In what can only be characterised as Indian apartheid, Ramesh, Vashram and two other Dalits in Una, Gujarat were publicly stripped and beaten with metal rods by various men who took turns to do so, all the while swaggering like conquering heroes. Outcries of pain were met by harder swings, while people in the background heartily endorsed the flogging. The whole incident was being scrupulously recorded and subsequently posted online as a warning. As a people, how can we even begin to make sense of such the mentality of those so called vigilantes, their mindlessness, and utter lack of humanity?
How do ordinary human beings going about their lives abruptly become extremely antagonistic towards their Dalit neighbours? How can few people incite and invoke the support of an entire community to attack Dalits? Why do they then collectively commit the vilest atrocities on Dalits, be it stripping, raping, beating, burning, or force-feeding feces/urine to them? After all, they commit these atrocities knowing fully well that they go against the Constitution of India, as also basic human rights.
They do this so impudently (and routinely) because the Dalit dares to challenge those regressive religious norms that maintain the social status quo. They do it to teach the Dalit a lesson (hence the video); to not forget his/her place in society, and to continue kowtowing to their caste superiors. Ultimately, they do this to reinforce the hegemony of their caste over the Dalit, and to inculcate the same culture of hierarchy in future generations. Without such a hierarchy in place, they cannot differentiate from, and maintain their complete dominance over the Dalit.
What’s perhaps equally regrettable about this incident is Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement. Condemning the atrocities as a “social evil”, he spoke about how arrests had been made and how officials had been reprimanded. Yes, those things have happened, but they happened after a Dalit killed himself, after 12 other Dalits also tried to commit suicide and after violence erupted in Rajkot, Surendranagar, Amreli, Junagadh, Ahmedabad, Dhoraji and other towns of Saurashtra. Rajnath Singh was therefore making a political statement, to address the public outcry on the issue, but not to address the root of the matter. In fact, his statement was a clear abdication of the State’s moral responsibility to reform society. Not once did he speak about how and what the government will do to permanently end the regressive caste and religious norms that still tarnish Hinduism.
The reason he (or for that matter, anyone who believes in it) won’t, is because they fanatically adhere to a rigid and inhumane form of Hinduism, namely Hindutva. Because the Sangh parivar has meticulously proselytised and socialised increasingly larger sections of society to Hindutva (and because the current political dispensation deliberately turns a blind eye to its violent consequences), people are emboldened to escalate atrocities against Dalits (from May 2014, there has been a 19% increase in atrocities).
What all of us don’t realize (or perhaps, we don’t want to, considering we deny that untouchability and casteism is even an issue in India) is that the recent incident is just the final tipping point for Dalits in Gujarat (and in view of the nationwide uproar post Rohith Vemula’s suicide, perhaps the rest of the country). Despite having the formal backing of the Constitution and numerous laws (which are expressly meant to invalidate the abovementioned caste and religious norms), Dalits have been continuously subjugated and subjected to gruesome violence, and the Gujarat government. (like the NDA government.) has either turned a blind eye or actively facilitated these. Consider these:
1. Although the Scheduled Castes Sub Plan (SCSP) mandates that a state must allocate monies in proportion to the SC population of the state (7.09%), the Gujarat government. has not done so in the last ten years. In a July 2015 report, the state shockingly argued (in stark violation of the SCSP guidelines) that “it was very difficult to take up area based development exclusively for the SCs”! Here is a clear signal to society (especially the regressive elements) that Dalits aren’t a priority, and that the state won’t do much to change the status quo.
2. When Navsarjan (an NGO working for Dalit rights) and the Robert F. Kennedy Centre for Justice & Human Rights (an internationally renowned NGO working for human rights) pointed out that in 2009 that empirically, untouchability was widely prevalent in both the public and private sectors in Gujarat, the Modi government. refused to even accept the existence of casteism! It even went so far as to commission a report to champion the idea that casteism in Gujarat was eradicated. This is despite that fact that between 2006 and September 2013, 8,884 cases of atrocities were officially registered in the state (and 11 of the 26 districts in the state were recorded as highly atrocity prone). Here is the state actively denying that there is even a problem that it needs to resolve.
3. Because of this callous and deliberate indifference to casteism and untouchability, the mandatory Vigilance and Monitoring Committees (that are, under the CM’s personal supervision, meant to ensure the implementation of the Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989) in Gujarat have never met! Similarly to date, not a single lawyer has been appointed in any district in the state to aid Dalits fight atrocity cases (as the PoA Act mandates). Here then is how regressive elements committed to upholding a casteist society capture the state apparatus, and consciously undermine the tools of social justice.
The Gujarat government has been conducting itself exactly like a dominant community in a village. It has denied the rights due to a section of society because they belong to a certain caste, and done everything in its power to uphold an atavistic status quo. Not only is this unconstitutional, it is simply unacceptable.
To transform India into an egalitarian and just one, we first need to lift the veils of illusion that we collectively hide behind, and awaken to the casteist reality of India. Unless we do so, the horrific mentality that suppresses and denies will continue to thwart the law of the land. Secondly, the State must guarantee the rights to dignity, equality and equal opportunities, which it is mandated to uphold (but has been found wanting, especially recently). Finally, we cannot keep outsourcing the responsibility of creating a just society solely on the State. Each one of us needs to own and champion constitutional principles in every aspect of our lives. Together, we must protect and further the idea of India, without which millions of our fellow Indians will continue to live in a cesspool of discrimination and violence.