Dalit Lives Matter Too!

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Soon after George Floyd’s horrifying murder, caught on camera, sometime in June in USA, the stars of India’s film industry, Bollywood, had bombarded the social media with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. This rang hollow for several reasons. One, many of them have been at some point or the other ambassadors of fairness creams. Second, the Indian metropolitan cities have been witness to the discrimination against Black students studying in Indian cities. Third, the country’s entire landscape is witness to the most brutal form of ostracizing the socially oppressed classes. But there are few who speak up for racism within the country.

This hypocrisy stands out even more strikingly at a time when the rape, murder and cover-up of Hatharas chills us to the bone and speaks to us of our still sleeping conscience. While one must not overlook the attempt made by some to take to the streets and mobilise public on the issue particularly at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, it is not difficult to guess what the response of a larger mass of the nation would be if posed with the question: Are Indians racist?

In a land deafened by shrill Islamophobia, misplaced sense of ‘Hindu victimhood’ and its accepted rigidity of caste-based untouchability, the answer more than often would be in the negative, or at best, a ‘maybe’. To many Indians, racism, communalism and xenophobia is something that exists either in the western world dominated by whites or, perhaps, next door in Pakistan. Fed on a staple of religious assertion, frightening real and horrifying caste equations and ethnic chauvinism, all endorsed, stamped and sealed on a daily 24 X 7 basis by a predominantly elitist, upper caste media, as a collective we can go on pretending about our romantic idea of practiced brotherhood. It doesn’t change the ugly everyday reality of caste, colour, class community-based oppression, operating at various hierarchical levels of the social, political and economic pyramid, practiced with impunity despite constitutional guarantees.

The Indian constitution upholds ‘equality and secularism’ as the basic fundamentals of the country. The right to equality, unlike the American evolutionary process, came in one go. When it was drafted, the first prime minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru, aware of the ambitiousness of the project had spoken about the massive challenge of offering a very liberal democracy to a society that was “largely illiberal and illiterate”.

Forget the linguistic and ethnic diversity of the country that triggers an easy flow of chauvinism, India’s independence and partition were born in an atmosphere of intense religious strife and massive bloodletting that have continued to shape its discourse. Despite a rich history of syncretic culture, it continued to grow in its ambivalence. From the 90s onwards, coinciding with both the changing global world order, concoction of a new global ‘Islamist’ enemy and Kashmir insurgency, the dominant discourse began gravitating towards inventing the Muslim as the ‘enemy’ and the ‘outsider’. It is thus easy to drill into the herd minds the idea of a demonized Muslim, seen as a ‘Pakistani’, ‘terrorist’ and ‘anti-national’ and lay down the foundation of the notion of ‘Hindu victimhood’ in a country where the Hindus are in over-whelming (over 80%) majority.

When George Floyd took America and the world by a storm, Israr, a 35-year-old Muslim man from Saharanpur district in Uttar Pradesh was attacked by a mob. A viral video showed Israr lying on the ground as he is beaten up. He tries to get up, is beaten again and then lies motionlessly on the ground. The police blamed the accused for ‘stealing a bike’ and calling the incident ‘a clash’. The incident follows a similar pattern in all the lynchings of Muslims.

Exactly a year ago, in Jharkhand, the video of Tabrez Ansari’s lynching surfaced. He was tied to a pole and forced by a mob and their cheering supporters to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ before life was snuffed out of him. The police tried to dismiss the case as one of ‘personal vendetta’ after ‘bike theft’ and registered a murder case only after the case sparked some outrage.

The outrage, however, remains muted in such cases. Hate crimes have spiked since a Hindu right wing party assumed the reins of power in 2014. According to a Human Rights Watch Report, between May 2015 and December 2018, 44 people had been killed by cow vigilante groups. The cases further began to spike in 2019. The police handling of these cases reveals a prejudiced system of impunity that involves denial, fudging evidence and even registering cases of ‘beef consumption’ against the victims.

The shameful lynchings and the institutionalised protection to the attackers not only exacerbates the racist streak of many, it also over all promotes a culture of violence, allowing people to kill anybody simply on rumours of kidnapping, theft or anything else. The rise of the Hindu right wing in the country and Hindutva inspired leaders in power have embedded institutions with a similar bias ensuring that certain castes an communities are pronounced guilty, even for talking about peace or being the victim, while hate mongers of the upper caste majority community would remain “innocent” even for promoting hatred. If we had doubts, the handling of the Delhi riots has proven so. The recent Babri demolition verdict have further endorsed the same.

Muslims and, sometimes, Christians are not the only ones at the receiving end. At the bottom of the pyramid remains the caste-based oppression that is deeply embedded in the psyche of the people because of centuries of culturally accepted practice despite constitutional guarantees. The constitution in 1950 made ‘untouchability’ illegal, which meant that there could no longer be a bar on the entry of the most oppressed Dalit classes in schools, temples and public places and included the clause of reservation quota for the Dalits in educational institutions and jobs. Things changed but only marginally.

Stories abound of Dalits being disallowed to draw water from wells in some villages, of Dalit children being made to sit on the floor in the classrooms and forced by teachers to perform chores like cleaning bathrooms “to show them their place”. Even the most elitist homes are peppered with caste-based practices like keeping separate utensils for use of Dalit household workers. Though untouchability in the urban landscape has considerably mellowed down, the subtle forms of social boycott and segregation continue to be practiced as a way of life even in semi-liberal and liberal circles. The more horrendous forms of oppression like accusing and persecuting Dalits on accusation of practicing witchcraft for daring to speak out or demanding equal rights, rapes and killings with blanket impunity that a political class and institutionalized system provides also abounds. This ugliness is generally glossed over with abject denial.

This is why, while the distant death of George Floyd at the hands of a cop, his one hand in pocket and another on his neck, may spark outrage and trigger calls for justice, the nearer to home truth of the Hathras girl and her victimized family will be wished away with just the blink of an eye. The brutal scale of the rape, the injuries she suffered, the official denial of rape, the body-theft and the denial to the family of even a decent mourning unravel the dark underbelly of India. The Hathras incident is not only about gender based sexual oppression, it is also about caste oppression. Which is why, the national outrage this incident has evoked, the manner it has been reported in the media, and the manner in which the wheels of the justice system move stands in contrast to the nation-wide outrage over Nirbhaya, no less a heinous rape and murder. Both cases are symbolic. Nirbhaya’s case reveals that there can be justice and closure only if there is a national level outpouring of grief and outrage. Hathras shows that some victims are not only alone, they can continue to be victimized with abuse of power and law.

The Hathras case epitomizes both gender and caste oppressions and reminds us that unless there is a change in the way the nation looks at the gender based and caste-based identities, nothing will change.

The ugly practice of secluding an entire caste of people from the framework and treating them as lesser mortals is something that comes like an unshakeable inheritance. It is part of our being and most individuals have memories of their own experiences of witnessing some form of untouchability in their daily lives, whether we continue to engage with it as acceptable or recall it with a sense of shame.

I studied in a Convent, where a certain number of Dalit Christians got free admissions. A separate section condescendingly called the vernacular section was reserved for them. They studied in Hindi medium and not the ‘elitist English’. Within the school, there was hardly any interaction except in the sports ground where a negligible percentage of them ever made their presence felt. Even in the school buses, the rows of the Dalit children were reserved and the segregation policy, that got sanctity from the society, remained in force. The weight of being a silent spectator to this inhuman phenomenon, even though I was too young, continues to be unbearable.

It is time we unload this burden by speaking for the Dalits and for their women. Their lives matter