This article is written by Abanti Bose, pursuing B.A.LL.B.(H) from Amity University Kolkata, India. This article upholds the condition and challenges faced by Dalits and other backward classes in India in the 21st century.
The caste system is one of the major threats to the rights of Indian citizens. It is perhaps the world’s longest surviving social hierarchy and was developed by the brahmins to establish to maintain their superiority. The caste system is further divided into four varnas. At the top are the brahmins, next are the Kshatriyas, underneath them are vaishyas, and finally at the end of the list are Shudras.
A fifth category falls outside the varna system and consists of those known as “untouchables” or Dalits; they are often assigned tasks too ritually polluting to merit inclusion within the traditional varna system. The tasks they perform and their status in the caste system are not socially recognized. Dalits are also known as “untouchables” as they are seen as polluting for the higher caste people. If a member of the higher caste is touched by a Dalit or even their shadow is crossed by a Dalit they consider themselves polluted and go through a rigorous religious process to be cleansed.
In India, around 240 million people are Dalit which means that nearly 25% of the population belongs to the downtrodden, oppressed, and socially exploited group. Dalits have been oppressed by the members of the higher caste since time immemorial but even in the present day Dalits and members of the other backward castes are not only deprived of basic opportunities but also tortured and exploited by the members of the higher classes. They are poor and socially backward. Often they do not have access to basic amenities like clean water, enough food, housing, or clothing. Apart from these, they do not have the access to proper education facilities and therefore they are unable to get adequate employment opportunities like the rest of the population. Despite having similar rights and duties they are grounded and deprived of basic human standards of living.
In order to overcome or strive for the betterment of this condition, the Indian government attempted to provide access to education for the Dalits of India. Furthermore, it also has been the greatest challenge for the Indian government in diminishing the social effects of the caste system, which still remain entrenched in Indian society. There are several existing reasons as to why Dalits suffer from low rates of literacy but one of the prime reasons is the historical background of the caste system and how it shaped the existing status of the lower castes in the society.
The ancient caste system of India, which has resulted in the social and economic oppression of the Dalits, continues to play a dominant role in India. The Dalits, also known as the scheduled caste or untouchables, have experienced consistent denial to access to education since the 1850s. This decade harmonized with Britain’s set up authority over India, which implied huge numbers of the upgrades to Dalit instruction were originating from outside impacts, instead of from the national government. As a result of constant accepted practices and conduct, impetuses to seek after training were insignificant for the dalits who were still physically and emotionally harassed. Increasing efforts to eliminate caste discrimination combined with additional attempts to increase the accessibility and appeal for education have contributed to the slow progression of Dalit education.
The responsibility for social equalization fell fully upon the Indian government when it became independent from the clutches of British rule in 1948. While a few advantages of social projects and government policies intended to expand essential training rates can be seen, the dalit educated population remains lower than most of the population of the country. There remains still, hostility, oppression, and flaws in social programs in Indian society that prevent an increase in education growth. And even to this day in the twenty-first century, the dalit population is not only denied access to education but also they are oppressed, tortured and exploited by the upper caste population.
The Indian caste system is divided into four varnas. At the top are the brahmins, next are the Kshatriyas, underneath them are vaishyas, and finally at the end of the list are shudras. A fifth category falls outside the varna system and consists of those known as “untouchables” or Dalits; they are often assigned tasks too ritually polluting to merit inclusion within the traditional varna system. People belonging from all the varnas excluding the brahmins and Kshatriyas were barred from the equal opportunity of education and the women from all the caste were also deprived of their right to get educated. Although the Indian government implemented several laws to uplift the poor societal conditions of Dalits and other backward classes they still face a plethora of challenges even in the twenty-first century.
Article 17 of the Indian Constitution abolished the practice of untouchability and made it a punishable offense and Article 35 of the constitution gave the parliament the power to make penal law for the offense of untouchability. Thereafter, The Untouchability Offences Act,1955 (renamed to The Protection of Civil Liberties Act) was enacted which provided punishment if anyone prevented a person or a group of persons from entering in a place of worship or practicing the offense of untouchability in any way or form. Few more laws were enacted to protect the right and dignity of backward class people which include; The Scheduled Castes And The Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015.
The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (“Act”) was passed by the Parliament of India in September 1989 to prevent the commission of offenses against dalits, protect the rights of other backward castes, and to grant relief to the victims of such derogatory caste-based violence.
However, the Indian Judiciary in one of the recent judgments, Khuman Singh v. State of Madhya Pradesh has weakened the current status of the above-mentioned act. Section 3(2)(v) of the act lays down the punishment for the offense committed under the Indian Penal Code against any member belonging to the scheduled caste or scheduled tribe. But the Supreme Court while delivering the judgment said the punishment will only be awarded if the victim belonged to the scheduled caste or scheduled tribe. The Supreme Court has gone beyond its mandate of interpreting the law and stated that a new evidentiary burden of proof lies on the prosecution to prove before the court that the offense was committed only because the victim belonged to scheduled caste. Furthermore, the apex court failed to acknowledge the existing caste-based discrimination and the oppression faced by the lower caste. The court provided the accused a loophole in the commission of such offences on the grounds that the caste prejudice was one of the contributing factors; it was not the only factor that caused such offenses. This may lead to a situation where the culprits who commit such offenses might not be prosecuted and will not be awarded the punishment they deserve.
In another case, Subhash Mahajan v. State of Maharashtra the Supreme Court had diluted the provisions of the said Act relating to immediate arrest on the commission of offenses under the act by providing court-imposed requirements of conducting a preliminary inquiry and obtaining prior approval before an arrest. This judgment has led to widespread protests throughout the country which also highlighted the flaws of the Indian judicial system. Nevertheless, both the judgments have strengthened the way the members of the higher caste enjoy their privilege. It failed to protect the basic legal and fundamental rights of the lower castes.
It is not unknown to us about the derogatory condition of the lower castes in India. Thus, we need more strict laws to protect the rights of the dalits and to grant them relief in the conditions where their rights have been violated. The main reasons why we need such laws are mentioned below.
Caste is one of the major socio-cultural issues
Even after independence with the presence of constitutional provisions to protect the rights of every citizen the status of dalits and other backward castes are in a crippled condition. In several parts of the country, the dalits are treated poorly by members of higher caste and there still exists a huge barrier among the castes which poses a serious threat to the harmonious development of the society.
Police hinder the door to justice
Most often when the victims of caste-based violence try to seek justice the first block they face on their path is the institutional bias in form of police officials. The authorities are reluctant to record the first information report regarding an offence.
The court thinks that The Prevention of Atrocities Act is misused by the members of the lower caste and there exists a large number of false cases. Sthabir Khora’s research suggested that this is true as the police are likely to classify cases filed under the PoA Act as “closed cases” in their Final Report (FR). It is the final report that decides whether or not a case is worth sending to court at all. Compared to cases filed under other laws (such as Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code which prohibits cruelty at the hands of a husband or his relatives against a wife), cases filed under the PoA Act are more likely to be categorised as “false” by the police. Furthermore, a sizable chunk of cases, amounting to more than 50% of the cases committed against the lower caste does not reach before the court in order to get justice.
A law against caste violence does not eradicate the existing caste-based discrimination
In March 2018, while deciding on a case the Supreme Court held that “The Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989 should not result in perpetuating casteism which can have an adverse impact on the integration of the society”. Such a statement made by the judiciary indicates how the judiciary is failing to acknowledge the socio-cultural reality. The said act was implemented to prevent the atrocities which are committed against the members of the lower caste but the act has failed to achieve its purpose. Despite enforcing the act the dalits are still facing oppression and are living at the mercy of the members of the higher caste in various places of the country.
On 14th April 1999, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a detailed report elaborating on the present status and the challenges faced by dalits in India even today, called Broken People: Caste Violence Against India’s “Untouchables”. The report focused on the growing violence against the untouchables. It stated how the government has failed to diminish or eradicate the problems and difficulties faced by dalits even today. It mentioned how more than 160 million people are the victim of the discrimination of the caste system.
Although untouchability was removed by the legislature in 1950, still some villages are segregated by caste, which is also known as the “hidden apartheid”. These villages often have certain rules like people from the lower caste cannot enter the part of the village where members of the higher caste reside wearing shoes or they cannot fetch water from the well from the designated well for the higher caste residents. They are often not allowed to legally claim what belongs to them if it offends or causes discomfort to the members of the upper castes.
“‘Untouchability’ is not an ancient cultural artifact, it is human rights abuse on a vast scale,” said Smita Narula, a researcher for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch and author of the report. Since 1990 violence against Dalits escalated drastically after the onset of Dalit rights movement. The report lays down more than forty specific recommendations to the Indian Government both at the central and state level, many of the recommendations stated distinctly about implementing a law which focused on banning atrocities against the Dalits. Even though it is previously laid down in the law that it is illegal to force the Dalits into bonded labours, deny access to public places, foul their drinking water, practice untouchability, force them to eat obnoxious substance, etc. the recommendations called for the establishment of special courts and atrocities units to prosecute crimes against Dalits, and more women police personnel to register complaints by Dalit women. At the international level, the report calls on Indian donors and trading partners to develop anti-discrimination measures into all-aid projects where caste-discriminations are severe.
Most of the dalit population is working in a slave-like condition as bonded labours to pay off debts. At least one million of the dalit population work as manual scavengers, cleaning feces from latrines and disposing of dead animals with their bare hands. Dalits also comprise the majority of agricultural laborers who work for a few kilograms of rice, or 15-35 rupees per day. In the southern states, dalit girls are forced to be prostitutes for higher caste village priests or patrons even before they reach puberty. Police officials and landlords often use sexual abuse or other forms of violence against dalit women so that they can establish their authority and deprive them of their basic legal rights. There are numerous instances where dalit women have also been illegally arrested and kept in police custody just so they can apprehend their male relatives who are hiding from the police.
One of the most noticeable militias, the Ranvir Sena, has been liable for the slaughter of in excess of 400 Dalit villagers in Bihar around 1995 and 1999. During a period of three weeks in January and February 1999, the Sena individuals murdered 34 Dalit villagers in two separate assaults. On 19th March, 1999, individuals from the Maoist Communist Center, a guerrilla association with low-caste allies, executed around 33 upper-caste villagers in reprisal for the sena killings. The two sides have committed more “revenge killings” in the weeks to come.
During elections, Dalits are threatened and beaten by politicians forcing them to vote for certain candidates thereby snatching away their legal right to vote. Moreover, dalits who run for village councils and municipalities have been threatened with physical abuse and even death so that they will withdraw from the candidateship. One of such instances occurred in the village of Melavalavu, Tamil Nadu, following the election of a Dalit to the village council presidency, members of a higher-caste group murdered six Dalits in June 1997, including the elected council president, whom they beheaded. As of February 1999, the accused murderers who had been voted out of their once-secure elected positions had not been prosecuted.
Therefore there are several cases depicting the oppression faced by dalits and police officers barely take any step thus minimizing the chances of them getting justice.
Every 15 minutes a crime is committed against a dalit and approximately 6 dalit women are raped every day. The root cause of all the oppression faced by dalits is the perpetuating caste system. Dalits are murdered, beaten, and shunned from society but little coverage is given by the media. Minimal reportage leads privileged and ignorant people into believing that casteism doesn’t exist in India anymore.
On 27 May, 2020, a 32-year-old, profoundly educated social activist of Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, Arvind Bansod died under dubious conditions. He was a social laborer, Maharashtra Public Service Commission (MPSC) aspirant, and provider for his family. His family and associates don’t accept the fact that he would have attempted to take his life. The police authorities attempted to get rid of the case and enlisted the death as suicide without appropriate examination. Another incident occurred the next month, a seventeen-year-old dalit boy named Vikas Kumar Jatav was shot dead by four upper-caste men for visiting a temple in Armoha, Uttar Pradesh. These incidents were not shown in the mainstream media until people on social media showed outrage.
Of the 5,775 offences registered in India under The Prevention of Atrocities Act in the year, 2017 wherein Dalits were victims, 3,172 (55%) were related to “intentional insult or intimidation with intent to humiliate”. There were 47 instances of land getting identified with Dalits; they confronted social blacklists in 63 cases, and they were kept from utilizing public spaces in 12 cases. While the information is three years of age, there is no purpose behind us to accept that the circumstance has improved. In fact, the upper standing prepared in huge numbers to switch the small governmental policy regarding minorities in the society of the state for Dalits like The Prevention of Atrocities Act and request invert governmental policy regarding minorities in society in support of themselves like bookings for their rank individuals in business and instructive organizations. The Marathas in Maharashtra, Jats in Haryana, and the Patels in Gujarat are instances of such mobilizations. Their mobilization prompted the combination of their political clout and ensuing atrocities on the Dalits.
Crimes against “untouchables”
More than 160 million people in India are considered “untouchables”. Even in the 21st century “untouchable” are relegated to the lowest jobs and they live in constant fear of being humiliated, beaten, or even raped by members of the upper caste with the impunity to keep them in their place. Merely walking in an ‘upper-caste neighborhood’ is a life-threatening offense for the dalits. Nearly 90 percent of all the poor Indians and 95 percent of all the illiterate Indians are Dalits, according to figures presented at the International Dalit Conference that took place May 16 to 18 in Vancouver, Canada.
In the statistics compiled by the National Crime Record Bureau of India, it indicated that in the year 2000, 25,455 crimes were committed against Dalits; i.e., every hour two Dalits are assaulted; every day three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, and two Dalit homes are torched. Most of the crimes committed against dalits go unreported due to fear of reprisal, the intimation of the police, the inability to pay bribes demanded by police, etc. In the same year, 68,160 complaints were filed against the police for activities ranging from murder, torture, and collusion consisting of the acts of atrocity and the offence of refusal to file a complaint. Sixty-two percent of the cases were dismissed as unsubstantiated; 26 police officers were convicted in court. The existence of severe exploitation and violation against dalits led to the emergence of human rights movements by the dalits to claim their rights.
Crimes against women
Dalit women are often raped or beaten as a reprisal against their male family members or relatives who are thought to have committed some kind of offense or offenses against any members of the upper caste. They are also subjected to violence in police custody so that the police officials could apprehend their family members.
An incident occurred in 1999, which stated that a 42-year-old dalit woman was gang-raped by the members of upper castes and then burnt alive after she and her family members were held in captivity. The family torturing them did so as one of her sons eloped with the daughter of that higher-caste family. The local police were well aware of this incident but took no step to prevent it as the higher caste family has an influence on the local police authorities.
A report released by Amnesty International in 2001, stated the occurrence of the high amount of sexual assaults on Dalit women, mostly perpetrated by landlords, upper-caste villagers, and police officers. The study estimates that only about 5% of attacks are registered, and that police officer often dismisses at least 30% of rape complaints as false. The report further stated that the police authorities frequently demanded bribes, beat up the husband of the victim, and intimated the witnesses. These offenses of rapes committed by the upper caste people on dalits frequently go unpunished.
Young girls are also victims of such cruelty against the dalit community. Thousands of dalit girls even before they reach puberty are forced into prostitution through the religious practice known as “devadasi”. The girls are married to a deity in a temple and it is their duty to serve the god, but they are unable to get married and forced to have sex with the members of the upper caste and later when they are old enough they are sold to an urban brothel.
On 14th September, the victim and her mother went to work in the fields of Boolgarhi village. The victim’s mother was working 100 meters away from her and she heard her daughter screaming, so she rushed to her daughter only to find her covered in blood and tongue cut off. They took the victim to the hospital after filing an FIR in the nearest police station. After a couple of days, the victim’s statement was recorded where she mentioned the names of the accused. On 22nd September, the victim’s dying declaration was recorded by the district magistrate. On 29th September, the victim ultimately succumbed to her injuries. On the following day, the police forcefully cremated the victim without the consent of the family which depicts a grave violation of human rights as the family was restricted to see the victim for one last time.
There are several cases where grave crimes are committed against dalits and they are unable to receive justice, whereas the offenders do not receive the due punishment. Most of the cases don’t even receive the attention of the media and thereafter majority of the population are unaware of the existence of caste-based oppression and that some of the hate crimes are committed due to the deep-rooted idea of caste in Indian society. The rape and murder case of the nineteen-year-old girl tells us how far the Indian judiciary and the legal system needs to go in order to protect the rights of lower caste women.
The oppression faced by the Dalits has been going on for more than 3000 years. They are segregated in all spheres of social life such as; places of worship, education, housing, land ownership, use of common wells, roads, busses, etc. They are the people who have to do the menial and demeaning jobs. Even after incorporating in the Indian Constitution, they are considered to be untouchable. In a lot of the upper caste (rich) families the servants are Dalits.
Apart from this Dalits are not allowed to wear shoes; if they wear them, Dalits will have to take off their shoes at times they meet a higher caste person. Thus, we need more strict laws to protect the rights of the dalits and to grant them relief in the conditions where their rights have been violated. Tasked with the power to protect the rights of the people the judiciary should take significant steps in addressing the problems faced by the Dalits, these people should not be deprived of their rights and liberty as an ordinary citizen of India. The growing violence and caste motivated crimes against the dalits should be curbed and both the legislature and judiciary should ensure and safeguard the rights of the dalits.
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