Gau rakshaks in Gujarat tie Dalits to a car and flog them with iron rods and sticks. The crime? Skinning a dead cow. Caught on a phone camera, the video leads to spontaneous protests, threatening to coalesce into an uprising.
ElseVR, a Mixed Reality channel, is a disruptive idea in narrative nonfiction and journalism.
It brings extraordinary and urgent stories to Virtual Reality (VR), granting the audience an entry “into” the story. By shattering the barrier between the viewer and the subject, VR has the power to elicit enquiry and empathy. Published online as a quarterly, each story facilitates collaborations between formidable filmmakers, writers and designers to amplify the power of narrative.
The magazine is the non-fiction VR platform from Memesys Culture Lab.
Memesys Culture Lab
Memesys Culture Lab is a cinema and new media studio at the intersection of science, philosophy and culture. We aim to interpret and demystify current breakthroughs in our understanding of the self and the universe, by actively participating in cinema, literature, pedagogy, technology, art, scientific and philosophical research, and actions of significant social impact.
Filmmaker. Philosopher. Innovator.
Anand is a filmmaker and media producer deeply interested in philosophy, evolutionary psychology, innovation, design and magic, and occasionally dabbles in all of these. His last film, Ship of Theseus premiered at the TIFF in 2012, and received wide international acclaim. In November 2015, Anand founded the Memesys Culture Lab.
Editor in Chief
Khushboo recently co-directed the documentary film An Insignificant Man, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival 2016. She also co-wrote Ship of Theseus. Her first short film Continuum was shown at various international film festivals. Shubhangi Swarup
Writer. Journalist. Educationist. Daydreamer.
Shubhangi has worked in the field of journalism, education, Human Rights and curation in the past. She joined Memesys Culture Lab after completing her first work of fiction. She has won two national Laadli awards for gender sensitive writing in the past, and was awarded the Charles Pick Fellowship for creative writing, in the University of East Anglia. Zain Memon
Story-teller. Media-tech innovator. Futurist.
Co-founder of Memesys Culture Lab, Zain has dramatically influenced the Virtual Reality ecosystem coming from the Indian subcontinent, having designed state-of-the-art workflows and immersive grammatical tools for Mixed Reality. His expertise in storytelling, technology, narrative design, and ludology allow him to bridge the gap between technology and effective storytelling. Shirin Johari
Head of Design
Visual artist. Innovator. Entrepreneur. Lover of the ocean.
Shirin is the Co-Founder of Clap Global and a Creative Director at Memesys Culture Lab. Previously, she worked as an advertising creative innovating in brand building, graphic design, installations, typography and performances. Shirin believes that creative work should either solve a problem, enlighten, change social perceptions or simply entertain. Along the way, she has won numerous national and international awards for her work, including the Cannes Design Gold.
Shone Satheesh combines his interest in the written word with the ever-evolving vocabulary of visual culture to push the boundaries of story-telling. He has worked in the media industry for close to a decade, at places like The Indian Express and Tehelka, among others. Contact Get in touch with us at email@example.com Head Office : Mumbai, India Memesys Culture Lab, 30, Aaram Nagar 2, Versova, Mumbai 61.
Gau rakshaks in Gujarat tie Dalits to a car and flog them with iron rods and sticks. The crime? Skinning a dead cow. Caught on a phone camera, the video leads to spontaneous protests, threatening to coalesce into an uprising.
The diary of a filmmaker bears witness to instances of the violence, resistance and state apathy, ignored by the mainstream media, and unattended carcasses.
A long march through the Saurashtra region of Gujarat that began on August 5 in Ahmedabad and culminated on August 15 at Una, marked one of the most significant Independence Day declarations that I have ever personally witnessed. Unsurprisingly, the mainstream electronic and print media, barring exceptions, paid scant heed, focusing instead on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s usual sabre rattling. Headlines gleefully reported that Modi had laid down the gauntlet against Pakistan. You mess with Kashmir and we will mess with Balochistan, he declared, tacitly admitting the democratic failure in both countries.
What transpired at Una was dramatically different. The trigger was an incident that occurred a month ago. Locals had found a mauled cow, reportedly killed by a lion, at the edge of the Gir-Somnath forest. Some Dalit youth were called in to do their traditional job of skinning the cow when gau rakshaks (cow vigilantes) belonging to the Durbar upper caste descended upon them. The Dalits were thrashed with iron rods and sticks, stripped, and paraded. They were dragged to Una and tied to a van near a police station where they were beaten in full public glare. The vigilantes used cell phones to record and circulate the event on WhatsApp. As the clip went viral, Dalits and human rights activists across Gujarat and the rest of the country were shocked into action.
Credits: Soumik Lahiri
Gujarat has seen much anti-Dalit violence over the years. Before the anti-Muslim violence of the mid 1980s, there were many anti-Dalit riots in which the police and the State displayed their upper caste bias. But by 2002, a new right-wing strategy emerged in Gujarat and elsewhere. Dalits were recruited by Hindutva groups as foot soldiers to attack Muslims. In the following decade, as Modi and the RSS aspired to capture national power, images of Dr. BR Ambedkar – founder of the Indian Constitution and prominent Dalit icon – began to appear frequently on BJP banners and it seemed that an alliance with Dalits was on the cards. It soon became clear that any such alliance would remain iconic rather than substantial. Dr. Ambedkar’s portrait was desirable but not his egalitarian vision and certainly not his deep distaste for misogynist and casteist Hindu shastras. Predictably, mindsets did not change and caste violence continued unabated, ever increasing in proportion to Dalit assertion. Modi was Chief Minister when in September 2012 at Thangadh, three unarmed young Dalits were gunned down by a police party with AK-47 rifles. After Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, gau rakshaks and Hindutva militants were further emboldened.
“Modi was Chief Minister when in September 2012 at Thangadh, three unarmed young Dalits were gunned down by a police party with AK-47 rifles”
Dalits form just seven per cent of the population in Gujarat and mass mobilization has never been easy. Valiant, incorruptible leaders like Valjibhai Patel are in their 80s, while sops offered by the ruling dispensation, or sheer helplessness, has robbed the community of other elders. It is in this vacuum that the emergence of a young Dalit firebrand like Jignesh Mevani must be viewed. As he says himself, what emerged after Una was a spontaneous uprising, which needed to be given political contours. This he and other youth leaders like Subodh, Kaushik and Mukesh Parmar, Suresh Aadya and Advocate Shamshad Pathan were able to do. Into this potent mix of Dalits and Muslims was added the invaluable support of people like Rahul Sharma – one of the bravest IPS police officers who had tried to stem the Gujarat pogroms of 2002, only to face innumerable obstacles.
As the rally began, support poured in from all over Gujarat and across the country. The ambitious route meant covering 400 kilometers in 10 days, which was achieved partly on foot and partly in assorted vehicles, including a big bus emblazoned on both sides with portraits of Dr. Ambedkar. The caravan would stop a few kilometers before every small town or village along the way. People would then proceed on foot to be greeted by a welcoming party from the approaching town. Thus the core group multiplied as it entered any new town, where they were fed and refreshed by the local community. Meetings were held to explain the objectives of the march and to invite people to reach Una by the morning of 15th August. At night, makeshift sleeping arrangements were made, while in the day, water, tea or a simple meal would suffice. The marchers would then start off again on foot towards the next town, accompanied for a part of the way by their host villagers from the previous stop.
“As they attempted to leave on a motorcycle, a car deliberately chased and knocked them down in a narrow lane and sped off”
The support base kept growing until the caravan reached the outskirts of Una on the 14th. Here, it faced the first signs of upper caste resistance. Near Samter village, where the young Dalits had first been assaulted and dragged to Una to be flogged in public, the dominant upper caste Durbar community staged a roadblock. The organizers of the Dalit march did not want any confrontation at this stage and took a detour through smaller roads to reach Una by the 14th afternoon. The previous night, Grishma of DalitCamera.com (a group of Dalit filmmakers and journalists) had gone to Samter village after she heard that Dalit families were being harassed. Facing upper caste belligerence, she barely managed to get back with her equipment intact. The next day she and a young man, Amit Kumar, from TwoCircles.net, were doing an interview with the Durbar men near Samter when the men suddenly went on the offensive. This time the brave reporters were not so lucky. As they attempted to leave on a motorcycle, a car deliberately chased and knocked them down in a narrow lane and sped off. Both suffered injuries but bandaged and bleeding, they were back on the job that very night.
Credits: Soumik Lahiri
The morning of the 15th rang out with cries of Jai Bhim as people kept arriving from all across the state and country. As we made our way to the meeting ground at Una we stopped at an Ambedkar statue in a small traffic island where under a yellow canvas tent a family was sitting on hunger strike. We heard the heartrending tale of the Sarvaiyya family. They were the only Dalit family in a Rajkot village dominated by the Koli (OBC) community. The Sarvaiyyas had been relatively prosperous with 15 acres of irrigated land, which had attracted jealousy. Four years ago, as 27-year-old Lalji Sarvaiyya slept in his hut, a mob locked the exit and burnt him to death suspecting he had eloped with a Koli girl. Now they are jobless and homeless as government promises to grant them an alternate plot of land have not materialized.
At the main rally at Una the atmosphere was electric. Despite roadblocks and stone pelting by upper castes, over 10,000 had reached the venue. Apart from Dalits from neighboring villages and towns, there were out-of-towners from all castes and creeds representing various shades of the politics of reason. Rohith Vemula’s mother Radhika and brother Raja were there. Both had converted to Buddhism just a few months ago. Dontha Prashant and Munna from the Ambedkar Students Association were there, as well as centrists, socialists and leftists from all across the spectrum of Indian politics. Speech-making from the stage was limited as getting people home safely was a priority that could only be ensured if the meeting was concluded by noon, so as to avoid passing through the upper-caste dominated villages after dark.
“Four years ago, as 27-year-old Lalji Sarvaiyya slept in his hut, a mob locked the exit and burnt him to death suspecting he had eloped with a Koli girl”
First on the agenda was the Independence Day flag hoisting. The tricolor was unfurled in the presence of Radhika Vemula and other affected Dalit families. As protest singers Vinay and Charul led with the National Anthem, they were accompanied by thousands of Indian voices that the mainstream press in this country has rarely been interested in hearing.
In his speech, Jignesh roared out the central slogan of the march: “You can keep the cow’s tail. But give us our land!”. An oath was administered and the chorus rang out: “We vow not to enter your manholes to clean your sewers.” “We vow not to skin your dead cattle.”
He got an overwhelming response as he gave the government 30 days time in which to grant every Dalit family five acres of land, failing which a Rail Roko (campaign to stop trains) would be launched. In retrospect, at this nascent stage of the movement this demand may remain unattainable in the near future, however eminently worthy and just.
Jignesh’s speech was followed by Kanhaiya Kumar, President of JNU’s student union. Kanhaiya had come all the way from Delhi to Una to express solidarity despite running a high fever, later diagnosed as malaria. His speech was short and sharp and ended with the now famous chant demanding Aazaadi (freedom) from Brahminism, casteism, capitalism, and fascism – a chant that echoes across this country.
Babu Sarvaiiya, father of one of the boys beaten at Una, spoke about those Dalits still in jail for protesting against atrocities, and about the terror that was being unleashed in the countryside in the wake of the Una rally. Radhika Vemula spoke of how after Rohith’s death, her new family consists of people like the Sarvaiyyas and other oppressed Dalits everywhere.
The meeting concluded at noon as planned. But the day did not end here. A backlash was already underway. There is a bridge on the road leading out of Una. On the Samter side of the bridge, Durbar youth had created roadblocks and were stopping motorbikes, rickshaws, cars, buses, and beating up anyone they presumed was Dalit. Ambulances were screaming up and down the road. On the Una side of the bridge, Dalit supporters were in the process of creating their own roadblock. The police had gathered on the Una side and seemed content to persuade Dalits not to indulge in violence without seeming to do much to stop the Durbars. Dalit patience was running thin and being in large numbers anything could have happened. As tempers soared, it was only by reminding people that Dr. Ambedkar had fought with brains rather than brawn that a bloodbath was avoided.
Credits: Soumik Lahiri
At the Una police station, Jignesh and other leaders were assured by the police that arrests of Durbars would be made as soon as law and order was restored. As Jignesh’s presence meant that the Dalit community would keep gathering around him, it was decided that he and others should return to Ahmedabad through an alternate route. We stayed back at the Una police station with cameras to keep the pressure on the police to do their job fairly and ensure the safety of the protesters. The stand-off went on till late evening even as ambulances kept rushing by. It is hard to know exactly how many people were brought in to hospitals as the police up to that point were keeping no track. We visited a government hospital in Una where four Dalit boys had been brought in. They had all been beaten by Durbars after being made to get off their vehicles. Two had their motorcycles destroyed. One had a brother missing. They all knew their attackers. At the same hospital, another young man was brought in with a bullet injury but we could not speak to him as he was being operated upon. We later learned that he too was a Dalit and had been shot in the leg. Whether this was done by the police or by Durbars we still do not know. As the injured had not yet been taken cognizance of by the police we went back to the Una police station to ask them to file the necessary FIRs. Again we were ‘assured’ that this would be done once ‘law and order’ was restored.
The police did finally clear the road to Samter, resorting to a lathi charge and firing in the air. We left town that night and heard that the rest of the night had passed with no further incidents.
While there has been a huge impact across the country, there has also been some criticism about the way the Una rally was managed. Some have argued that the rally leaders left the local Dalit community at the mercy of the dominant upper castes. In retrospect, given the vulnerability in the countryside it may have been wiser to have started the rally from Una and culminated it in Ahmedabad. This may be true in hindsight but when I was at the Una hospital and talked to the injured, to a man, they all argued that they were proud to have been part of the rally. The Saurashtra region of Gujarat is deeply casteist, and Dalits who had suffered in silence were ready to face injury rather than face further humiliation.
Dead cows now litter many villages of Gujarat – a lesson for the whole country.
(Views expressed in the article are the author’s own)
Enter the journey of the protest marchers: Caste is not a rumour directed by Naomi Shah and Pourush Turel.
“Caste splits like an amoeba”
Dalit scholar and human rights activist Anand Teltumbde contends that Dalits should shun their identity obsession and focus on livelihood issues, to inspire others to join in the struggle
In The Persistence of Caste (TPoC), you write how caste-based atrocities were an individual act earlier, but now a “spectacle of demonstrative justice carried out collectively.” Was the video made by the gau-rakshak group an aspect of this?
Earlier, castes were a life-world of people. Everyone had internalized his position in the caste hierarchy. In such a situation, no provocation could precipitate into an atrocity. Even after the advent of the Dalit movement that ignited anti-caste consciousness among the Dalits, the acts of defiance increased but remained largely individualistic. However, the ruling classes who wielded power from the colonialists in 1947 unleashed a new political economy in rural India. They carved out a class of rich farmers from among the most populous Shudra castes as their ally in rural India, brought in the Green Revolution spreading capitalist relations, and in the process reduced the Dalits to be the rural proletariat, utterly dependent for farm wages on the rich farmers. The atrocities were a result of the clash between rich farmers and Dalit farm labourers. The Kilvenmani massacre illustrates this process well.
“The atrocities were the result of the clash between rich farmers and Dalit farm labourers”
Post-1990s, the neoliberal policies caused a crisis in agriculture, by sidelining the farming castes. They grudged the prosperity of a section of the Dalits, who reflected positive change through the spread of education, reservation, and migration to cities.
The new genre of atrocities happen in a collective mode of “teaching a lesson”. The gau-rakshak video made by the perpetrators was meant to do just that; terrorize the Dalits such that they dare not defy their (upper caste) dictate 1. Unfortunately for them, the video went viral and everything boomeranged.
Technology is largely viewed as a modernizing agent. What is the role of technology in perpetuating caste atrocities?
While technology is a modernizing agent, it is not class neutral. In the Indian context, it is not even caste neutral. Therefore, the class or caste that has greater control over technology will tend to use it to further its own interests. Of course, they may not be in a position to control all of its consequences. The invention of steam engine ushered in the industrial revolution to be capitalized by the capitalists but it benefitted the working classes too in bringing them under one roof. As technology becomes advanced, its impact becomes increasingly difficult to control. The information and communication technologies (ICT) have far more costs to control than to produce them. The ICT for instance is deployed to polarize the masses by the Hindutva forces and aggravate caste-consciousness, which results in more atrocities. But at the same time it has enabled the masses to galvanize themselves through social media. The perpetrators filmed their ‘bravery’ and posted it on YouTube. But they got themselves arrested and sparked off agitation by the Dalits.
“While technology is a modernizing agent, it is not class neutral. In the Indian context, it is not even caste neutral.”
Atrocities against Dalits are not new, but the Una agitation seemed to have garnered even more support than the far heinous Khairlanji massacre. Does this signify a shift in the engagement between Dalits and non-Dalits?
Khairlanji was just an instance in a series of atrocities that have been a part of our life-world. When daily, on an average, two Dalits are murdered and five Dalit women are raped, and total atrocities hover around 50,000 a year, you would not call them a stray instance.
The saga began with Kilvenmeni in 1968 2, where 44 Dalits, mainly women and children belonging to farm labour, were burnt to death by landlords for demanding higher wages. The landlords were acquitted by the Madras High Court, observing that “honourable people like them, some of whom owned cars, could not commit such a ghastly act”.
The Khairlanji incident provoked me to write a book, The Persistence of Castes, to explain the mechanics of atrocities. The book depicts the aftermath the spontaneous agitation of Dalits met with over Khairlanji. The then state home minister of Maharashtra insinuated that it was Naxal-backed and gave a free hand to the police to crush it. The police actions terrorized an entire generation to the extent that it might not rise again in similar protest.
“When daily, on an average, two Dalits are murdered and five Dalit women are raped, and total atrocities hover around 50,000 a year, you would not call them a stray instance”
It is not a question of support to Una agitation being bigger than for Khairlanji. Protest over Khairlanji spilled over outside Maharashtra, and even India. Una’s context was the state-sponsored cow slaughter ban and the strategy to impose it through the storm-troopers of Hindutva in a fascist mode. It was serious because it demonstrated the temerity of the perpetrators to film their own crime and publish it, reflecting their confidence that nothing would happen to them.
The uniqueness of the Dalit protest over Una lay in its articulation. The leadership of the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti, an ad-hoc organization that spearheaded the movement, went to the root of the problem by denouncing caste vocation and asking for five acres of land for each Dalit family. The last time Dalits raised the issue of land was in 1964-65. Thereafter, the Dalit movement has remained largely mired in the abstract socio-cultural sphere. In Gujarat, the Dalits had largely remained uninfluenced by the Ambedkarite movement in Marathi-speaking parts of the province. But it is not to say that they had no history of struggle. Dalit literature, Dalit Panthers and other Buddhist movements influenced by Ambedkarite movement in Maharashtra have been around for years in Gujarat but they had remained confined to small urban pockets.
Thus, Una reflected a new awakening of the Dalit youth. This move had an electrifying impact. It created an immediate crisis for the administration. The agitators had brought the dead cattle and thrown them in the premises of the district collectorate. They stopped disposing dead cattle in surrounding areas, threatening an epidemic.
“Una has fired the imagination of the Dalit youth all over the country”
Una has fired the imagination of the Dalit youth all over the country 3. Inspired by the Chalo Una march, youth in Karnataka undertook a week-long march from Bengaluru to Udupi, stressing on material issues for the Dalits. In Bihar, the Dalits have decided to take a mammoth march from Gaya to Patna for land in March 2017. Una may inspire even similarly placed non-Dalits to see the root cause of their own problems. They have been misled of late by their elite to see reservation as panacea. In Gujarat, there is a significant possibility of the lower section of the Patel community making common cause with the struggling Dalits. In this way, Una heralds a possibility of larger mobilization on class lines.
Does this signal going beyond identity politics?
If the Dalits shun their identity obsession and focus on livelihood issues, they can inspire others to join in their struggle. That way they can tackle the issue of their Dalitness too. But so far they have done the exact opposite and kept the others away. It was akin to cutting one’s own nose to create bad omen for the others.
There is historical evidence that on removing identity blinkers, others have come out to support the Dalits. Babasaheb Ambedkar had exhibited it in the anti-Khoti agitation during the 1930s. The Dalits and non-Dalit tenants of Khots in caste-ridden Konkan had marched together on Bombay roads in what is termed as one of the biggest processions of those days. During the land Satyagrahas that happened in 1953 and 1959 under the leadership of Dadasaheb Gaikwad, an equal number of non-Dalits had gone to jail along with the Dalits.
The new middle class of Dalits somehow dragged the Dalit movement along caste identities and alienated others from joining in. Una has reopened that possibility in the coming times.
You’ve stated earlier that caste-atrocity is a result of reservation and electoral politics, the two props of the caste system. Could you please elaborate?
What I may have said is that caste atrocity is the concentrated expression of casteism. I have used it as a proxy for the incidence of casteism, which in turn is sustained by reservation and electoral politics. Atrocity can be likened to fire, with Fuel, Ignition source and Oxygen as its three pre-requisites. Grudge against the Dalits is the fuel, the assurance that there won’t be a consequence is the oxygen, and some triggering event is the ignition source.
“The educational progress of the Dalits necessarily leads to their cultural assertion, which directly threatens the superiority of non-Dalits.”
The grudge is produced by the perceived favour the system does to the Dalits. Over the last seven decades, there has been admirable spread of education among the Dalits (at a rate higher than non-Dalits). Thanks to reservation, many of them were able to access higher education and occupy top posts in the public sector. In contrast, the non-Dalit population in villages has been in the grip of a crisis, exacerbated by the adoption of neoliberal economic policies by the government. These people grudge the progress made by the Dalits.
The educational progress of the Dalits necessarily leads to their cultural assertion, which directly threatens the superiority of non-Dalits. Thus, reservations and electoral politics play a major role in building up grudge against the Dalits in the minds of the non-Dalits. Through their caste ties, the non-Dalit population has better access to the state apparatus and the corridor of political power, which lends them protection in the event of a clash with Dalits. As a matter of fact, there has not been any conviction in any major atrocity against Dalits in the last seven decades.
While these factors are potentially present, a triggering event is necessary to ignite them into an atrocity. In the case of Khairlanji, it was provided by the humiliation of the named individuals by Surekha and Priyanka Bhotmange. It was their witness that had led to their arrest.
“Grudge against the Dalits is the Fuel, the assurance that there won’t be a consequence is the Oxygen, and some triggering event is the Ignition source”
Today, the OBCs are the biggest oppressors of Dalits. How did this come about and how can they ever come together?
Castes always seek hierarchy and split like an amoeba. Caste-based unity, therefore, is deceptive. This is something that the Bahujanwallahs refuse to understand, and imagine the amalgamation of Dalits and OBCs into a caste hodge-podge called Bahujan. They forget that all atrocities are committed by the OBCs. It is naïve to think that the upper castes instigate them to perpetrate atrocities on the Dalits.
The OBC/BC are a post-1947 phenomenon. During the colonial period, many of the so-called OBCs were themselves untouchable and unapproachable to the upper castes in Southern India. But all the same, they were still higher than the Dalits in the caste hierarchy. They were the Shudras, the fourth varna whereas the Dalits belonged to the fifth varna or avarna. The OBCs were engaged in agriculture and allied vocations. They were tenants of the landlords (Zamindari), the village (Mahalwari), or the government (Ryotwari). Demographically, they were the most populous group.
“While in class terms the OBCs were the ally of Dalits, in caste terms they were the ally of the rich farmers”
Reservations had been established during the colonial times for the castes, which were collected under a separate schedule called “Scheduled Castes”. If the post-1947 rulers wanted to continue with these reservations (arguably they could not have any other option), there was no need as such to refer to (Hindu) castes. There already existed an administrative category superseding them. The castes could also have been outlawed when they decided to outlaw untouchability. In order, however, to preserve castes they needed to expand the purview of reservations beyond the Dalits. They did it by creating a schedule for the Adivasis. The Adivasis could have been accommodated within the existing schedule by duly renaming it and re-specifying the amount of quota. That way, the stigma associated with the existing schedule for the Dalits would have been diluted, marking a step forward towards annihilation of castes.
But in order to make castes pervasive they had to touch the most populous caste-band, and include a vague clause in the Constitution that mandated the state to identify castes that were ‘socially and educationally backward’ to extend similar social justice measures. With this they had in effect built a can of caste worms, the lid of which could be opened at any opportune time. This is the genesis of the term OBC.
While in class terms the OBCs were the ally of Dalits—many of them being farm labourers or marginal farmers—in caste terms they were the ally of the rich farmers. Their positioning in the post-1947 political economy is designed to actuate them. It is only the class idiom that can stop this and turn them into an ally of the Dalits against the elites of their own castes.
“Castes always seek hierarchy and split like an amoeba. Caste-based unity, therefore, is deceptive”
You mention the collusion of the State, media and civil society in perpetrating atrocity against Dalits. How does it play out?
The post-1947 state, as I explained above, is the real culprit. Even in the triangle of factors, the state plays an extremely important role in providing assurance of no harm to the culprits. If the state really acted as per law, atrocity wouldn’t take place. The lowest ranked policeman in a village, who represents the state to the poor Dalits, plays a role by his acts of commission and omission. A majority of atrocity cases happen because of the police overlooking the leading indicators in the constituent processes. Even after they happen, the police act prejudicially and take the side of the perpetrators. For every atrocity case that gets registered, 10 don’t. Even after the atrocity is registered, an insidious process of biased investigation ensures that eventually nothing happens.
The media plays a villainous role too. This can be superficially attributed to the absence of the Dalits in media . The media is not immune to influences of the politicians and the state functionaries, who side with the perpetrators. Media, as a business, has to eventually concern with the bottom line (profits). Why should they publish atrocity news? Who is likely to be interested in it? Dalits, who could be interested in it, do not constitute their viewership. They are not even the potential targets of their advertisements. They might cover it for its voyeuristic value, or TRPs. But even then the media may shelter the culprit by colouring the news, as it happened in Khairlanji, which was presented as a murder of four persons of a family in a fit of rage by the villagers over illicit relations between a man and a woman. No caste, no conspiracy, as the trial court eventually upheld!
“If you speak against communalism, you are secular and progressive. But if you speak for the Dalits, you are termed casteist and regressive.”
As regards civil society, I doubt this term applies to India. Civil society is rather the terrain where atrocities are produced. It has a so-called progressive section, which gets inflamed by communal violence but stays silent over caste atrocity. I am not belittling the problem of communalism; as a civil rights activist for more than three decades, I have participated in numerous fact-findings into and protests against communal atrocities. But from the same vantage point, I would say that civil society tends to neglect caste atrocities. If you speak against communalism, you are secular and progressive. But if you speak for the Dalits, you are termed casteist and regressive.
A survey conducted by the Navsarjan Trust in Gujarat in 2010 revealed 98 forms of untouchability being practised against Dalits. Have traditional forms of untouchability mutated into newer forms?
The forms of untouchability are bound to change. With urbanization and spread of public transport, the old form of untouchability characterized by touch-me-notism obviously could not be practised and has morphed into different forms of exclusion and discrimination. Of course, the Manusmriti won’t tell you what to do in campus recruitments in IIT or IIMs. But the discrimination can manifest in identifying Dalit students and excluding them from the select lists for interviews. Caste operates in myriad ways, some of which could be as strange as extraneously promoting a mediocre Dalit who is pliable to crush a capable Dalit.
You write how even the presence of Dalits in the police, forensics, and prosecution of the Khairlanji massacre failed to ensure the delivery of justice to its victims. Why has this approach failed?
This goes back to the crux of the logic with which Babasaheb Ambedkar struggled and got Dalits representation in politics. When he succeeded in winning the Dalits separate electorates, Gandhi blackmailed him into giving it up and accept the enhanced number of reserved seats in joint electorates—what came to be known as the Poona Pact. He realized painfully later that it had proved counterproductive. Ambedkar himself could never win an election through these joint electorates, even against non-descript candidates. This political reservation only created what Kanshiram would call “the chamcha raj”. Ambedkar wanted it to be scrapped but could not do much in the face of enthusiasm from the others.
Why such representation does not work has many reasons5. The Dalits employed by the state firstly work within the framework of the state. The assumption that a few people in it could change the character of the state is erroneous. The state is not the summation of the people manning its structure. It has its own character, which is determined by the class that constitutes it. Secondly, the Dalits in bureaucracy necessarily undergo class transformation, which is totally missed out in caste discourse. I have seen Dalit IAS/IPS officers having a poor understanding of the problems of Dalits and suffering from a superiority complex that bars their accessibility to ordinary Dalits. Third, even if some of them do bear some sense of obligation, they are under pressure to show themselves as non-partisan. Fourth, they are vulnerable to be pressurized by their bosses or are bought off with bribes.
In Khairlanji, almost everybody manning the state administration was not only Dalit but of the same sub-caste as that of the victims. But still they let Khairlanji happen. Their contribution even thereafter has only been nil or negative.
“In Khairlanji, almost everybody manning the state administration was not only Dalit but of the same sub-caste as that of the victims. But still they let Khairlanji happen”
In 2012, an OECD study on income inequality found that the top 10% of wage earners in India now make 12 times more than the bottom 10%, up from a ratio of six after the market reforms in the 1990s. Does this increase in economic disparity further entrench caste divisions and atrocities?
Yes, of course it does. The Dalits constitute the lower percentiles of the income distribution and their condition according to the available statistics has definitely worsened since 1990. The earning disparity is one parameter and may not apply as much to the Dalits as perhaps the consumption and income disparity because a majority of Dalits may not come under the definition of wage earners according to the OECD.
According to the IHDS6 survey conducted by National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and the University of Maryland, for the lowest percentiles, consumption is about twice the income, and everybody up to the 33rd percentile consumed more than their income.
On every parameter the inequality has galloped during the neoliberal period. The Credit Suisse data showed that India’s richest 1 per cent owned 36.8 per cent of the country’s wealth in 2000, which has gone to 58.4 per cent last year.
Until recently, the Indian ruling classes misled the world by showing consumption data that yielded a Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality, zero being perfect equality and 100 perfect inequality) of 33-35 points, indicating a normal level of inequality. But recently, the anomaly was noted and when necessary corrections were applied, the Gini zoomed to over 50 per cent. Two surveys by the IHDS, first in 2004-5 and second in 2011-12, provided data that yielded a Gini coefficient of 55 per cent, making India the second most unequal country in the world after South Africa.
“The IT boom of India in the 90s has led Indians to give up their apologia and openly justify everything about ancient India, including the caste system”
Many studies, including mine, have established the multi-dimensional impact of neoliberal policies on the Dalit situation. The choking of government expenditure on the social sector due to fiscal austerity measures directly impacts Dalits. Whether it is the worsening state of schools or primary health centers in villages, or the shrinking of investment in rural sectors, the Dalits are severely impacted. Neoliberalism has choked the entire public sphere; the rate of jobs being lost is about 10 per cent a decade.
Besides, the rise of political and cultural Hindutva corresponds to the reforms undertaken in the mid-1980s by Rajiv Gandhi as a precursor to the liberal reforms of the 90s. Up to the 80s, people spoke apologetically about Hindu customs and traditions publicly; they never dared to justify the caste system. But not anymore. The IT boom of India in the 90s led Indians to give up their apologia and see the latent goodness in their customs and traditions. They have begun openly justifying everything about ancient India, including the caste system. They publicly flaunt and wear all Hindu markers, making a mockery of India’s so called secularism. Certainly, these developments have impacted Dalits adversely. And they are reflected in the secular rise in atrocity figures from 1990 onwards to this date.
Enter the journey of the protest marchers: Caste is not a rumour directed by Naomi Shah and Pourush Turel.