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Uncorked, years of pent up resentment among Dalits

For decades, Dalits have had grievances against poor implementation of the SC/ST prevention of Atrocities Act. Now, a perceived dilution of the law has become a flashpoint for their simmering anger.

india Updated: Apr 10, 2018 07:35 IST
Dhrubo Jyoti
Seventy years of independence have changed little in casteist attitudes, which have morphed and taken new shapes in urban areas, while retaining their original macabre form in the rural.
Seventy years of independence have changed little in casteist attitudes, which have morphed and taken new shapes in urban areas, while retaining their original macabre form in the rural.(HT File Photo)

It all began at a movie.

On a hot summer day on June 1, 1991, Rajendra Jatav and three of his friends had gone to a local cinema in Kumher, a town in Rajasthan’s Bharatpur district. But minutes into the show, they were allegedly asked to get off the benches and sit on the floor — a common practice where Dalits give way to the dominant castes.

But this time, they refused, triggering a scuffle. Hours later, they returned with a large crowd of Jatavs, a Dalit sub-caste, and protested. The administration later alleged they pelted stones at the hall.

Tensions had been rising in the region for months. That May, a wedding procession of a Dalit family had been blocked by dominant castes and an inter-caste marriage had ratcheted up hostilities. The cinema incident ignited a fire.

The following day, three Dalit men were beaten up, but no police complaint was registered. A day later, a group of Dalit labourers were thrashed and tied to a tree. Simultaneously, influential castes of society allegedly decided to cut off water supply to the Jatav colony and clamped a boycott.

This was a tumultuous time. Kumher’s population was around 20,000 and it abutted Agra district, the cradle of Dalit politics in Uttar Pradesh. Throughout the previous decade, the Jatavs had painstakingly pulled themselves out of penury by assimilating themselves into the leather industry that flourished across the border. Moreover, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was gaining in strength and there was a buzz in the air that Mayawati could soon become chief minister, an extraordinary achievement for a community crushed for years.

“But this new-found prosperity became an eyesore for dominant castes. They resented the confidence of the lowliest in their eyes,” said PL Mimroth, who heads the Jaipur-based Centre for Dalit Rights.

Things came to a head on June 6, 1992. A hundreds-strong mob of Jat men marched into the Jatav colony, set several hutments on fire. In the ensuing carnage, 17 people were killed.

The media swooped, as did hordes of politicians, but on the ground, the Dalits struggled to get cases registered, even under the new SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. Finally, 21 years after the massacre, a special court held seven people guilty while acquitting 19 in one case.

Dalits are today rising in front of communities that considered them lowly. (HT File Photo)

A second case, which deals with the main Kumher massacre, is still being heard. A third case, filed against Rajendra and others for the alleged attack on the cinema, was the first to be decided. They were sentenced to five years in jail.

When the judicial commission report came out, it recognised the “upward swing” of Jatavs as the cause of Jat jealousy but also identified another invisible reason, one that made the dominant castes insecure: The atrocities act.

A perceived dilution of this act is today the trigger of simmering Dalit anger that spilled on to the streets last week. The law, and its shoddy implementation, encapsulates many of the grievances that Dalit communities have nursed for decades and a failure of the promise that Independent India made to its most marginalised citizens.

The Anger

The Supreme Court’s judgment uncorked years of bottled up resentment of Dalit communities. Kalpana Kannabiran, director of the Council for Social Development, Hyderabad, says this is because the judgment fed into dominant caste perspectives of the act being misused.

“In this case, the complainants are always SC/ST, and all the accused are upper caste. You’re actually bringing out an argument that is stigmatising an entire community,” she says.

The tipping point was coming. Seventy years of independence have changed little in casteist attitudes, which have morphed and taken new shapes in urban areas, while retaining their original macabre form in the rural.

The 2010-11 India Human Development Survey found that a third of the country practised untouchability. Data from the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies showed 95% of marriages continued to happen within communities. A telephonic survey conducted by four professors covering 40,000 households in six states and published in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) in 2016, found untouchability at a high in rural Rajasthan, where 66% of non-Dalit women and 50% of non-Dalit men admitted to the practice. When they were asked if they wanted a law to ban inter-caste marriages, more than half agreed. Amit Thorat, a professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and one of the authors of the last study, points at these attitudes as the latent reasons for Dalit anger.

“It is a historical anger of being oppressed and neglected. We only note the major acts of violence, not the everyday act of discrimination and bias,” professor Thorat says.

He points at Ambedkarite movements across the country as key in increasing prosperity and education. “As Dalits move away from traditional occupation and take up new jobs, get educated and move to cities, this creates resentment among other castes, who cannot transition from rural economy,” Thorat adds. “As Dalits get prosperous, caste hostility deepens. This anger comes out in violence.” Rahul Singh, a lawyer with the Delhi-based National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, points out the importance of the SC/ST Act. “The act represents a fundamental shift in power, especially in rural areas where even your labourer can now file a case against you. This is why the act is so reviled, and why it’s so important for Dalits and adivasis,” he says.

A cocktail of reasons has fuelled the resentment. C Lakshmanan, a professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, points to growing insecurity among Dalits, especially in recent years with a steady fall in conviction rates under the SC/ST act. Many local reasons have also contributed to the present scenario. For example, in Tamil Nadu, anti-Brahmin movements have failed to stop a rash of killings.

“In Tamil Nadu, the movement was explicitly anti-Brahmin and implicitly anti-Dalit. Now it is implicit anti-Brahmin, explicitly anti-Dalit. No one is concerned about caste,” he adds.

The explicit violence meted out to Dalit women also stokes anger. “The rape, murder and trafficking of Dalit women is common because they are vulnerable and labelled by upper castes as impure,” says Manjula Pradeep, a veteran activist from Gujarat.

The fight back

Dalits are today rising in front of communities that considered them lowly. Nowhere is this visible as much as back in Bharatpur, where the locals, despite being haunted by memories of their houses being torched but are forging ahead.

Four years ago, a 16-year-old Dalit girl was allegedly molested by two dominant-caste men at a tuition class. The family’s repeated attempts to file a complaint were thwarted and the father of the victim intimidated, beaten up and ultimately allegedly murdered.

But the family refused to accept compensation, or be cowed by the threats. It contacted legal services in Jaipur, got a case filed, and when the police concluded the death was suicide, approached the high court to take over the investigation. During this time, the entire community rallied around, repelling the slurs and threats from the upper castes and utilising a network of Dalit lawyers, activists and professionals to demand justice and prevent a repeat of 1992. As Thorat says, the Dalits have had enough.