In March this year, the Supreme Court declared unequivocally that the right to choose one’s partner, of any caste, class or religion, is “absolute” and laid out a series of procedures and protocols for police and local authorities to deal with the diktats of caste panchayats. The assault on two Dalit youth last week in Kamala, a village near Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh shows that the executive is not living up to the standard set by the Court. The attacks, according to the local police, stemmed from an affair between a Dalit man and Gujjar woman. This newspaper found a third of Dalit homes in Kamala deserted with all the young women sent away “as a precaution”.
The desertion is symptomatic of a disturbing fact: That underprivileged communities do not trust in the state’s ability to protect them from the wrath of the caste elites. Unbiased action — not the equivocations and denials that have been issued by the village authorities and police in Baghpat — alone can restore the people’s trust in the administration. Western UP, including Baghpat, has been restive in recent years since social relations started to undergo major changes. In 2017, Saharanpur saw violent clashes among Dalits and Thakurs over the former’s moves to claim their share of the public space — for instance, celebration of the memory of icons like B R Ambedkar and Sant Ravidas, wedding processions across village lands etc. The rise of an educated and politically conscious middle-class among the Dalits, reflected in the emergence of political groups such as the BSP and, now, Bhim Army, has forced changes in the social dynamic. The expansion and diversification of the economy, the fruits — however limited — of reservation, mean that the Dalits are no longer as dependent on landed, dominant castes as they once were. These changes bode well for Indian society, marked as it has been by a ritualised social inequality for centuries.
Political parties and governments, however, often give the impression that they are batting for the status quo, rather than change. In Ujjain district in Madhya Pradesh, for example, the authorities had issued an order asking Dalits to inform them of any wedding processions three days in advance, ostensibly due to law and order concerns — the order was revoked after protests. The role of the political executive should be to assure a depressed community that its advance is their priority. Every family that leaves Baghpat illustrates a failure in that regard.