Casteism has always been prevalent throughout India. Caste-based violence towards Dalits has increased in the last couple of months. This makes one wonder how or why it all started and how it can stop.
Dalit: the Origin of the Word
Dalits are certain sections of Hindu people in India. They have been subject to untouchability as a result of the Hindu caste system. They belong to the Scheduled Castes in India. During British rule over India, they were termed as Depressed Classes.
The word Dalit means broken or scattered in Sanskrit and Hindi. Manusmriti, one of the most sacred Hindu texts, is a treatise on law and society. The first mention of untouchability was in the Manusmriti. In addition to that, it mentions certain communities are not allowed to take part in the socio-religious life. The word itself was first used in the Poona Pact, which was an agreement between BR Ambedkar and MK Gandhi. It was on the reservation of electoral seats for the depressed classes. Jyotirao Phule mentions it in his caste-critical book Gulamgiri. It compared the treatment of the oppressed castes to the treatment of slaves.
The Hindu Caste System and Ostracization of Dalits
India since the Vedic period has been divided by the Varna system into four varnas. It dictated the social, political, and economical roles people played. Birth and genealogy were its only basis. A farmer’s child could be only a farmer, a warrior’s child could only be a warrior, and so on. Yet, one class of people faced exclusion. These were the Dalits. They did not get to choose jobs. Butchery, disposal of garbage, sewage cleaning, and leatherwork were forced onto them. The other castes considered Dalits as “polluters” . They were also forced to live on the outskirts of towns and use other water sources. Society barred them from entering places of worship and educational institutions. Thus, they have been away from society and discriminated against for centuries.
Such discrimination has been happening since medieval times. An example of this is the case of the Mahars and Peshwas of Maharashtra. Mahars are a Maharashtrian Scheduled Caste. The Peshwas used to make the Mahars carry brooms to sweep their footprints off of the ground as they walked.
Legal Measures taken by India
With independence came the power to make laws for the welfare of the country’s people. This led to a barrage of laws against caste-based discrimination. Article 17 of the Constitution abolished untouchability. Article 35 gave the power to make penal laws for the offenses under Article 17. In addition to that, the Untouchability Offences Act of 1955 prescribed punishment for practicing untouchability. It is enforced for any disability arising from it. The Scheduled Castes Act of 1989 and its 2015 amendment were enacted. This was to prevent atrocities against scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. In 2004, India established the National Commission for Scheduled Castes. It monitors the implementation of legislation on scheduled castes. Also, it investigates complaints and reports on the status of implementation of legislation.
Caste-based violence over the years and now
In 1968, 44 members of the Dalit community were burnt alive by the local upper-caste landlords. This incident happened in Kilvenmani village in the Thanjur district of Tamil Nadu. The reason for burning the Dalit laborers was them demanding higher wages. In the end though, none of the landlords were ever convicted for their crimes.
In 1996, 10 were killed and 26 injured from firing by the police. due to protests against the desecration of a BR Ambedkar statue in the Ramabai colony of Mumbai, Maharashtra. The officer-in-charge was released on bail after his conviction was revoked.
These are two examples of the long and bloody history of caste-based violence in India. The movement against casteism in India has been going on for a very long time. But, it started gaining momentum after a 2016 UN report released by the OHCHR. It mentioned the condition of Dalits in India including but not limited to forced, bonded labour, disproportionate effects of poverty, degrading jobs, and unequal access to all kinds of resources.
In past months, caste-based discrimination and violence has attained a fervent pace. A quarrel between a Dalit and Muslim youth in a village in Uttar Pradesh escalated to violence. Around 10 houses of the Dalit community were burnt down by members of the Muslim community. This was a part of their retaliation. In Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, 12 Dalit youths were beaten by 16 men from Sikandarpur Aima village. The youths accused the men of harassing Dalit girls on their way to school every day.
Race-based violence in the USA and the Black Lives Matter Movement
The USA has a history of racism and racial violence which is comparable to the situation. Slavery was outlawed in 1865. Even then African-Americans were treated in a similar manner to ‘untouchables’. Every public institution was segregated on the basis of race. The last traces of racial segregation were seen in the army until 1948.
For long the American police have been accused of racial discrimination and violence. George Floyd was killed due to unwarranted police action. He died when the police were arresting him for using counterfeit money to buy cigarettes. His death and the behaviour of the officers involved, led to Black Lives Matter protests. Eventually, these protests have spread across the world. It is to bring about police reform and legislation to address racial inequality.
This shows the situation in India in a new light. It is a cautionary tale to stop prejudiced injustice before it takes over us. There were recently around 300 petitions also filed in Change.org, relating to “Dalit and Minorities’ Lives matter.”
So, What is the Way Forward?
Centuries’ worth of prejudice cannot end with a couple of laws and in such little time. Culture is an offset of civilisation. Religion plays a very important role in society. Caste is important in Hinduism as well. So, it is difficult for Hindus to detach themselves from the caste system and caste-based prejudice. It goes beyond the law. Thus, the construction of the identity of a Hindu Indian is its basis. But, casteism and prejudice are not natural. Their inculcation into our identity has a path that it has followed through history. Therefore, following that path, we can trace its origin and root it out from our thought processes.
People of scheduled castes are still forced into manual scavenging. This is due to a lack of opportunities and money. In addition to that, this is why affirmative action like reservation policy is still relevant and important. This is why the law is not the only thing that matters. This is why we cannot ignore that casteism exists like a parasite clinging to our society.
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