Savita*, a student of mass media based in Mumbai, is feeling partially relieved to study online during the current pandemic. She tells me that she often endures “casteist slurs” from her college friends lounging near the college canteen.
While attending lectures online, she keeps her video off and feels safe. When I asked her why she did not register an FIR against the miscreants under the “Atrocities Act” [Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989], she responded cynically, “As if legal action will ‘really’ transform the consciousness of these casteists?”
The case of Savita is not the first of its kind, nor last. Indian society is abundantly casteist and has normalised slurs, intimidation, bigotry, apathy, violence as well as discrimination. This is vociferously continuing to date.
The structure of caste is not modern either. It has been practised since the epoch of Ramayana too when Ram had to lynch Shudra sage Shambukha, which remains popularly untold even today. The case of Eklavya in Mahabharat is another fuel to the fire.
It’s a political misconception to blame the social system of casteism on the Mughals and the Britishers, as Hindutva activists would want you to believe on social media and elsewhere.
The caste apologists often deny the existence of caste-based bigotry or violence in society, today, since they are deep within their own privileged veil of ignorance. On the other hand, they have also failed to keep a check on the increment of caste-based violence.
The NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) has collected information on caste-based crimes has said that: “India is unsafe for Dalit and tribal girls.” This report may become another essay for the columnists, but it is important to note that the fundamentals of casteism persist in micro, macro, meso and meta forms.
An American civil society research in 2019 came out with the unfortunate realities of online casteism. It found that 40% of India’s casteist content on social media is inured with anti-Dalit content and memes against social justice schemes.
The numbers will be more staggering in the offline realm and it takes a huge toll on the mental health of the Dalit community. These numbers simply represent the conventional fact that casteism is here to stay.
Why? The system of caste preserves the notions of purity, control and graded hierarchy, which enables systematic inequity that mainly benefits the people from the Savarna spectrum.
Caste is that social tyrant known for degrading and disrespecting human rights, liberties and scientific temperament.
Dr BR Ambedkar and many other Dalit thinkers might have fought really hard for justice, equality, liberty and fraternity, and yet, India is unready for a caste census, the proper execution of affirmative action policies, and exogamy.
It’s the consciousness of caste that transcends the consciousness of empathy and thus, we are witnessing the systemic failure of the “Atrocities Act”. It literally took more than three decades after India’s independence to enable the formulation and execution of the Act.
It’s meant to fight crimes against individuals belonging to marginalised caste communities and also to deter the criminals from Savarna caste communities from committing atrocities against SC-ST (schedule caste, schedule tribe) communities.
In spite of having the Indian Constitution in place, cases of casteism and untouchability continue even after six decades of India becoming a republic.
Despite Articles 15, 17 and many others intending to encourage equality and discourage inequality, India’s governance has irresponsibly failed to downsize the case of casteism and caste-based violence.
Section 14 of the Atrocities Act empowers our system to have speedy trials in special courts looking after caste atrocities.
And yet, 80% of the cases are pending. The former Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, expressed “shock” that the conviction rate of cases of atrocities against the SC-STs is less than 30%, against the average of 42% for all cognisable offences under the Indian Penal Code, but is this “shock” enough and justifiable?
A news report in the TOI (2020) divulged that 9 states in India accounted for 84% of all crimes against Dalits in 2019. Most of these cases are reported in the cowbelt states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Gujarat.
This data, up by 7% (for SCs) and 26% (for STs) since 2018, from the NCRB, also highlighted that the conviction rate under the Atrocities Act was just 32% nationally. The pendency rate of these cases was an alarming 94%, in 2019. Here, states like Kerala, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh disappoint too.
In the last seven years, Hindutva’s cacophony has also cost India dearly. Hate crimes against minorities (including Muslims and Christians, not just Dalits) rose by 300%, and this trend hints at death knell awaited ahead since the dearth of “intersectional understanding between caste and gender” or “educational learning on casteism in schools” stays aloof.
The scope of the Atrocities Act also stands limited because perpetrators of casteist crimes against marginalised caste individuals from Muslim and Christian faiths, are not charged under the ambit of this Act.
It’s not possible to educate the oppressors (Savarna folks) from the right and the left political spectrum, regarding the repercussions of casteism and thus, on a cynical note, in my opinion: the Atrocities Act has failed to bring down the cases of casteism yet.
*Name changed to protect identity