“Gandhiji, I have no homeland. No untouchable worth the name will be proud of this land.” This is a very famous reply Dr Ambedkar gave when he met Gandhi for the first time in 1931.
Can we say that this historical reply by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar stands relevant even today?
On June 6, Vikas Jatav, a 17-year-old boy was shot dead in Amroha by upper-caste men, allegedly for entering a temple.
In the same week, three men from a Dalit community were beaten, heads shaven and paraded with slippers around their neck in a village in Barauli for allegedly stealing a fan.
In many states during the lockdown, ‘Dalit areas’ have been barricaded, and supplies are not being provided by shops because of the perception that they are not hygienic people.
These incidents are few among the large number of cases that were reported in the last week. Since the nationwide lockdown was announced there has been a manifold increase in caste-based violence.
An evidence-based research organization called EVIDENCE in Tamil Nadu reports that the state has seen a five-fold increase in brutal caste violence.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the video of the brutal murder of a 46-year-old black man by white police officers in broad daylight on the streets of Minneapolis created a global outrage. On the one hand George Floyd’s murder exposed the existence of racism in one the most powerful nations in the world but at the same time, on the other hand, it also showed the American society’s reaction to it.
The moral consciousness of a society can be assessed by its reaction to such incidents.
Despite the spread of the Coronavirus and the US being the worst affected, people came out on the streets. The nature of these protests shows that it was not just the Black community but also a large number of white people who also expressed their anger and demanded justice.
His death was put at crossroads because of his own countrymen’s reaction, which created a global outcry against such gross violation of human rights.
There were numerous protests and expressions of solidarity across the world recognizing racial discrimination in America. Indians also expressed their anger over this incident. Our social media feeds were taken over with pictures and posts with #BlackLivesMatter.
However, similar and sometimes even much more harrowing violations of marginalised lives that periodically occur and reoccur in India doesn’t seem to invoke the same anger among Indians, if not more.
Why didn’t the gunning down of Vikas Jatav trigger the same levels of outrage or justice calls, let alone a trending hashtag?
Though the police, in this case, said that the boy was killed because of a monetary dispute and that it has no caste angle. Even if it is, as it may, the audacity of the accused, in this case, to point a gun towards the victim and shoot him stems from the power equation in the social set up prevalent in India.
Such a symbolic act of violence based on caste is not a sudden departure from the normal. It is the most obvious consequence of the systemic violence meted out to the Dalit community. It is the daily reality of most parts of India – urban and rural. Caste violence operates uniquely at different levels and it is so internalized that neither the abuser nor the victim recognizes the violation.
Such acts of barbarism continue with impunity because the larger society chooses to keep mum. We see news of such incidents popping as notifications on our laptop and phone screens, but as often as not we choose conveniently to ignore it. Most of the times, unseeing is a very conscious political act.
Only if #DalitLivesMatter was considered ‘woke‘ in India it could have at least struck a conversation on caste atrocities. The silence only reflects our values as a society.
For millennia, this has been the reality of the majority of people from Dalit communities. It is not just the failure of law and order but also our collective apathy as a society.
Over the years, there have been relative changes if not absolute, brought about solely by education. Dalits, who have been denied access to learning for centuries have now gained it through constitutional provisions. But increasing efforts to privatize education and other policies in the current times only seem to put a high wall built of hard bricks in the form of NEET, and other educational reforms, in front of these lives.
According to government data, 71.3% of students from Dalit communities drop out before they matriculate. Nevertheless, it has allowed a minuscule percentage the freedom to change their lives. But, this assertion of freedom and dignity are always prone to violence.
We proudly assert that India is the largest democracy but it is also in this largest democracy that we also witness the breeding of a system unique on its own called ‘caste’ – which is probably the longest surviving social hierarchy in the world.
As Arundhati Roy wrote in The Doctor and the Saint (introduction to Dr Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste): “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic.”
The current migrant crisis is a very evident example of this. Even today, 70% of people from Dalit communities are landless. They live on ‘bodily interest’ whereby they are forced to toil for the landlords across generations to repay impossible debts. After all, isn’t freedom and independence all about who we are and where we are placed on the social pyramid?
The caste system is a very ‘radioactive’ concept. It is omnipresent and yet highly complex. It is radioactive because it is not just about how the upper-castes discriminate the shudras and the Dalits but also how Dalits discriminate and violate sub-castes among Dalits. It is a system where one who has barely learnt to stand finds pleasure in stamping on someone who is stumbling to stand.
In these horrible times, if we could find the energy to express our anger on racism in America, we could surely empathise for the marginalized in our own country. We need to recognize the pain closer to us, in order to make a difference elsewhere.