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“Will Legal Action ‘Really’ Transform The Consciousness Of Casteist People?”

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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.

Representational image. Photo credit: News18 / PTI

Caste In The Hindu Epics

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.

Untouchables like Matangi, Prakreet, Suneet, Uppali, etc. were ordained by the Buddha himself, in his Sangha, since the Vedic Age was Brahminical, to allocate and interlink “jati and varna (caste).

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.

India Is Not Safe For Dalits

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 Consciousness Transcends Everything Else

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.

Dr BR Ambedkar, one of India’s leading anti-caste scholars. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

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.

Atrocities Against Dalits On The Rise

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.

Muslims And Christians Need To Be Included

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

Featured image is for representational purposes only.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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