“We are punished for being born dalits. Our only sin is our birth as Dalits,” one of the distraught relatives of the Hathras victim was quoted as saying. "My birth is my fatal accident" a young dalit scholar at the University of Hyderabad, Rohith Vemula cried out his heart in his suicide note in 2016. But the young, brilliant dalit boy's cry could not move the hearts of our high and mighty.
All those, including from the upper castes, who have experienced deprivation, discrimination or a disadvantaged social status in some or other form - would be moved by the heartfelt cries of these unfortunate souls. To mock their cries would be nothing short of a savage mindset.
This isn’t just Hathras’ hour of shame. It’s India’s collective shame. The gruesome rape of a 19-year-old girl, breaking her spinal cord and strangulating her, for the curse of her being born a dalit, are too horrific to make our nation repulsive. The pathos of her hasty cremation, without even providing a last chance to the girl's mother to grieve, should haunt us all Indians.
Being born into a dalit family, particularly in India's heartland, is a curse - a curse from one's previous life being redeemed in this life in this holy land. The sad and violent secrets of caste-based oppression linger in the picturesque countryside. “How can such ugliness co-exist with the innocent beauty of the ruralscape?” we wonder.
In Bhojpur area of Moradabad in UP, situated at about 20 km from the district headquarters, the Salmani haircutters would refuse to cut the hair of the people belonging to the Balmiki community. The Balmikis are Dalits, most of whom still follow their ‘traditional’ vocation and work as sweepers and manual scavengers.
A dalit boy, 21-year-old Pradeep Rathod, was killed in Timbi village in Gujarat state, for owning and riding a horse. A dalit mother would be stripped and paraded naked in a village, as a punishment for his teen son fighting with an upper caste boy.
Dalits would be served in separate glasses in village tea stalls. Dalits are prohibited from wearing sandals or holding umbrellas in front of upper caste men, in many parts of the hinterland. Dalit men who go to the market to buy essentials are instructed by shopkeepers to stand at a distance, while their purchases are thrown to them.
"I came across a news report on a short film that’s attracting attention The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas, with a provocative premise: Three people with a deadline to complete a project, go in search of a character to be cast as a dalit! Raising the key question: what does a dalit look like? One of those shortlisted for the role is outraged! He is a brahmin! And it was “below his dignity” to play a dalit. Writer-director Rajesh Rajamani says his main intention was to put the “ruling classes” under public glare, for “they are the ones who are perpetuating the caste system” wrote columnist Shobhaa De in a recent article.
Many powerful movies have been made and many powerful books have been written on this disturbing subject over the years. One such powerful book is journalist and writer Nirupama Dutt's "The Ballad of Bant Singh: A Qissa of Courage".
Nirupama Dutt tells Bant Singh's story in this powerful book, which is both the biography of an extraordinary human being and a comment on the deep fault lines in Indian society. On the evening of 5th January 2006, Bant Singh, a Dalit agrarian labourer and activist in Punjab's Jhabar village, was ambushed and brutally beaten by upper-caste Jat men armed with iron rods and axes. He lost both his arms and a leg in the attack. It was punishment for having fought for justice for his minor daughter who had been gang-raped. But his spirit was not broken, and he continues to fight for equality and dignity for millions like him, inspiring them with his Udasi’s songs and his courage.
"What, after all, does a Dalit labourer have? He has neither money nor influence. All he has is his own body, which he must use to earn a livelihood. And, as for the body of the Dalit woman, it is very easy for it to be seen as an object of casual, easy abuse."
Article 17 of Indian Constitution abolishes the practice of untouchability in India in any form. But a fascinating fact is, the word "untouchability" is not defined in the constitution.
Jai Singh vs. Union of India case of Rajasthan High Court and Devrajiah vs B. Padmana case of Madras High Court defined the word untouchability. The court said that in article 17, the word ‘Untouchability’ is placed under inverted commas, which means the word is not to be taken by its literal or grammatical interpretation. The meaning of the word is to be derived from historical development and historical practices. Untouchability refers to the social disability imposed on certain classes of a person because of their birth in a specific backward class. Therefore, the word untouchability in article 17 only means ‘Caste-based untouchability’.
We, the people of India, have given ourselves the Constitution of India and caste upon the judiciary, the responsibility to protect and implement the constitutional provisions. The judiciary, with its vast powers, is responsible to bring to justice, the culprits - be it individuals or institutions - in cases of caste-based oppression and violence.
According to the 2011 census of the Indian government, the number of Dalits in the country has been calculated as 16.6% of the total population. Uttar Pradesh has the maximum Dalit population with 20.5% of the total Dalit population. As per 2011 census, the population of Dalits was reported to be 20.14 crores. Our so-called “upper” castes continue to perpetuate the prejudices that have kept a quarter of country's fellow citizens from daring to dream of a better tomorrow.
(Views are personal)
* V Venkateswara Rao is an alumnus of IIM, Ahmedabad and a retired corporate professional.
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine