Asia-Pacific

India's deadly caste protests: Here's what fuelled the anger

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Under India's ancient caste system, the country's Dalits were considered the lowest of the low. The stats show they're still being discriminated against.

Mass demonstrations and nationwide strikes spread across north India on Monday as tens of thousands of Dalit people protested a Supreme Court decision which they say will dilute their legal protections. 

Dubbed the 'Bharat Bandh' ('close India’) movement, nine people were killed in the ensuing violence which also led to railway tracks being blocked and schools, offices and banks closed in some provinces.

The Times of India reported the scale and ferocity of the protests caught the government off guard. It was forced to call in the army and impose curfews in some states. So why were the Dalits so angry?

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India's caste system explained.
India's caste system explained.

Who are the Dalits?

Under India’s ancient caste system, Dalits (formerly known as “untouchables”) and other marginalised people were considered the lowest of the low by birth, and significant cultural and social barriers still exist.

Traditionally they were consigned to the worst jobs and forbidden to associate with higher castes or even attend some public places.

Dalits staging a protest during Bharat Bandh
Dalits staging a protest during Bharat Bandh.
Getty Images

Does India still have a caste system?

Legally, no - discrimination based on untouchability was banned under India’s 1950 independence constitution that followed India becoming an independent nation within the British Commonwealth in 1947.

The group is now known in official language as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and make up about 280 million of India’s 1.3 billion people.

Since gaining independence, there have been quotas for those who fall into Scheduled Castes in national and state legislatures and public sector jobs, as well as scholarships and fee waivers in an attempt to improve their societal rights and access. 

But in reality?

“Ideas and practices of caste endure in contemporary India,” Associate Professor Assa Doron, an anthropologist specialising in South Asia at ANU in Canberra told SBS News.

“Hindu religious ideologies place people in a hierarchical order according to their ritual status, governed by ideas of purity and pollution. By birth, lower castes are considered ritually polluted, and have traditionally been barred access to religious and social institutions,” Professor Doron said. 

Professor Craig Jeffrey is a University of Melbourne India specialist and director of the Australia-India Institute.

He told SBS News that caste divisions have persisted through marriage - inter-caste unions are still relatively rare - and also through politics, with politicians who seek to mobilise caste blocks to vote for them.

“The period since 1947 has seen some improvements in SCs' and STs’ access to economic and social opportunities,” Professor Jeffrey said. But casteism is still strongly felt and perpetrated by higher caste people, particularly in rural areas, he said. 

Why do Dalits need protection?

Because of persistent discrimination, prejudice and disadvantage, Dalit people are especially vulnerable to exploitation and violent crime. And the statistics suggest it’s getting worse, particularly in some of the states where the protests were most intense.

“Instances of violence against members of Dalit and Adivasi community have increased in recent years,” Dr Meera Ashar, director of the South Asia Research Institute at ANU told SBS News.

“For example, violence against Dalits in the period 2010-2016 has increased by 10 per cent, whereas incarceration rates [of perpetrators] have dropped from 38 per cent to a mere 16 per cent.”

Nine Killed As Dalit Protests Turned Violent During Bharat Band
Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe activists rally on 2 April in Bathinda, India.
Hindustan Times / Getty Images

National crime data shows that the recent increase in crimes against Dalits is particularly sharp in certain states including Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, which helped fuel anger at the court’s decision.

Amnesty International notes that more than 40,000 crimes against Scheduled Castes were reported in 2016, including several incidents where Dalits were attacked by “higher” caste people for “perceived caste transgressions.”

In March, it was widely reported that a young Dalit farmer in Gujarat was beaten to death for owning a horse, a symbol of wealth.

“The instances of violence and discrimination are not always individual but in fact often involve large-scale massacres, horrific collective crimes, and public humiliation,” Dr Ashar said.

“Technically there may be recourse to law, [but] the ground reality is that in most cases it is extremely difficult to file a prevention of atrocity case.”

Adding to this potent mix, India’s high unemployment rate has driven resentment among upper caste people who perceive the jobs reserved for Dalit quotas are hurting their own opportunities.

“The response of upper caste has often taken the form of violence and harassments against Dalits and STs,” Dr Doron said.

What are the protests about?

The Supreme Court’s March 20 decision restricted some operations of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, enacted in 1989 to protect Dalits within a prejudiced legal system by requiring the immediate arrest of those accused of committing violent acts against them.

The perceived attack by the Supreme Court on the few legal protections Dalits have secured, against a backdrop of rising caste-based violence, caused widespread anger.

The two-bench judge panel that made the ruling suggested the atrocities law had been abused by Dalits filing false claims against higher-caste people, but the evidence for this is limited, Professor Craig Jeffrey told SBS News. 

Government data shows that by the end of 2016, about 90 percent of about 145,000 cases involving Dalits were still awaiting trial, the Times of India reported.

“It has been very difficult for Dalits to use the so-called ‘Atrocities Act’ to bring perpetrators of violence to justice,” Professor Jeffrey said.

Could it get worse?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP party has been “slow to respond to the demands of Dalit organisations,” Dr Doron said, although political and civil society organisations on the left have expressed their support.

But with national elections to be held in 2019, agitation by Dalit organisations eventually saw the Modi government petition the court for a review of the decision, which it now says it will conduct late next week after taking written submissions from both sides.

Whatever the court does, Dr Ashar and Professor Jeffrey believe it is likely to fuel more unrest, “especially now that upper caste groups are threatening violence if the Supreme court ruling is taken up for review,” Dr Ashar said. “So it does look like the protests will continue and might even get more intense.”

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