At 2:30 a.m. on October 20, as a poor family slept in their home in Sunperh village in Ballabgarh, a town in Faridabad district, about 40 kilometers from India’s capital, New Delhi (and within the National Capital Region), a few men poured petrol from a window and set the home ablaze. Two children, aged 4 and 8 months, died in the fire; their parents were severely injured, with the mother fighting for her life. Initially the ghastly incident was described as the result of a property dispute, but the identities of the dead, and the perpetrators could not be hidden for long. The children who died and their parents were dalits; the men who poured petrol are reportedly Rajput, a higher caste.
Even as the outrage over that killing was bubbling over, there came the report from Gohana, another village in the same state of Haryana, where a 15-year-old dalit boy was charged with stealing a pigeon. He died in unexplained circumstances in police custody. Shocking as these incidents are, dalit activists say—and statistics bear this out—these are hardly surprising. National crime statistics show that in the decade ending 2013, crimes and atrocities against dalits in Haryana went up about 2½ times compared to the preceding decade, or from 1,305 to 3,198 incidents, according to the National Confederation of Dalít Organisations. These incidents include assault, murder, sexual assault, and gang rapes.
Across the country, according to India’s national crime registry, in 2014, there were 47,064 incidents of violent crime against dalits (known as “scheduled castes” in India) by non-dalits. In 92.3 percent of the cases charges were levelled, and the conviction rate was a paltry 28.8%. In case of crimes committed against scheduled tribes, the number of incidents was 11,451 and the conviction rate was higher, at 37.9 percent.
Most activists say that cases of crimes against dalits are typically under-reported, because in many instances the victims feel powerless and don’t press charges, and in some instances, police officers don’t register cases, partly because they are from higher castes, and partly because the perpetrators sometimes have links with well-connected politicians.
To be sure, violence against dalits is hardly a new phenomenon in India, and has occurred regularly since independence in 1947. In these 68 years, the Congress Party has ruled India for 55 years, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules the center now, has earlier governed between 1998 and 2004. All major parties bear the blame for the state of affairs. But what is alarming in the most recent case is the casual way the BJP has reacted to the incident.
India’s hyperactive Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who loses no opportunity to pose for selfies with world leaders and supporters, and barely misses a moment to tweet, be they inane greetings to leaders like Vladimir Putin on their birthdays, posting homilies, or condoling the passing of celebrities, major and minor, has expectedly said nothing at the time of this writing. His minister of state for foreign affairs, V.K. Singh, who is a Rajput and was a former chief of the Indian army, said the government can’t be blamed for what happened. “For everything… like if somebody throws a stone at a dog, then the government is responsible … it is not like that,” he callously said. Later he attempted a meek non-apology, “if somebody’s feelings have been hurt.”
Singh is known for tactless and tasteless remarks; he has referred to journalists as “presstitutes,” a term used by government supporters to describe reporters they don’t like, and he has blamed the media for misinterpreting his remarks.
Indeed, that is part of a pattern within the Modi administration, where leaders have made crude and sometimes cruel remarks targeting religious minorities and opponents, while Modi remains silent. And his silence is the equivalent of dog-whistle politics, where he stays above the fray. If there is too much outcry—particularly in international media—he comes up with tepid expressions, such as reacting to a Hindu mob lynching of a Muslim man in a town outside Delhi, over suspicion that he had eaten beef, by calling such incidents “undesirable and unfortunate.” (In the lynching case, the man hadn’t eaten beef; beefeating is not a crime, although cow slaughter is; and in democracies mobs don’t take over administration of justice. What happened was a hate crime.)
Also, canine metaphors seem to be a favorite of Modi and his ministers. Before his election last year, in an interview with Reuters, he was asked how he felt over 900 deaths (by official count) with nearly two-thirds of them Muslim in rioting in 2002 in Gujarat state, of which he was the chief minister at that time. He said, “If we are driving a car, we are a driver, and someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course, it is. If I’m a chief minister or not, I’m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad.”
If, for the prime minister, the loss of nearly a thousand deaths is the equivalent a puppy’s death, for his minister of state for foreign affairs, the burning of two children is the equivalent of a dog being pelted with stones. In the Haryana case, the BJP has little excuse; the state adjoins the capital, Delhi, and the BJP rules the state government in Haryana.
If there is logic to the strategy, it does not make much sense. The BJP has long been viewed as a party supported by intermediate and upper castes of the Hindu hierarchy. It has had to struggle to expand its base to the dalits and minorities. While strategists within the BJP would like a gradual expansion, there are enough hardheaded, vehement leaders within the BJP who would like to assert the primacy of their own worldview, which would like to turn India into a Hindu state.
To be sure, the majority of Indians are Hindu, but the nation’s founding fathers opted for a liberal, secular democracy, and many BJP supporters, frustrated by the left-leaning Congress’s dominance of Indian politics, have opposed Congress’s view of secularism, which they described as appeasing Muslims. (There is some truth to that charge: 68 years after freedom many Muslims remain in poverty and their development indicators are poor. Many suffer from discrimination and abuses. The Congress policy towards Muslims has often strengthened the clergy, as against the marginalised sections of Muslims, such as women). Now the BJP has a majority in parliament, and some of its followers, including ministers, would like to go about methodically to implement their wild fantasy of making India a theocratic nation, or at least one where Hindu sensibilities prevail.
That means establishing a new order of relationships between Hindus and minorities, and within Hinduism, “rediscovering” the virtues of the past. Promoting “vedic” science and mathematics, vegetarianism, Ayurveda and yoga form one part, its softer side; re-establishing social hierarchies is the intended, but not admitted, effect.
For centuries, upper-caste Hindus have committed atrocities against lower-caste Hindus and dalits (many of whom have left Hinduism, embracing Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam to leave the stranglehold of caste, but their earlier identities continue to haunt them).
The caste system has been a remarkably durable social order affecting many South Asian societies, although it is most widely prevalent among Hindus. That hierarchical, hereditary order of professions and communities prevents social mobility, and even today, caste leaders disapprove of relationships across caste, with violent reprisals against those disrupting the stable order.
India has laws to outlaw caste-based discrimination. The British banned discrimination and untouchability under the Caste Disability Removal Act of 1850. Between 1943 and 1950 (India gained independence in 1947) Indian states passed 17 laws to end discrimination. In 1955 India passed the Untouchability (Offenses) Act and amended it in 1976, making it more stringent. Another law, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (POA Act)—came into effect in January 1990. Besides, the state has taken steps to re-engineer society through job quotas and affirmative action programs in the public sector and education, as well as criminalising hate crimes against dalits.
According to a Supreme Court directive such quotas cannot exceed 49 percent of jobs or admissions to universities, and dalits and other so-called backward castes form the majority of India’s population, which has meant a tussle among communities to get themselves declared “backward,” to qualify for quotas. This has further divided the population, and caused resentment against communities that already benefit from quotas, dalits included. The recent agitation in Gujarat, Modi’s home state, where the relatively prosperous Patel community has demanded quotas, is an example of the consequence of the quota policy. Continued violence against dalits is over the perception that they are beneficiaries of India’s constitution, getting more than they deserve—according to the warped logic—and therefore should be shown their place.
Eliminating prejudice is never easy; but a great supply of jobs and opportunities may make people less resentful. To do that, Modi has to focus attention on the agenda which he presented to voters—development and growth—and vigorously condemn the agenda many of his supporters have—reinforcing old prejudices. At present, his silences condone those prejudices.