The Necessity of Addressing Caste Discrimination and Atrocities as Collective Trauma

When the Khairlanji Massacre took place in 2006, I was in a boarding school, in class 8. When I heard about it, I asked a friend who, like me, belongs to the Scheduled Caste community, what exactly had happened.

He told me that four members of a family from the Scheduled Caste community had been brutally attacked in Khairlanji village near Nagpur in eastern Maharashtra. Two women had been raped, brutally beaten and lynched to death, while the two sons of one of the women were also killed in front of the whole village.

When my friend told me about this atrocity so explicitly, I was terrified, unable to come to terms with the fact that a group of dominant caste people had attacked and brutally murdered a family from my community in such a heinous way. Whenever I hear about caste atrocities, I feel disturbed; I find them hard to comprehend and make peace with.

How caste works

The caste system, which is more than 3,000 years old, is a vertical hierarchical social structure of what B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Constitution of India, called “graded inequality” in his 1936 essay, Annihilation of Caste. It divides Hindus into four varnas, i.e. Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra, with multiple castes within each varna. In this social stratification, the Brahmins, the most ritually pure, are at the top and the untouchables who are outside this four varna system, are at the bottom, considered to be the most polluted ones.

This hierarchical taxonomy with the sanction of the Hindu religious texts consists of the age-old concept of untouchability, in which a group of people who lie at the bottom of the caste system are untouchables. They are by birth permanently impure, not to be touched, given work that is polluting, relegated to the margins of society.

In its 2016 report on caste-based discrimination, the United Nations Human Right Council’s special rapporteur Rita Izsák-Ndiaye observed:

“Discrimination based on caste and analogous systems is a global phenomenon, affecting more than 250 million people worldwide. This serious human rights violation infringes upon the basic principles of universal human dignity and equality, as it differentiates between ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ categories of individuals because of their inherited caste status. It also leads to extreme exclusion and dehumanisation of caste-affected communities, who are often among the most disadvantaged populations, experience the worst socioeconomic conditions and are deprived of or severely restricted in the enjoyment of their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.”

After the enactment of the Constitution of India in 1950, the practice of untouchability was abolished vide Article 17 and was made punishable by law in 1955 under the Protection of Civil Rights Act. The ex-untouchable people were officially recognised by the constitution and listed under the category of ‘Scheduled Castes’. The word ‘Dalit’, is the chosen and assertive name of the community of ex-untouchables.

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Over the centuries and across generations, Dalits have been exploited and oppressed by ‘upper’ caste society. Even now, more than 70 years since India’s independence, the Dalit community faces discrimination, humiliation and caste atrocities in their daily national life. Their lack of representation in the mainstream media, in decision-making government bodies, educational institutions and so on proves that the community is deliberately discriminated against in every sphere of social life.

To resist this discrimination, members of the Dalit community challenge Brahmanic notions of caste supremacy and make a claim for equality and dignity. Constitutional safeguards have also afforded an upward socio-economic movement to some members.  The slightest assertive move by Dalits such as riding a horse, growing a moustache, entering a Hindu temple, having a song in praise of their beloved leader, B.R. Ambedkar, as a ringtone on their phones infuriates ‘high’ caste Hindus and makes them insecure. This leads to continued caste-based discrimination and caste atrocities against Dalits to “teach [them] a lesson”, according to scholar and author Anand Teltumbe in his 2010 book, The Persistence of Caste: The Khairlanji Murders and India’s Hidden Caste Apartheid, and show them their place in society as a desperate attempt to preserve and maintain the caste system.

Healing the community

This violence is not just on individuals. It is an attack on the identity of the community as a whole to remind its members of their ‘inferior’ social status. Thus every caste atrocity adds to the trauma of the community as a collective.

In his 2012 book Trauma: A Social Theory, Jeffrey C. Alexander says:

“The cultural construction of collective trauma is fuelled by individual experiences of pain and suffering, but it is the threat to collective rather than individual identity that defines [the] suffering at stake. Individual suffering is of extraordinary import; in itself, however, it is a matter for ethics and psychology. My concern is with traumas that become collective. They can become so if they are conceived as wounds to social identity.”

The Indian state has failed to address and effectively deal with structural social hierarchy and its ill effects on society. The state and dominant caste groups also insist on denying the existence of caste discrimination, arguing that it is a thing of the past and that one needs to look at the future and forget  history. They have become “bystanders of horror” as described by Jeffrey C. Alexander in his essay titled Towards a Theory of Cultural Trauma, published in the 2004 book Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, and are complicit in these horrors while creating no space for conversation and to address the systemic social problem that is caste.

Though there are laws in place to address and prevent caste atrocities, including The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, they fail because of the lack of proper implementation. In many cases, the state tries to cover up discrimination and violence and escape from responsibility, which leads to the further harassment of the victims. This shows a lack of commitment to the cause of establishing justice and equality in society.

Stressing on the importance of social consciousness, B.R. Ambedkar in Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah, an address he delivered in 1943, had said,

“The idea of making a gift of fundamental rights to every individual, no doubt, is laudable. The question is how to make them effective? The prevalent view is that once rights are enacted in a law, then they are safeguarded. This again is an unwarranted assumption. And experience proves that rights are not protected by law but the social and moral conscience of society. If social conscience is such that it is to recognise the rights which law chooses to enact, rights will be safe and secure. But the fundamental rights are opposed by the community. No parliament, no judiciary can guarantee them in the real sense of the words.”

Several sociologists, including Jeffrey C. Alexander, Ron Eyerman, Kai T. Erikson and Gail Christopher, the last-named a change agent widely recognised for designing holistic strategies for social change, have been stressing on addressing historical injustices through the lens of collective trauma and how methods of collective healing and racial healing can help society progress and effectively tackle the problems of social inequality.

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For instance, after apartheid ended in 1994, the South African government constituted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 to help heal the country and bring about a reconciliation of its people by uncovering the truth about the causes and extent of gross human rights violations that had occurred between 1960 and 1994. More than 40 countries have used this tool of transitional justice to address systemic and institutional discrimination, to foster collective healing and restore society as a whole.

It is high time that we as a society and a progressive nation take a step further and commit ourselves to establish liberty, equality and fraternity and address the collective trauma of the oppressed Dalit community.

Given Ambedkar’s idea of “associated living”, by which he meant fraternity in the expansive sense of the term as explicated in his speeches and writings, the expression of the suffering and pain of the marginalised must be respected and documented. Political will must be developed and necessary action must be taken to acknowledge the historical injustices perpetuated on this community. Collective healing spaces should be created. Social acts such as remembering the liberation struggle and their leaders and encouraging the cultural representation of the marginalised will help restore the psychological health of society. All these efforts could lead to the well-being of the community and reconciliation in society.

Prashant Bhaware is in the final year of an LLB programme. He has been published in the Economic and Political Weekly, The Telegraph, The News Minute and other publications. He tweets @prashant9_.

Featured image: Pariplab Chakraborty

This article was first published on The Wire.