“Tell everyone we scalped you,” recalled a group of upper caste men as having told him while they pinned him down, broke his arm and shaved his forehead. He was brutalised﹘when he had gone to talk to his son’s upper caste employers﹘only because he is a member of the Dalit community, treated as pariahs for centuries.
This incident from September 2018 was just one among 4,15,821 cases of violence against Dalits that took place between 2011 and 2020, according to data from the . But these figures merely present a slice of the actuality; the systematic and daily subversion of the basic rights of Dalits that socially excludes and accommodates violence against them is ingrained in the very atom of Indian society, even in the 21st century.
In a constitutional assembly debate, Dr B R Ambedkar had once that though he has been called the ‘maker of the Indian constitution’, he would be the first one to burn it. He said the constitution was doomed to fail if rulers were driven by majoritarian prejudices, and until society and its political representatives were to fundamentally change, constitutional ideals could not be implemented.
Decades later, at a conference in 2006, then PM Manmohan Singh had between Dalits and black South Africans under the apartheid. And in 10 years, India appointed its first , but just as a token to distract from the everyday struggles of Dalits; isn’t it ironic, after all, that a massive rise in anti-Dalit atrocities has been reported during the tenure of a Dalit president?
However, an increased reportage of anti-Dalit crimes is also due to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act empowering Dalits to assert their rights﹘cases lodged under the law have gone up by almost 300 percent in the past three decades, according to the NCRB’s ‘’ collective reports (1990-2020). But any assertion of Dalit identity comes with a backlash from the dominant castes too, triggering violence, according to the . Consider an incident in , when a Dalit man was forcibly dragged off a horse and beaten by upper caste men in the middle of his marriage procession.
According to data, there were 33,719 cases of crimes against Dalits in , and this figure rose to 50,291 in . The numbers point to a sharp rise in such cases over a decade, of which nearly 74 percent took place under the Hindu nationalist BJP’s tenure. A surge was reported under the Congress government too but the figures have almost doubled under the saffron party.
The highest number of cases in the past decade have been reported from Uttar Pradesh (95,751), Bihar (63,116), Rajasthan (58,945), Madhya Pradesh (44,469) and Andhra Pradesh (26,881). The map cited above points out a rise in rapes and murders of Dalits, and as these figures only show registered crimes, one can argue that the is much worse.
But why has there been such an upsurge in anti-Dalit violence?
While there are many contributing factors, Smriti Sharma's “Caste-based crimes and economic status: Evidence from India”, suggests that a primary cause is their low position on the economic and social hierarchy. Socio-economic inequality systematically victimises Dalits and makes them vulnerable to violence by upper castes. According to a LiveMint , economic indicators such as ‘ownership of economic establishments’ and ‘relative share among the self-employed workers’ point to a low involvement of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Untouchability also plays a great role in perpetuating violence on a daily basis.
In an interview with , political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot said Dalits have also been at the receiving end from the “dominant caste” across northern and southern India. Jaffrelot categorised the dominant caste as sections of Savarnas or Other Backward Castes who belong to predominantly rural settings and usually rank high in the spatial caste hierarchy. They mostly feel threatened by Dalits benefiting from reservations and fear losing their status. This is what Ambedkar called as ‘graded inequality’, where rural upper castes are economically oppressed but oppress rural lower castes more explicitly than the subtle violence which an urban Dalit would face at the hands of the urban Savarna.
But does a surge in caste violence affect the Indian psyche? In June 2021, the found that Indians from lower castes were widely ignorant of the discrimination faced by their caste brethren. In the light of the survey, remarks by actress endowed with ‘Kshatriya pride’, that she does not believe that caste discrimination exists in India, are barely surprising. Such Brahmanical statements are a product of India’s current political scenario and also reflect the psyche of the larger caste-prejudiced and conveniently ‘caste-blind’ Indian society which furthers caste violence in India.
Besides, there is an alarming gap between acquittals and convictions, and also points out high pendency along with a skewed charge sheet rate. Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Bihar, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Odisha and Tamil Nadu are among few states that have poor convictions.
In , the central government informed the Supreme Court that in many cases, delay in FIRs, complainants and witnesses turning hostile, lack of proper prosecution, corroboration of evidence, were among reasons contributing to higher acquittals.
Scholars Debashis Chakraborty, D Shyam Basu, and Manashi Chakravorty argue in their that it is not merely poverty, but the endemic violence Dalits are subjected to also shapes their identity. “The only thing Dalits can trust is the state machinery in India. But the increasing pendency ratio, low convictions and higher acquittals creates an image of state machinery as highly lackadaisical. This lack of ‘certainty of punishment’ in cases of anti-Dalit violence empowers the upper caste perpetrators and creates insecurity among Dalits,” they argued.
But why has the state machinery failed to protect the marginalised communities? Scholar , in the context of Paramakudi violence, says that the independence of India does not constitute a transformative change in the structure of police who mostly remain loyal to the local landlords and propertied class, and become colonial tools for the ruling classes to further suppress the oppressed groups.
A by the Human Rights Watch, in collaboration with the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, says that the police generally perceive the Dalit community as inherently criminal. Dalits are overrepresented among those who are detained and tortured as they cannot afford to pay bribes and lack social or political support. Political representatives, too, mirror the Brahminism inherent in society. “In the context of the Laxmanpur-Bathe massacre in Bihar of the late 90s, government officials acted as the agents of the Ranvir Sena (an upper caste militant outfit) and silently accommodated the killings of the Dalits…police responded to the violence by harassing the Dalits and framing them as supporters of Naxalites.”
Share of categories and sub-categories of violence against Dalit women or girls across India.
In any patriarchal society, women are the focal target of gendered violence, and in a country like India, Dalits are primarily vulnerable as dominant castes use sexual violence to reinforce caste identity. According to the table above, rapes (25,241) and assaults with intent to outrage modesty (21,806) were major crimes against Dalit women across India between 2011 and 2020. UP, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra were focal locations.
says almost 10 Dalit women or girls are raped each day, but they have to risk their lives to access justice, with pressure and threats from other communities often becoming a means to ensure a systematic silence. Brahmanical patriarchy portrays itself as a supreme sovereign that neither respects the rule of law nor believes in constitutional rights. Sample the instances of khap panchayats asking Dalit survivors to settle such “disputes” with culprits, and even ordering assault of victims to punish them for speaking up.
Consider the horrific in UP’s Hathras, where a 19-year-old Dalit girl died following an alleged assault by four men from the Thakur community, with the police forcefully cremating her body without her family’s consent.
According to Javed Iqbal Wani and L David Lal, the accused in the case were symptomatic of the Brahmanical patriarchy of our society that legitimises barbaric acts. From the struggle to lodge an FIR to the filing of charges and a long, slow trial amid hostilities; the judicial process becomes just another form of punishment for those born as Dalit and those who dare to speak up.
These are not isolated incidents, but seem to be manifestations of a Brahmanical vengeance against the Dalit identity, upholding a cycle of violence against the marginalised groups.
The writer is a Hyderabad-based freelance researcher.
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