Do Dalit lives matter in India?: Reflecting on condition of Dalits and apathy

Dalit lives matter

The death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests have triggered a wave of reflection on the social relations, prejudices and hierarchies in the society we are living in. However, there are oppressive structures like caste which require similar condemnation but there is no outrage in India similar to what we see in the US. In the previous article, we concluded that the plight of the Muslim community in India is akin to the African-Americans and argued that the police brutalities faced by both the communities are similar if not worse. The Dalits in India too have been historically oppressed, brutalized and marginalized by the caste system, an inhumane structure which has stood resilient in the face of laws and changing times. The brutalities and oppression of the Dalit community has been sustained due to the complicity of the Indian state’s bureaucracy and caste based institutions.

The situation of Dalits in India is akin to the African-Americans in the US in a number of ways. Both are historically suppressed and practically treated as second class citizens in their respective countries. Racial segregation backed by legislations like “Black Codes” and “Jim Crow laws” made segregation in housing, education, public transport, public parks, theaters, pools, cemeteries, asylums, jails and other public spaces legal in the US until only a few decades ago. This resulted in a segregated and hierarchical citizenship. The Manusmriti in India, though not legally enforceable, has been the moral code which guides the upper caste elite in their attitude and behavior towards the Dalits in day to day life and relegate them to second class citizen status. The upper caste control economic assets and social and cultural capital; they are predominant in the bureaucracy and therefore can achieve more than what “Black Codes” and “Jim Crow Laws” achieved. The Dalits were not allowed and are still not allowed in many cases to draw water from public wells and enter temples. The Dalit children were and are made to sit separately in many schools and drink water from separate utensils. Inter-caste marriages between  a Dalit and an upper caste still leads to honor killing of the Dalit spouse.

The African-Americans in the US and the Dalits in India have been exploited for cheap labour, forced to take up hard menial work with less than subsistence wages. Dalits are still forced to engage in manual scavenging or take up menial jobs which are considered “impure” by the upper caste Hindus. This was starkly demonstrated in the Una incident where 4 Dalits were publicly flogged and lynched. Dalits, mostly landless, are forced to work on the agricultural lands of the upper caste Hindus at very low wages. The democratic polity and the Constitution of India, which guarantees equality and abolishes untouchability, have utterly failed in achieving social and economic equality and usher in meaningful equal citizenship. Violence against the Dalits is an everyday occurrence unlike episodic violence against the Muslims. The upper castes seek to control the body (through unpaid or lowly paid physical labour and sexual assaults on Dalit women), mind (through imposition of feudal cultural traditions and customs and denial of educational opportunities) and soul (through religious beliefs and Manusmriti) of the Dalits.

Physical violence; age old cultural traditions and religious beliefs are usual weapons of oppression. If these do not work, then village’s upper caste institutions kick in to isolate and suppress the Dalit communities in their villages and make them submit to their will by holding caste panchayats and village panchayats and issuing a call to upper castes to save their ancestral honour and social order and impose a socio-economic boycott on the Dalits. That means not to employ Dalits in their farms or homes, not to sell any provisions from their shops and not to allow them access to transportation allowing them to get out of the village. To further humiliate the community, Dalit women are paraded naked on donkeys in the villages.

Even in the year 2019, two Dalit children, a 10-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl, were beaten to death for defecating in the open in Bhavkhedi village of Shivpuri district in Madhya Pradesh. Most Dalits in the village reportedly have no toilets at home and thus have to go out in open for defecation. Similarly the family had to often wait near the local hand pump before being allowed to take water (Ghatwai, 2019). Again in 2019, Sanjaybhai Ranchhodbhai Parmar from Mota Kothasana village in Mehsana alleged that the caste Hindus gave him death threats and forced him to shave off his moustache, considered as a symbol of manliness, beat him up and made him apologize to them. A video of him apologizing to the youths went viral (Indian Express, 2019). In Jambhe village in Mulshi taluka of Pune district, an owner of a brick kiln allegedly made a Dalit labourer eat human excreta following an argument at the work place (Haygunde, 2019). In February 2020, a Dalit army soldier was attacked in his wedding procession because he was riding a mare – a symbol of prestige and prerogative of the caste Hindus. Despite the police protection, stones were pelted at the Dalit procession demanding equal dignity and rights in Banaskantha district of Gujarat (Indian Express, 2020).

Two Dalit youth were beaten up in Nagaur district of Rajasthan under the pretext that they had committed “theft”. In the video of the incident circulated, a group of men were seen thrashing the youth with rubber belts. One of the victims was stripped and held down, and a screwdriver dipped in petrol was inserted into his anus. The perpetrators of the crime could be heard laughing in the background (Mohammad, 2020). Even the onslaught of Covid-19 pandemic didn’t halt the atrocities. A Dalit family was allegedly attacked by three persons for not switching off the lights at 9 pm on 5th April as announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The victims alleged that the accused used casteist slurs and told them to keep their home lights switched off for the whole night. Besides the complainant, his son and daughter and five other family members sustained injuries (, 2020). Evidence, a Madurai based NGO, conducted a survey during the lockdown period and found that in the month of May 2020, in Tamil Nadu alone, 25 incidents of atrocities against Dalits, including two murders were reported (Times of India , 2020). Most of these cases related to the honor killings wherein, Dalit men were targeted for marrying caste Hindus.

Caste violence has intricate linkages with sexual violence faced by Dalit women routinely in their daily lives. Dalit women remain invisible and their problems are relegated to the periphery in this wider struggle of the Dalit community to gain recognition. They are perceived as “properties” available for sexual gratification for the men of the upper caste Hindus. They are molested and violated with impunity at farms owned by upper caste men where they work and at wells when they go to fill water. The custom wherein the newlywed bride has to spend the first night with the upper caste landlord is not fully eradicated. The Dalit girls in some villages are married off to the village deity (Yellamma in one such case). They are then raped by the priest of the temple and upper caste worshippers of the deity, ultimately forced into flesh trade in the city. The sustenance of the institution of caste in fact depends on the control on the sexuality of women – both Dalit women and upper caste women. But Dalit women have multiple marginalizations owing to caste and patriarchy. This is also a way to establish power over the bodies of Dalit women and in turn the whole community.

Of the 5,775 offences registered in India under the SC/ST Act in the year 2017 wherein Dalits were victims, 3,172 (55%) were related to “intentional insult or intimidation with intent to humiliate”. There were 47 cases of land grabbing related to Dalits; they faced social boycott in 63 cases; and they were prevented from using public spaces in 12 cases (Tiwary, 2019). While the data is three years old, there is no reason for us to believe that the situation has changed for the better. In fact, the upper caste mobilized in large numbers to reverse the meager affirmative action of the state for Dalits like the SC/ST Act and demand reverse affirmative action in their favour like reservations for their caste members in employment and educational institutions. The Marathas in Maharashtra, Jats in Haryana and the Patels in Gujarat are examples of such mobilizations. Their mobilization led to consolidation of their political clout and consequent atrocities on the Dalits.  

In the next part we would examine why there is no outrage in spite of such inhuman brutalities against Dalits in India.



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