Atrocities and Interventions
About three thousand years of caste oppression have left the Dalit community socially, economically and psychologically marginalized. Dalits are constantly subjected to egregious violence, dehumanizing labor (such as manual scavenging), and a pervasive system of social exclusion. Though protections exist in Indian law, they are seldom enforced as caste hierarchy is mirrored in the bureaucratic, police and court systems.
Acts of atrocity against Dalits, particularly when they begin to assert their rights, are commonplace. Practices of untouchability are rampant, both between non-Dalits and Dalits, and amongst Dalit sub-castes. The poor rarely unite due to caste and community divisions, making the achievement of laborer unity, and therefore the implementation of minimum wages, extremely challenging. Land redistribution laws have been passed, but the government and the dominant caste landlords fight unceasingly to prevent Dalits from actually gaining control over land that is legally theirs. Caste practices are even replicated within the education system, preventing Dalit children from full participation in their classrooms, thereby barring them from accessing the most important tool for social mobility. Moreover, violence against women is on the rise and patriarchal attitudes toward the role of women prevail.
Violence is frequently what describes best the nature of interactions between the Dalits and the non-Dalits in India. Untouchability, for a fact, is such an acute expression of psychological violence that right from childhood, a Dalit is made to feel that he or she is an inferior being, a person of low intelligence and a person whose life is worth only the service and the betterment of the dominant caste men and women.
Physical violence and atrocities unleashed on the Dalits are the logical and cruel outcome of the caste system. The magnitude and the depth of these atrocities are horrifying. Between 1990 and 1993, over 4,300 cases of atrocities committed against Dalits were reported in Gujarat, and this in only 14 Districts. During that same period, atrocities increased by an astonishing 90%. This increase is, nevertheless, indicative of the Dalits’ assertion and reaction to injustice. While traditional caste-based practices still constitute the major cause of atrocities, a growing number of atrocities are triggered by the protest and the political organising of the Dalits. Refusing to accept any challenge to their hegemony, non-Dalits engage in violent repressive measures to silence any form of dissent among the Dalits. These measures range from brutal murders, such as burning individuals alive or stabbing them to death, to gang rape, arson, and grievous injuries. Significantly it is not upper castes alone who abuse the Dalits, but the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) too engage in oppression and physical violence. On a sample of 3083 offences in 13 Districts of Gujarat, it came out that Patels (Patidar and Koli Patels) were the accused in 34% of the cases, the Kshatriyas in 32%, and the Brahmins only in 7% of the cases.
Violence is further aggravated as guilty persons are rarely immediately arrested, and by the time they are punished people generally have forgotten the crime. The unbearably slow legal procedures and the lengthy and costly processes only add insult to injury; victims and their relatives often live in proximity to the culprits, who often threaten them further. Despite the 1989 Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which provides for appointments of Special Courts and Government Prosecutors for expediting proceedings, these situations have not changed. In practice, the Act is often not properly implemented by the Police. In 11 surveyed Districts of Gujarat, it was found that the percentage of application of the Atrocity Act by the Police was only slightly more than 60%. Moreover, because the Police often “prefer” certain sections of the Act to others, and because, at other times, only a very vague reference to the Act is made, there has been a growing general impression that Dalits have been abusing this Act. The truth is that the Police constables are generally not familiar with the provisions of the Atrocity Act, and are also susceptible to both caste allegiance and bribery.
Atrocities against Dalits
The term “atrocity” is a legal one. Atrocity cases against Dalits vary in severity and form, including the following:
1. Causing injury, insult, or annoynance to a Dalit;
2. Assaulting, raping, or using force of any kind against a Dalit woman or a Dalit girl;
3. Physically injuring or murdering a Dalit;
4. Occupying or cultivating any land owned by or alloted to a Dalit;
5. Forcing a Dalit to leave his/her house, village, or other place of residence;
6. Interfering with a Dalit’s legal rights to land, premises, or water;
7. Compelling or enticing a Dalit to do ‘begar’ or similar forms of forced or bonded labour;
8. Intentionally insulting or intimidating a Dalit with the intent to humiliate him.
Acts of atrocity against Dalits continue to occur at alarming rates in Gujarat. In 1998, Gujarat ranked second highest among all Indian states in the volume of crimes committed against the Scheduled Castes, at 62 cases per one lakh of population. While this is high, it is important to note that underreporting is very common; thus this number conceals the extent to which these atrocities occur. A recent study conducted by Navsarjan demonstrated that of all of the atrocity cases that occurred across four districts in Gujarat, 36.6% were not registered under the Atrocity Act and that of the cases where the Act was applied, 84.4% were registered under the wrong provisions, thus concealing the intensity of the violence in the cases.
The police and the legal system are also often very slow in responding to cases filed under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act: 1989. In 2000, in Gujarat, there were 13,293 cases registered in courts under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act: 1989, all of which remained pending at the courts at the end of the year; none of them ended in convictions or in acquittals. In terms of police response to registered cases, in cases of murder, an average of 121.2 hours lapsed between the registration of the case and police action, while for cases of rape, the gap was at 532.9 hours.
The Practice of Untouchability
The practice of untouchability is also still very common in Gujarat. The following are some of the forms in which untouchability is practiced:
1. In rural areas, Dalits are often not allowed to engage in cultural and social activities with the rest of the community, including entering temples, sitting in the main spaces of villages, taking part in religious programs, and eating with the rest of the community during village ceremonies.
2. Dalits are also not allowed to use the same items as non-Dalits in the communities; they are not allowed to rent or even enter homes of non-Dalits, use the same wells, eat and drink from the same dishes,
3. In schools, Dalit children are often forced to sit separately from the rest of the students during the midday meal and are the only ones asked to clean latrines in the schools.
4. As a result of this caste-based discrimination in schools, Dalits are often less educated than the rest of the community.
5. Due to these low levels of education, the majority (78%) of Dalits are labour workers. They have limited opportunities for upward mobility and remain economically backward.
6. Attempts to set up stores in villages by Dalits are often unsuccessful. Due to untouchability practices, the rest of the villagers refuse to purchase things from their shops.
7. Dalits are forced to do some of the dirtiest jobs in Gujarat. For instance, manual scavening is still widely practiced almost entirely by women belonging to the Valmiki sub-caste, even though the government denies its existance.
8. Government authorities often deny basic needs such as electricity, and water to Dalit families, while they provide them for non-Dalits. When Dalits petition the government to provide these facilities, their requests are often ignored.
9. When Dalits do try to stand up for their legal rights, members of the dominant castes often assault them and/or practice social boycotts against the community.
10. The SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act: 1989 is often not implemented properly (i.e., cases are either not registered under the Act when they should be, or are not registered under the relevant provisions) due to discriminatory practices by government officials.
11. Dalits are often landless, as non-Dalits often own the majority of land in the villages, and government officials often do not enforce laws and policies to allocate land for the Dalits. In those cases where the government does allocate land for the Dalits, they are often denied access to that land because of the practice of caste-based discrimination in the villages.