Protests Break Out in India as the Hindu Right Lessens Protections Against Caste Violence
Not everyone did, but you could sense it coming, the lava building to a burst. The intensity of it when it did—on April 2—took most Indians by surprise. The immediate trigger for the outpouring was the March 20 verdict of the Supreme Court of India calling a halt on automatic arrests and registration of criminal cases under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, enacted to safeguard Dalits (Scheduled Castes) and tribals from the insults and injuries they are frequently subjected to by members of the “upper castes.”
But what provided unprecedented charge to the “Dalit uprising” was “the accumulated anger of a group that has been humiliated and stigmatized for so long,” says Vivek Kumar, a Dalit sociologist from India’s premier Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Not surprisingly, the badly rattled Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its parent body, the right-wing Hindu majoritarian Rashtriya Seva Sangh (RSS), are in an overdrive in a desperate attempt at damage control.
Included in the definition of “atrocities” under what is commonly referred to as the Atrocities Act are 15 specific offenses, some truly obnoxious and degrading: Forcing a Dalit “to drink or eat any inedible or obnoxious substance; acts with intent to cause injury, dumping excreta, waste matter, carcasses or any other obnoxious substance in his premises or neighborhood”; usurpation of a Dalit’s land, parading naked of a Dalit man or woman or committing other acts contrary to human dignity; compelling him/her into some form of bonded labor, intentional humiliation in public view, dishonoring or outraging the modesty of a Dalit woman; sexual exploitation using one’s position of dominance; fouling the source of water supply to Dalits; preventing a Dalit from riding a horse or playing of a music band at a Dalit wedding.
Included among the indignities to which Dalits continue to be subjected to in practice are these examples: In September 2014, a Dalit man was held in captivity, tortured and forced to eat human excreta and drink urine in a village in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh because of a land dispute. In May 2016, a Dalit woman was stripped and paraded naked in a village, also in Uttar Pradesh. In October 2017, a teenaged Dalit from a village in Gujarat was stabbed as he was returning from school for sporting a mustache. (Keeping a mustache is ostensibly a prerogative only of the upper castes.) This was the third instance of attack on a Dalit in the same village in one week. In March this year, a 21-year-old Dalit youth was killed by upper caste men for owning and riding a horse, also in Prime Minister Modi’s home state of Gujarat.
If the provisions of the Act were stringent prior to the order of India’s apex court, convictions under it have been abysmally low: 9 percent. In ruling to undo the provisions of the Act, the judges relied on the poor conviction rate, buying the argument of upper caste Hindus that the law is routinely misused to falsely implicate persons from the upper echelons of the caste ladder. For Dalits and for human rights activists, low convictions simply because of the fact of shoddy investigation and prosecution by an upper caste–dominated police force.
Last year, tens of thousands of Marathas took to the streets in city after city in the state of Maharashtra demanding changes in the Atrocities Act, claiming that members of this middle caste were being falsely implicated. However, the state police submitted a report to the state government stressing that, contrary to upper caste claims, the Act safeguarding the rights of the Dalit community was not being misused.
Udit Raj, Member of Parliament from the ruling Hindu majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and National Chairman of the All India Confederation of SC/ST Organizations, puts it differently: “No doubt there has been misuse of many acts and this is one of them. Why didn’t the Supreme Court take a call on the other acts?” As Dalits see it, the March 20 verdict of the Supreme Court has effectively damaged the “basic structure” of the Atrocities Act.
If Dalits are deeply dissatisfied with the ruling of the two-judge bench of the highest court in the land, they are outraged at what they see as a deliberate failure of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi–led national government in arguing the Dalits’ case in court. What adds to their anger is the fact that atrocities against Dalits have been on the increase in the last four years of Modi government, especially in the states where the BJP is in power. According to official statistics for 2016, a crime was committed against a Dalit every 13 minutes, 7 Dalit women were raped each day while 15 Dalits were killed every week. Of the 40,801 cases of atrocities against Dalits during the same year, nearly two-thirds were from five states where the BJP was in power on its own or was part of the ruling alliance—Uttar Pradesh (25.6 percent of all cases), Bihar (14 percent), Rajasthan (12.6 percent), Madhya Pradesh (12.1 percent), Maharashtra (5.3 percent). In 2015 BJP-ruled Gujarat, the home turf of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the crime rates against Dalits spiked five-fold as compared to the previous year.
Figures released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in November 2017 for the 2014-2016 period revealed that in terms of crime rate (incidence of crime per 100,000 population), five BJP-ruled states—Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Goa, Bihar, and Gujarat—were the worst offenders.
In short, enough was piling up to ensure an explosion. And it did, on April 2. Dalits lack a national-level leadership. But someone suggested a Bharat Bandh (Nationwide Strike) for April 2, and this fired the imagination of the community across the country. The spontaneous response of the victims of India’s ‘hidden apartheid’ was nothing short of a wake-up call to the nation, its political class in particular. At the end of the day, nine people had lost their lives, scores were injured and properties worth millions were destroyed. But the tremor that sent shockwaves throughout India continues to rock the boat of the ruling dispensation.
Headlines in the mass media said it all. “Dalit Rage: How It Will Singe the BJP,” read one edition of the headline of the cover story in The Week. “Dalit Power: Why Dalits Matter; What Explains Their New Assertiveness; and How They Will Shape National Politics in the Run-Up to 2019 (National Elections),” was one version of the headline of the cover story in the country’s largest selling weekly, India Today. Others talked of “Dalit Uprising,” while in a comment piece for Al Jazeera, noted Dalit scholar-activist from south India, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, observed: “A ‘Dalit Spring’ is on the horizon.”
Dalit rage could well spell the end of the “Modi magic” and play a critical role in dislodging the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from power in four key states where polls are due this year as also the general elections scheduled for 2019. In the 2014 general elections, Dalits across the country switched votes from the Congress to the BJP in large numbers making a significant contribution to the BJP’s impressive showing. Of the 84 parliamentary seats in the Lok Sabha (Lower House), reserved for Scheduled Castes, the BJP scored in 40. A shift away from the BJP could well reverse the tide this time. The panic in the BJP-RSS camp is understandable.
The very next day after the nationwide April 2 protest, the Modi government rushed to the Supreme Court with a review petition seeking a stay on the March 20 order. The two-judge bench, however, refused to oblige. With the apex court in no apparent mood to rush the hearing, the government has submitted a written note on April 12 stating that the judicial ban on the immediate arrest of a person accused of insulting or injuring Dalits is causing disharmony and doing “great damage” to the country.
“This case dealing with an issue of very sensitive nature has caused a lot of commotion in the country and is also creating anger unease and a sense of disharmony... the confusion created by this judgment may have to be corrected by reviewing the judgment and recalling the directions issued by the court,” said the note.
Even as the ruling party sweats it out, Dalits are piling pressure on the government to pass an ordinance restoring the status quo of the Act diluted by the court order. Meanwhile, several Dalit leaders have demanded that the Act be included in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution since a law placed under the Schedule is not open to judicial scrutiny.
Outside the court, the BJP and RSS have dispatched its cadre far and wide to somehow mollify the incensed Dalits. Prime Minister Modi has directed all party MPs to spend two nights each in a Dalit village. The media’s help was solicited in splashing pictures of the BJP president Amit Shah seated on the floor having lunch at a Dalit home in an Orissa village. (This is a gimmick frequently adopted by BJP and RSS leaders to show that Dalits to them are no longer impure or untouchable.) Interestingly, some newspapers reported that even as Shah ate, a large number of fellow Dalits held a “silent” protest outside to express their unhappiness with the dilution of the SC/ST Atrocities Act.
As part of its Dalit appeasement drive, the ruling party organized a mega-event on April 14, the birth anniversary of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the revered icon of Dalits. For their part, Dalit leaders declared that April 14 this year will be observed as “Protect Constitution Day.” Dalits rightly believe that whatever the community has gained post-independence is thanks entirely to the non-negotiable “fundamental rights” guaranteed to all citizens under the Indian Constitution, of which ‘Babasaheb’ (Ambedkar), himself a Dalit, was the “chief architect.”
Because of the caste system, millions of Indians have for centuries been considered “so impure as to be untouchable” and subjected to shameful indignities. Following independence from British rule, India adopted a Constitution, Article 17 of which stipulates: “’Untouchability’ is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of ‘untouchability’ shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.”
Nearly seven decades later, untouchability remains a widespread practice in most states of India. A 2016 survey conducted by Social Attitudes Research in India, covering Delhi, Mumbai, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, found that while untouchability remains a fact of life even in metropolitan cities like Delhi and Mumbai, nearly two-thirds of the non-Dalit Hindu rural population of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh continues a practice the Constitution prohibits.
Article 15 of the Indian Constitution prohibits discrimination between citizens on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. But it does envisage the State making “special provisions for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward class of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes.”
This affirmative action enabling provision of the Constitution has ensured reservations for Dalits and tribals in proportion of their numbers in the total population in education, government jobs, Parliament, state Assemblies and local self-governments. Numbering over 200 million, Dalits are 16.6 percent, while tribals are another 8.6 percent, in a total population of 1.32 billion. Dominating the upper echelons of the executive, upper caste officials have done what they could over the past seven decades to hold back the Dalits. However, they have been unable to prevent the birth of the new in the wombs of the old.
The Constitution notwithstanding, untouchability is still rampant in most parts of the country. The stringent provisions of the Atrocities Act have failed to halt growing incidents of caste crimes against the Dalits. But growing education, jobs and political empowerment have given birth to a “generation-next” among Dalits—scholars, activists, pop singers, entrepreneurs—who are becoming increasingly assertive, demanding their due share of the Indian cake.
In 2014, the Modi magic did draw a substantial section of the Dalits to the BJP’s fold. Now, four years later, the BJP and the RSS find themselves trapped in their own inner contradiction. To rule over India, Hindu majoritarian ideology needs the Dalit vote. But the core upper caste support base of the BJP and the RSS remains hostile to the egalitarian Constitution of India and wants an end to the reservation policy that flows from it. This inherent inner tension shows up every now and then in the words and deeds of BJP-RSS leaders, adding to the growing suspicion among Dalits about the real agenda of the Hindu majoritarians.
Dalits have for long spoken of caste bias, questioning the stranglehold of the upper castes on India’s judiciary. While it was the March 20 ruling of the Supreme Court which triggered the outpouring of pent-up Dalit sentiments, there have been other provocations too in the last four years.
In January 2016, Rohith Vemula, a brilliant PhD student at the Hyderabad Central University, committed suicide, leaving behind a letter that triggered Dalit and Left protests on campuses across the country. There were widespread accusations that it was not a suicide but an “institutional murder” in which the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (the student wing of the RSS), two ministers in Modi’s government and the university’s vice-chancellor were implicated. The Modi government only added insult to injury by concentrating all its energy on proving that Vemula was not a Dalit.
Since 2014, BJP governments in state after state have brought in draconian laws in the name of saving the ‘Holy Cow.’ Emboldened by this upper caste, Hindu lynch mobs went on a killing spree targeting Muslims and Dalits across several states. In July 2016, a video clip of seven Dalit youth being tied to a car and flogged in public for skinning a dead cow by upper caste “cow vigilantes” went viral, sparking a national outrage. The fear psychosis created among Muslims and Dalits has meant joblessness for large numbers.
In May 2017, the attack on Dalits by upper caste Thakurs in Saharanpur district in Uttar Pradesh hit the national headlines. Far from ensuring due process, the BJP government led by chief minister Yogi Adityanath (himself a Thakur) has incarcerated ‘Bhim Army’ chief Chandrashekhar Azad, who led the campaign for justice.
And on January 1 this year, Dalits who assembled in Bhima Koregaon village in Maharashtra to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the battle of Bhima Koregaon in which Mahar or Dalit soldiers of the British army defeated the Maratha Peshwas were attacked by people allegedly waving saffron flags.
When there is no violence, there is some other sinister scheme at work: slashing of budgetary allocations for Dalits and tribals, cutting down on scholarship schemes. The union Human Resources Development ministry and the University Grants Commission have been chipping away at scholarship schemes for Dalits and other marginalized communities. Stopping these scholarship schemes means the effective denial of higher education to Dalits, most of whom hail from very poor families.
Clearly, Dalits have enough reason to be unhappy and angry. And that is reason enough for the BJP and the RSS to feel mighty worried.