What are you willing to give for a couple of mangoes stolen from someone else’s garden? Well, Bikki Srinivas, a 30-year-old man from Singampalli village in East Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh was seemingly prepared to give his life. What else explains the audacity of a young Dalit man trying to steal fruits from an upper caste garden? Upper caste orchards, as Srinivas eventually discovered without getting a chance to learn from his mistake, have murderous bipedal minions— armed with clubs and sticks, always ready to put a poor Dalit man “in his place” (that “place” might be unspeakably worse for a poor Dalit woman).
Mango thief Srinivas ended up being entombed in the spacious panchayat office in Singampalli, hanged by the neck from the ceiling for theatrical effect. It is being alleged that the savarna lynchers wanted to make it seem like a suicide. It’s weird if true, the idea that someone stealing a few mangoes would be so overwhelmed by his guilty conscience that he would end up taking his life at a public office. But lynchers are not known for their thinking prowess.
Aren’t upper caste people supposed to be more intelligent than all the sundry groups of marginalized fools that inhabit India though? It’s only recently that Dr. Payal Tadvi, a 26-year-old adivasi PG student of gynecology, was driven to ending her existence by a trio of upper caste Hindu colleagues who were, no doubt, way more intelligent— they were not from the “reserved category”, you see (no caste/class privileges, nothing to see here). They used their superior intelligence to verbally bully Dr. Tadvi into killing herself. Neat, huh? Perhaps the job of lynching the idiots is “reserved” for the less intelligent among upper castes then. The “intelligence” argument is only for convenience’s sake.
But I digress. Didn’t Bikki purloin mangoes from an upper caste garden? That was obviously a more serious crime than the crime of existing or studying medicine. He must have felt guilty, and seeing as how he was a fool simply by virtue of being a Dalit, he must have chosen to hang himself in the panchayat office, whereas more “intelligent” people would have chosen a more private spot. It was perhaps perfectly symbolic, meant to portray the state of democracy in India. Dalits can only go to panchayat offices when they need to be dead. Then there was poor Jitendra, only 21 years of age, sole breadwinner of his family, who foolishly committed the heinous crime of erm… sitting near upper caste men to eat at a wedding— of a Dalit couple.
The fear of violence from upper caste people in the village is such that no Dalit person who also attended the wedding wants to give a witness statement. Pradip Rathod, another 21-year-old from Gujarat, much loved by his family and with much love for horses, was killed for the crime of giving in to the latter and riding horses, although the counter-claim is that he was killed for harassing someone’s wife, as if that makes the murder justifiable. It would seem that Dalits, especially the more vulnerable ones, are always walking around with a noose around their necks. The dead bodies of the Bikkis and the Jitendras and the Pradips and of the countless Dalit women who are raped and mutilated and murdered nearly every day, most of whose names we will never know, certify that democracy and justice are alive as much for them as they themselves are.
Then there are those Dalits who committed the crime of surviving cyclone Fani. Didn’t they know that if they did survive, no help from anyone would be forthcoming? That they are not supposed to claim their basic rights to food, clothing and shelter? Perhaps they mattered only because they’re “vote banks”, meant to be milked when elections come knocking.
To whatever extent the 73rd Amendment to the Indian Constitution was meant to decentralize democracy and give representation to Dalits, it certainly hasn’t brought about any meaningful changes on the ground. Dalits have been politically very active insofar as voting and contesting panchayati elections are concerned, but Dalit voices continue to be missing from decision-making processes—this is especially true for Dalit women.
The 2017-18 Economic Survey revealed, the lion’s share of funds made available to rural local self-governments are “tied”. This means that much of the money that is allocated to the panchayats is for schemes or projects of the central or state government, leaving very little room for manouevre for the panchayats. This is because although it is constitutionally mandatory for state governments to make laws for instituting panchayati raj in their states, they have discretion in deciding the extent to which taxation powers ought to be relinquished to panchayati bodies, and therefore, very little progress has been made on this front.
As a result, nearly 95% of funds available to panchayats are just funds devolved by state or union governments. This kind of somewhat artificial resource crunch will always make the dominant social groups even more powerful, especially in strictly (and sometimes violently) hierarchical societies like India. And that is exactly what has happened. Dalit voices have been effectively snuffed out, and hence they have made little progress.
Amnesty reports that 65% of all hate crimes committed in India are against Dalits, and in a whopping 83% of the cases where sexual violence was involved, Dalit women were the primary victims. An IndiaSpend analysis of National Crime Records Bureau data shows that the rate at which Indians commit crimes against their Dalit compatriots have risen by 25% in the decade spanning 2006-2016. At the same time, number of cases of anti-Dalit hate crimes that are pending police investigation has almost doubled in the same period. Conviction rate has also fallen from an already abysmal 28% to 26% in this period, a situation further exacerbated by the fact that pendency of cases in court has risen by almost 50%. A paragraph from a study done on the nature of anti-Dalit violence in Tamil Nadu gives us an idea of how the odds are stacked against Dalits when it comes to seeking justice:
[..] despite India’s SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, which is designed to provide Dalits special protection against hate crimes, police have proven highly reluctant to register cases against perpetrators. Thus even assuming Dalit victims gather the courage to report abuses by locally powerful caste groups, their complaints are frequently suppressed; official records thus grossly underestimate the problem. The non-registration of cases under the Atrocities Act, however, merely continues a long-standing police practice of delaying and even outright refusing to file ‘first information reports’ (FIRs) in cases of attacks on Dalits, while vigorously pursuing false cases foisted upon them by village oppressors.
Given this situation, where the law and order machinery is incapable of delivering and unwilling to deliver justice to oppressed Dalits, it would be extremely difficult to justify the Supreme Court’s decision last year to dilute the provisions of the Prevention of Atrocities Act to protect public servants from immediate arrest after a complaint is filed against them under the law. Whimsical application of laws meant for social justice only makes legal standards for social justice tenuous. In cases like these, the narrative of upper caste (majority of public servants are upper caste) victimhood gets a lot of credibility and traction. Making filing of cases more difficult only serves to make getting justice doubly harder.
One of the issues plaguing the judiciary in India is that upper caste men have disproportionate representation in it. It is difficult to imagine that too many of these judges would be able to connect or empathize with the marginalized and the oppressed, and as demonstrated by the Court order on the SC/ST Act, the highest judiciary is not immune from privilege blindness. Caste reservations on the judiciary are often vehemently opposed, suggesting that such provisions might affect the process of “merit-based” selections. But what “merits” are considered by the in-house selection body that is the Collegium, while appointing High Court and Supreme Court judges?
We never get much of an idea. The Collegium, in fact, might seem to many like an Old Boys’ Club teeming with upper caste men. It is imperative, therefore, that there be greater Dalit representation in the judiciary, as high-sounding principles within the confines of hallowed courtrooms might face difficulty connecting with the people outside, if not somewhat modulated by considerations of the reality of everyday experience. In that sense, one would expect Dalit judges to possess more “merit” than a cross-section of privileged Indian society.
There is no way to know whether or not Bikki will get justice. Chances are, he won’t. Or it might be delayed. Justice delayed, as they say, is justice denied. But then, in Bikki’s case, there wasn’t any chance of justice even entering the picture. She was outrun by her Mob Upgrade version. The latter is technologically better equipped, has greater political support, doesn’t require pesky stuff like evidence or deference to rule of law, and is obviously trigger happy. Justice is denied to a human being the moment she is born a Dalit, her mere existence becoming an eyesore for the dominant castes. And Indians are labelled the moment they are born, with little chance of escape from the consequences of this act of social violence.
What Ambedkar wanted to achieve through annihilation of caste: economic and political equality built on the foundation of social equality, that project has been abandoned long ago. Caste-based politics helped raise some of the issues, but hardly helped address them. Social justice measures like the reservation system have been distorted to such an extent to achieve petty political ends, that they are made to seem like charity. Dalits themselves are also responsible to an extent. Dalit-rights-focused politics has not really reimagined itself with changing times, allowing predatory forces like Hindutva to subsume the discourse around Dalit welfare within itself. None of that changes the fact that the actual violence against Dalits is planned, sanctioned and executed by upper caste oppressors – for thousands of years. And it’s getting increasingly normalized all over again. Even a contemplation of killing a person for simply sitting near you would otherwise be rejected as preposterous.