Our country has not done well by Dalits. This is no secret, and as much as Hinduism has tried to keep the “untouchables” hidden and out of the public sphere, it never really was. In fact, it has done pretty terribly against scheduled caste persons: 16.6% of India’s population is SC, according to the 2011 census, but crimes against Dalits have increased by 29% from 2012 to 2014. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, over 45,000 crimes against Dalits were reported in 2015 alone. To break them down into simpler numbers – 13 Dalit people are murdered each week, and 21 Dalit women are raped each week.
And this violence comes from the long-standing, deep-rooted, utterly oppressive system that Hindus – and Indian society in general – have imposed on Dalits. Many may think, from a position of privilege, that the system is an archaic practice that is now obsolete – and this is only a testament to how successfully the caste system has managed to ingrain itself into everyday life, and thus invisibilise itself. It is this system that still stipulates that Dalits can only aspire to certain professions, and punishes them for greater aspirations. It is this system that forces so many Dalits to become manual scavengers, while conveniently forgetting that they exist (and live and die in terrible conditions).
It is this system that makes upper caste people believe they are somehow the true victims of the reservation system, while the benefits of the system often do not even reach those that it is meant to actually help (and is, at any rate, a pitiful recompense for 500 years of oppression and counting). It is this system that made Namdeo Dhasal write about the ever-deepening roots of the Tree of Violence, over four decades ago. Things have changed very little.
If the recent resurgence in Dalit activism and the rise of Dalit protests across the country is any indication, however, things may finally begin to change. While incidents like the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula prove how far the system is willing to go to stop Dalits from rising above what it believes is their station, many continue to defy the state and bring change, whether through direct activism or by simply following their dreams and aspirations and asserting their identities.
This video, part of Being Indian’s series of videos exploring the lives of various marginalised communities in India, explores the experience of being Dalit in India through the words of various Dalit people from different walks of life. And while many of them may not have the power or the means to directly oppose an oppressive machinery, one thing is common in all of their words: the desire to continue existing, and assert their existence, in the face of a society that would rather pretend they don’t.