Caste prejudice is such a ubiquitous but often unacknowledged part of life across India that it takes an act of gratuitous violence to remind us all about it. Caste violence draws attention to the unregulated fury that mobs express themselves through in the face of State incapacity and unwillingness to intervene on behalf of the weak.
Caste conflict also highlights persisting power dynamics in India’s communities beyond the enclaves that are under modernity’s sway. Events also show that Dalits cannot control the narrative even when they are victims of violence.
These elements were on view in the burning of the Dalit family at Sunped village in Faridabad, which killed two children and caused grievous injuries to their mother. The area where the attack happened has a history of tensions between upper castes and Dalits.
Three Rajputs were allegedly killed by Dalits last year over a fight about a mobile phone that fell into the drain and this is said to be a case of revenge killing — although both sides have differing accounts with the Dalits stating that they were humiliated and abused. The police clearly did not intervene effectively in the simmering situation, which not only saw some Dalit families relocating elsewhere but ultimately saw a mob set the house of Jitender Kumar on fire while they were sleeping.
Such inaction can often be traced to powerful social groups which control institutions while staying committed to inherited, illiberal attitudes and sometimes actively promoting them. The incidence of anti-Dalit violence remains high as a result. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, there were 39,408 cases of crime against Dalits in 2013. These figures may be higher in reality, given that the disempowered struggle to get their ‘first information reports’ registered owing to police resistance.
Earlier this month, police in Dankaur in UP beat up a Dalit family and stripped the women (who subsequently tore their own clothes in protest) for staging a dharna against the police for not registering an FIR against their upper-caste attackers. The UP police subsequently filed cases against the family including for rioting and attempt to murder.
Politicians can show empathy and solidarity towards Jitender, but they ought to stay committed to the issue of anti-Dalit violence, follow through on cases that come to their attention and consistently push for State accountability on the matter. Only a sustained, visible focus on this can improve the situation for Dalits and alter social attitudes towards them.