When Manohar Lal Khattar, a Punjabi Khatri, was chosen chief minister of Haryana, it was seen as the state transcending primordial identities like caste in politics. The gruesome murder of two infants of a Dalit family in Sunpedh, a Haryana village on the Delhi border, however, is a reminder that caste faultlines still divide, and bleed, India. The government and politicians have responded quickly.
Hopefully, this will at least prevent the violence from spreading. Arrests have been made and a CBI probe has been ordered, but the government must ensure that closure is accomplished. However, the fact that caste animosities could provoke people to murder in a village just a metro ride away from the capital’s power centres and shopping districts is disturbing. Seven decades after Independence, India’s “broken people” continue to live under the threat of violence from the social elite.
Though the police has sought to dismiss the Haryana incident as the fallout of a long-running dispute between two families — one Dalit and the other Thakur — it is impossible to ignore the social context of the feud. At the root of the conflict is the unwillingness of the socially and economically powerful upper castes to share power and resources with Dalits. It is a pattern evident across Indian villages. Legislative interventions, including reservations in education, employment and panchayati raj institutions, have triggered incremental changes in the rural landscape. Although economic parity of castes remains a distant goal, political power is no longer the monopoly of the ruling castes. As in Sunpedh, the post of the sarpanch is now reserved for Dalits in many panchayats. However, this transfer of power, which invariably impacts the distribution of public funds and upsets the old social hierarchy, is resented by traditional caste elites. With Dalits organising themselves and awareness about laws like the prevention of atrocities against SCs and STs spreading, much anti-Dalit violence is now reported to the police.
Crimes against Dalits are mostly rooted in disputes rising from the ownership of land, demand for minimum wages and, most importantly, political assertion. Fair policing and the stringent implementation of the law would ensure that Dalits do not have to fight an unequal battle. A deepening of an egalitarian consciousness, however, could make the democratisation process faster and painless. The political mainstream and civil society should take on the task.