, this protest has to be understood in the proper perspective. The state and the police to talk to them and tell them that the law is taking its course.
So the Centre is keeping a close watch?
Not only watch, they are advising them from time to time. Even though the PM is abroad even from there he has conveyed that this is not done.
And if it doesn’t come under control, can Article 356 be imposed?
It is for the government to take a view on this issue. We expect the government to take strong action if the situation doesn’t come under control.
(Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate) L.K. Advani has said that he is a secular man, that he studied in a Christian school in Karachi and that he is upset about these incidents. What do you have to say?
If anybody feels what has happened is wrong, then it must be appreciated. The message should go down the line to the last cadre in the party. The cadre keeps doing it and the leader says it should not happen, that means they are not listening to their leader. The leader has to advise their cadre that in a secular society…
So the cadres are not listening to Advani?
Why (else) do I say that? If Advaniji says what has happened is wrong, if the chief minister says what has happened is wrong, and the cadres keep doing it, what does it mean?
Do you think Advani is shedding crocodile tears?
I don’t want to say anything. if somebody is saying it is wrong, then I must accept it.
The pope has also passed some comments about the Christians in Orissa. Do you think a foreign dignitary has the right to talk about internal events in India?
When you talk about a foreigner or foreign dignitary talking about things happening in India, you would not accept it. But the reality is that things are happening. Even we in the government have said that this should not be done, the
government will take action if it continues. So I will not go into the matter whether it is justified or not justified. When you find your flock is affected, the leader will speak, whether it is right or wrong. The question is, we ourselves are saying what is happening is wrong. When we say that what is happening is wrong, then if somebody else says it, I don’t think you can raise an issue about it.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called it a massacre of Christians.
We ourselves have condemned what has happened.
Would you call it a massacre?
Each one uses his language. I have to mind my language.
I would like to move away from this subject and ask you about the murder of the CEO in Noida.
I condemn it, I would not like to see violence in the country, whether management or workers. We should not have violence, we should have industrial peace. We want management and workers to work together. It is in the interest of the country, peace and amity is a must for the country.
So whatever I said, workers and management have to work together for the good of the country, and in this process neither would I appreciate the worker being killed nor the management being killed. I have condemned the murder in Noida.
In a lot of states in our country, perhaps there are new capitalists who do not totally understand what their responsibilities are…
The law of the land is in place, many times we legislate at the Centre and sometimes at the state. I am not saying we are perfect everywhere.
You said this (the murder) was a warning for the management.
I never said anything about warning anybody, I said you should understand what is happening. I am nobody to warn anybody, I am here to carry forward the system. And I would like everyone to see workers have their rights, management have their production, which should increase so that the country will gain.
What about a safety net?
It is the duty of the state government to implement the norm. We can take up issues with the state government if we get complaints.
Some would say you were washing your hands of...
I am not washing my hands of at all. The moment I open my mouth, you say shut your mouth. Now you say I am washing my hands of.
I have held meetings with the chief ministers and labour ministers of Punjab, Rajasthan, Delhi, Haryana, the labour minister of Uttar Pradesh could not attend…
You think foreign investors do not understand our culture?
In industry we don’t have two categories of investors. Anybody who wants to invest here, they have to follow the same laws.
Do you think India’s image has been hurt by the murder of the Noida CEO?
Anybody getting killed is wrong and this cannot be permitted. The state government has taken action. It is their purview.
People have been arrested, they have been chargesheeted. Whether it is enough or not, it is not for me to sit here and assess.
The Parliament session is coming up. A Bill has been pending for a while on the unorganized sector.
I expect support from all quarters for this social security Bill for all unorganized workers. Even before the Bill was passed, we have taken action to extend social security to workers.
There are three major components in our proposal, Swasthya Bima Yojna, for people below poverty line, estimate six crore families. These will be covered in five years, every year we are covering two crore families.
The second deals with pension for poor people. Earlier it was only for destitutes getting pension who crossed 60 years, now it has been raised to the age of 65 and we have said it need not be only for destitutes, but can be any poor person. They will get pension of Rs200 from the Centre, while state governments can give matching pension.
Then there is the Aam Admi Bima Yojna, life insurance for the landless poor. These schemes are already advertised, 75% borne by the Centre, 25% by the states, in the North-East, 90% is borne by the Centre.
We have an inadequate safety net, we don’t have an exit policy, we have murders like we did last week... Do you think the image of India which welcomes foreign investment is at stake?
One would have to see what is happening in other countries. It is good we are looking at our country, we should look at our image also.
But if you look at other countries you will to see what is happening there also. Industry after industry is closing down in America. Well, America has a social net, where workers who are out of job get some protection. We need to provide this to workers in our country.
The way industries are starting and closing down in other countries doesn’t happen in our country. If somebody starts a unit, it grows. Our industrialists, to their credit, they are acquiring industries abroad. India has a very good image.
One incident definitely hurts everybody, it definitely affects our image, but with one incident you cannot say that the situation in the country is spoilt.