Dalits still left out

Discrimination against Dalits is rising despite stronger laws. Attitudes of police, judiciary must change

Written by Christophe Jaffrelot | Published: February 18, 2016 12:04 am
dalit, condition of dalits, descrimination against dalits, rohith vemula, dali suicide case, Rohith Vemula’s suicide, anti-Dalit attitudes, indian express opinion Rohith Vemula.

The Dalit mobilisation that is gaining momentum in the wake of Rohith Vemula’s suicide reflects structural issues that he was well aware of. Certainly, reservations have given birth to Dalit entrepreneurs and a Dalit middle class benefiting from government jobs. But in spite of this, or because of this, anti-Dalit attitudes have been on the rise.

The number of registered cases of anti-Dalit atrocities, notoriously under-reported, jumped by 17.1 per cent in 2013 (compared to 2012) according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). The increase was even more dramatic between 2013 and 2014 — 19.4 per cent. The word “atrocities” needs to be fleshed out here, otherwise it will become another bureaucratic, abstract euphemism.

The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (the PoA act), gives a list of “offences and atrocities”.

Someone is guilty of one of these “offences and atrocities” if he or she forces a Dalit or an Adivasi “to drink or eat any inedible or obnoxious substance”, “forcibly removes clothes from the person of a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe or parades him [sic] naked or with painted face or body”, dispossesses him “from his land”, compels him to do “bonded labour”, “exploits her sexually”, “corrupts or fouls the water” he or she is using, denies him or her “right of passage to a place of public resort”, forces him or her “to leave his house, village or other place of residence”, etc.

This list is surprising, not only because of its detail but also because the Constitution drafted by Ambedkar had already taken care of most of these issues. Article 17 abolishes untouchability, Article 23 prohibits bonded labour and Article 15(2) stipulates that no citizen should be subject to restriction with regard to access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of entertainment, the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places of public resort on the grounds of caste. In 1955, the Untouchability (Offences) Act reasserted that Dalits should not be prevented from entering any public place. Then, in 1976, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act was passed. In 1989, why did a new, detailed law have to be made that listed instances of “offences and atrocities”? Because none of the previous legislation had made any difference.

The PoA Act has not made a huge impact either, as evident from the figures mentioned above. Atrocities have continued, unbearably. In October 2014, a 15-year-old boy was burnt alive by an upper-caste man in Mohanpur village (Rohtas district) because his goats had eaten his paddy crop. In June 2015, two Dalit boys were killed in an altercation because they were short of Rs 4 in a flour mill of Allahabad. In October 2015, two kids of three and eight were burnt alive in their house in Ballabgarh village (Haryana) after an argument with local Rajputs. In May this year, a 21-year-old Dalit man was killed in Shirdi (Maharashtra) because he was playing a song in praise of Ambedkar.

In parallel, Dalit women continue to be victims of violence and rape, the same way as Mahasweta Devi, who turned 90 this month, described them decades ago in her short stories.

What has been the response of the state, lately? A new law was passed. Last month, the Indian Parliament made the existing
legislation even more sophisticated. This law provides stringent action against those who sexually assault Dalits and Adivasis and occupy their land illegally; it also declares as an offence garlanding with footwear a man or a statue, compelling to dispose or carry human or animal carcasses or do manual scavenging.

Will that make any difference? Not if the police and the judiciary do not change their attitude. In spite of the fact that the PoA Act has introduced special courts for speedy trials, the conviction rate under this act has remained very low and has declined even — from 30 per cent in 2011 to 22.8 per cent in 2013 (more recent data are not available). And the percentage of “pending cases” has increased from
80 to 84 per cent.

But to have a case registered under the PoA Act is in itself a problem. On average, only one-third of the cases of atrocities are registered under the PoA Act. The police is reluctant to do so because of the severity of the penalties likely to be imposed by the act.

Many Dalits do not know their rights anyway and cannot fight a legal battle that is costly in terms of time and money. The 2011 Census offers a poignant picture of the socio-economic condition of the SCs, which explains their vulnerability. Out of the 4,42,26,917 Dalit households in India, 74 per cent live in rural areas, where the per-household land area they own on an average is less than 0.3 ha — most of them are landless. A total of 2,06,16,913 Dalit households live in one room and 1,39,24,073 in two rooms. Only 22 per cent of the Dalit households live in larger homes. And only 34 per cent of them have toilets in their premises. More than 50 per cent Dalit households use firewood as their main fuel for cooking.

The literacy rate among Dalits is rising, though. In 2011, their literacy rate crossed the 66 per cent landmark (8 percentage points below the non-SC/STs). But educated Dalits want more — to join the university system. Some of them have succeeded in doing so, but they often face frustrating experiences when they are discriminated against in the very institution that should promote social mobility. Rohith Vemula was one of them. There are many others. Take the case of Senthil Kumar from Jalakandapuram (near Salem). This son of a pig-breeder joined Hyderabad University, just like Rohith Vemula, and got a PhD scholarship in physics in 2007. But he committed suicide in 2008 — victim of the local atmosphere — after failing his exams and losing his scholarship. Today, the children of his family don’t want education — his mother even “hates education”. But can a country progress if a fifth of its population does not have full access to higher education? What kind of development (today’s key word in India) will that be?


The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/ CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian politics and sociology at King’s India Institute, London, and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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  1. A
    Feb 18, 2016 at 11:56 am
    This evangelist bi got and madar jaat Jefeorlet has written any time on Christian conversion ? When soever u see this bhad va on any airport or tv talk show, treat him like Patiala house lawyers treated JNU ki lan doore and bha daviyan
    1. H
      Feb 18, 2016 at 10:57 am
      Bhains ke aage been bajaoo....
      1. A
        Feb 18, 2016 at 4:22 pm
        Chris, Please ask the question to British? why they have created a western cl system among Indians by pet cuddling the boot licking prince and kings and their agents? Why British gave more powers to the feudal system and protected it? Today when you see 600 million Indians under utter poverty is a reward of 150 years of iron rule by British. Our ancient knowledge systemically undermined, our culture, food and languages were vilified. M number of Indians made beggars by British policy of divide and rule. We paid that with blood and slavery. If you have time then read the travelogue written by Greek Ambador Magesthanis who described India as a land of wisdom and high morals. He couldn't find slavery in India, that was 2300 years back at the time of Chandragupta Maurya. He wrote with high regards for Indian society in "Indika". Many prominent visitors to India pre British gave best accounts of India. Slavery was a concept from Jews, Greeks, Christians and Muslims and everyone tried to make India a slave. BUT British did it systematically by vilifying most of the Indian things. Lord Macaulay divided Indians further with language barriers and imposed English. Your 2 cent article forgets to the poison created by your own Western society and blames Hindu/Indians for the cancerous symptoms. Christians and Muslims will never understand Hindus.
        1. A
          Feb 18, 2016 at 8:55 pm
          Let me tell you Chris one example where British created a non existing cast which became a feudal cl/cast and looted Maharashtra till last yearn when their govt. lost power. Pre British There was no cast/cl named "Maratha" existed in Maharashtra. It was Muslims who always referred armies from Maharashtra ( shivaji's army ) as "Mar Hattay" means "Those who have no fear of death". Shivaji and his later rulers had the army made of people from all communities in Maharashtra. Hence the western understanding of "Kashtriya" should only fight was wrong. It was the peasants who were the bulk of Marathi army. There were few landlords who belonged to "Kunbi" means farming cast. Somehow British identified them as "Maratha" cast ( "Mar hatta"/"Marathaa") . These rich "kunbis" maintained their power and wealth and preferred to marry with similar status. British clification identified them as a Maratha cast instaed of a rich peasant "Kunbi" cl. Today "Maratha" are a cast in Maharashtra and they do not marry with "Kunbi" community. This is a clic case of dividing a social group and training them to yield power. This w Maratha cast was a sucker under Kongress support and still behaves as landlords.
          1. A
            Feb 24, 2016 at 7:41 pm
            New details have emerged, Roit Vemula and his mother were converted to Christianity. So those who now harping for a Dalit card should see why Rohit is still referred as Dalit? The Christians and Muslims are themselves castist with the fellow converts. Kerala, Goa, Karnataka, Andhra have separate burials for low cast converts.
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