The cycle of violence against Dalits continues unabated. A string of attacks on Dalits, a term used for the disadvantaged community treated as pariahs by society, and the people belonging to religious minorities across Gujarat, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Madhya Pradesh has not only tarnished India’s image abroad, but has brought into question successive governments’ inability to root out the decadent old practice of the caste system, even after 69 years of independence.
Although the Indian constitution protects the rights of Dalits and religious minorities, there seems to be no let up in attacks on the community. What is worrying is that such attacks have gone up manifold in the last decade, in spite of the robust laws. Various studies show the apathy of the police and the government of the day in bringing the perpetrators of atrocities against the community to book Added to this is the lack of political will in addressing this issue, which has been the main cause for the spurt in violence.
Recently, four people belonging to the Dalit community were stripped naked and attacked in a village near Una in the Somnath district of Saurashtra, Gujarat for taking away a dead cow for skinning. The members of the “protect the cow” brigade tied the four men to a vehicle, stripped them, and flogged them for killing the cow. Later, an investigation revealed that a lion — not the Dalits — had killed the cow. The beatings led to a violent protest in Saurashtra, where two Dalits died; one of them committed suicide, unable to bear the atrocities against the community. This incident has the potential to spiral into a nationwide protest.
The atrocities against Dalits are the highest in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh. Not a day passes when we don’t hear or read about various atrocities committed against them. Incidentally, it is not only the Dalit who are facing a threat from groups like “protect the cow” brigade; Muslims are also at the receiving end of the so called vigilante groups formed to protect the cows. The infamous incident where a Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi, was lynched by a mob in Dadri last year for allegedly consuming beef shook the conscience of the entire nation, especially when the testing of the meat showed it was buffalo meat. In a sad case of irony, instead of giving relief to the family after the dastardly act, a First Information Report has been filed against them for consuming beef.
In another recent incident, two Muslim women in Mandasur in Madhya Pradesh were severely beaten up for transporting beef. Instead of arresting the culprits, the police booked the women for carrying cow’s meat under the Madhya Pradesh Cow Slaughter Prohibition (Amendment) Act, 2010. They were produced before a court and sent to judicial custody. When the meat was sent for testing, it turned out to be buffalo meat, recalling Akhlaq’s murder. The shocking incident reported in Mandsaur came just weeks after the four Dalit men were attacked in Gujarat.
Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, has reported a fivefold jump in crimes against Dalits in 2015 compared to the previous year, as per data released by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes. As many as 20 young Dalits attempted suicide to express their anger and get justice. In October 20, 2015, two children of a Dalit family in Sanped village in Faridabad (Haryana state) were burned alive while their parents suffered injuries allegedly after some members of an upper caste set their house on fire while the family slept. The dark distinction of the highest number of atrocities, however, goes to Uttar Pradesh where over 6,000 cases have been reported since 2014. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports a 44 percent increase in violence against Dalits, up from 32,712 in 2010 to 47,064 crimes in 2014.
Dalits are increasingly feeling disillusioned with Hinduism, which otherwise stands for justice and compassion, as they feel that it has failed to safeguard their interest from atrocities by fellow Hindus. It is for this reason that more and more Dalits are embracing either Islam or Buddhism. In Tamil Nadu, around 200 Dalit families threatened to embrace Islam after they were denied permission to attend a temple festival in Tamil Nadu’s Karur region. As Tamil Nadu is one of the most progressive states in India, such incidents leave one dumbfounded.
Spiritual leaders like Shankaracharyas, upholders of the Hindu Dharma, which stands for morality, ethics, virtue, righteousness, and purity, have not helped the cause by failing to speak against the growing atrocities unleashed by these Hindu vigilante groups. Their deafening silence has only emboldened these groups to escalate their attacks on Dalits and religious minorities. It is sad that the upper caste Hindus, who could have drawn inspiration from a religion that offers a great spiritual experience and used its guiding light for the betterment of people at large, are indulging in such atrocities against fellow humans. The government, which could have played an important role to eliminate the scourge of casteism, have done precious little to protect the interests of this disadvantaged community
Further, Indian society has miserably failed to integrate the Dalits, and people belonging to the other disadvantaged communities, into the mainstream. The government, by creating 50 percent reservation for Dalits and other disadvantaged communities, has only compounded the problem by dividing the society on caste lines. Indeed, many of the parties are more interested in keeping the issue burning, as part of their vote bank politics. Dalits have now seen through their game and will give a befitting and a resounding reply in the next general election if atrocities against them are not stopped.
In the last election, Dalits, and a large proportion of Muslims, voted for Narendra Modi, as they thought that his clarion call “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” (together with all, development for all) would lead to inclusive growth. Alas, the slogan appears to be empty rhetoric as no concrete steps have been taken to bring Dalits out of their economic deprivation. Modi, who has launched “Skill India,” can take effective steps to impart skills that would encourage Dalits and others to acquire new skills, and thus free them from pursuing century-old vocations of manual scavenging, skinning animals, and other lowly jobs. This is the only way to emancipate this community and bring them out of the bottom of layer of the society. Let us stop treating them as sub-humans and work toward their emancipation and integration in society.
Shiv Visvanathan, a well known sociologist, in his article in The Hindu, describing the plight of the Dalits, wrote that:
“In such moments of change, the Constitution becomes an empty document. Neither the rule of law nor law and order is maintained. Vigilante groups play kangaroo courts while the rest of the nation can only watch. It is this sociology of violence that we must confront.”
One of the immediate steps to be taken by the government, if they want to preserve the unity and diversity of the country, is to come out heavily against the so-called vigilante groups for their crimes against Dalits and religious minorities. To date, vote bank politics have forced various parties to look the other way, instead of addressing this social menace.
The government should take immediate steps to stop the scourge of caste system by (a) constituting fast track courts for giving immediate justice to the victims; (b) accelerating the “skill development” program so that the disprivileged community can acquire alternate skills; and, lastly (c) scrap the reservation policy which has managed to divide society along caste lines and, instead, extend financial help to all communities based on their financial background.
The government needs to realize that if they fail to implement effective steps to root out this social evil and also stop violence against Dalits and religious minorities, Dalits, Muslims, and people belonging to other disadvantaged groups — who form about 30 percent of the population of India — are unlikely to support the present government in the next elections. Moreover, there is a danger that their alienation may cause social fissures in society, which has the potential to destroy the social fabric of the country. The political parties should stop using these groups as pawns in successive elections, and should realize that it is the preservation of the country that is of paramount importance, and not merely clinging to power.
K.S. Venkatachalam is an independent columnist and political commentator. His articles have been featured in many leading newspapers.