Two months ago, in Andhra Pradesh’s Chirala, 25-year-old Kiran Kumar was riding a motorcycle with his friend when the police stopped him for not wearing a mask. During this time, the world was still debating the effectiveness of face masks. Some individuals, organisations and even governments believed that its usage should not be made mandatory. Others were adamant that strict rules must be followed. But Kiran was allegedly beaten to death by police for not wearing one.
Kiran was a Dalit.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRV), an upper-caste person commits a crime against a Dalit every 15 minutes in India. More so, every day, six Dalit women are raped. However, many activists believe this data is a result of gross under reporting and the numbers could be much higher if cases were reported fairly in a fair system.
It has become almost impossible to trace the increasing cases of atrocities against Dalits during this pandemic. As per some Dalit organisations, caste-based atrocities in Tamil Nadu alone have increased nearly five-fold during the lockdown and in Andhra Pradesh, over 150 such incidents were seen in last four months. Similar concerns are raised from different parts of the country.
On June 10, National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ-NCDHR) issued a press release detailing a wide range of atrocities against Dalits that took place during the lockdown, in which it also said that “in many cases, police and other higher authorities have been very complacent”.
Seeing the systematic nature of caste oppression and the involvement of police and these higher authorities in it, one cannot help but compare it with the racial oppression, of the US in particular. The recent incident of Uttar Pradesh’s Agra, where the dead body of a Dalit woman was removed from the pyre, had once again given momentum to the debate of why there is no anger to address the ever existing problem of caste-based oppression in India.
Lack of outrage
No matter how many upper-caste Indians supported the Black Lives Matter movement, not even half of them would come forward to raise their voice against the caste-based atrocity meted out by the upper-caste community against lower castes. And this, in my opinion, is not a case of the usual selective outrage or casual hypocrisy. There exists is a serious systematic problem, because of which #DalitLivesMatter will never make it to our retweets and Instagram stories.
When millennials and Gen Z in India post about instances of racial discrimination in the US, they have nothing at stake. A race – which they don’t belong to – has been oppressing another race which they don’t belong to.
To acknowledge that there is caste oppression, they have to admit that the caste they belong to might have oppressed another. And like all oppressors, they have grown up being conditioned to believe that they have not. In fact, oppressors are often found to flip the narrative and call the other side oppressors instead. The upper-caste community our country is often seen play the victim card and accusing Dalit and Bahujan communities of taking away their jobs and seats through reservation.
This flipping of narrative often creates a space for justifying crimes against the community. Most colonisers, invaders and occupiers – of past and present alike – have demonised their subjects who, they believe, can be a threat. Hence, whenever activists or the public question such bizarre actions, arguments like ‘national security or social stability’ usually make an appearance.
In the caste system, this concept of maintaining ‘social stability’ is no doubt thousands of years old, but it is reaffirmed in different ways in the present context. A large number of upper-caste Hindus and Muslims have created all kinds of stereotypes towards Dalits within their families. Even when they find their children misbehaving or not maintaining cleanliness and hygiene, they call them names, which are mostly casteist slurs. This furthers the myth that Dalits are inherently lawless, violent and dirty.
Kiran’s case shows how the myth can even cost someone’s life.
Kiran succumbed to head injuries at a hospital in police custody. His father filed a complaint stating that he was beaten indiscriminately for not wearing a mask. But ironically the police charged Kiran under several sections. They accused him and his friend Shiny Abraham of being drunk. The constable at the check post said that when he asked them why they were not wearing masks and were driving the vehicle in an intoxicated state, they picked up an argument and assaulted the cop.
Blood stains and hairs were found on the road. But the police said that Kiran had died of head injuries after he jumped out of the moving police jeep, which also caused the stains.
Being unhygienic and careless by not wearing a mask, drinking alcohol and picking a fight with the police – this ticks every box of prejudice against Dalits that someone like me has grown up on. This cultivated, poisonous public opinion creates a space for victim blaming before the investigation even begins. It keeps us in the state of denial that institutional caste-based discrimination exists and makes us see it as an isolated case where the ‘victim was at fault’.
The cycle of ignorance and silence
The fact that a large number of people in India came out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement shows that people are interested in speaking out against injustices. However, they keep mum when it comes to admitting their own biases. A big reason for them to not speak against caste-based violence could simply be due to ignorance. Ignorance like believing caste-based atrocities are not a result of systematic oppression but a one-on-one interaction, that they have no role in promoting it, that these cases are far fewer than they actually are.
Executive director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center Ibram X. Kendi insists, “There’s no such thing as being ‘not racist’. We are either being racist or anti-racist.”
“I’m not a racist. I did not mean to harm that man in any way,” Amy Cooper said. “I think I was just scared.”
Why were you scared? Why did you fear the Black male?
The heartbeat of racism is denial. The sound of denial: “I’m not a racist.” https://t.co/TKDb0j2DWi
— Ibram X. Kendi (@DrIbram) May 26, 2020
A similar argument applies to those who claim they are not casteist. Unless they are actively challenging the caste system and the oppression associated with it, they can be held responsible for being complicit in it. Just by saying that we do not believe in caste system or even religion, does not take away the upper-caste privilege you and I enjoy. By just believing that the caste system is wrong does not make us equal, irrespective of our economic background.
Drawing inspiration from the ongoing discussions over racial equality, there is a need to acknowledge that just like race, even if we consider ourselves caste free, we are still benefitting from a system which is casteist. Many of us have never intentionally promoted casteism. But that’s not enough – if we don’t personally interrupt the present unjust order, we are allowing the oppressive status quo to continue.
Accepting that we are a part of this problem seems like a far-fetched dream. There still exists ignorance about the number and nature of caste-based atrocities. This is also one of the many reasons why reservation is important. The lack of Dalit representation in many important professional and political spheres, including all kinds of media, has kept their issues at bay.
Last year in May, 26-year-old medical doctor Payal Tadvi died by suicide. She had named her three upper-caste seniors in the suicide note and referred to casteist slurs they used to intimidate and isolate her. Two months ago, the Maharashtra Medical Council revoked the suspension of the medical licenses of two of those three accused doctors.
Following her death, many students from Dalit and tribal community came forward to share their experiences of torture and discrimination in such institutes. If the nice, ‘not casteist’ people in her college and many colleges across India are aware about the existence of such discrimination, but choose to remain silent, they cannot live in denial that they are complicit in being oppressors in this ruthlessly unjust system of society based on caste.
Payal belonged to the tribal community of Tadvi Bhil Muslims and was the first from her community to pursue post-graduation in medicine. The Bhil community has a literacy rate of just 40.6%. This incident might even marginalise them further.
If more Payals will not study in the colleges we study, work in the spaces we work, eat in the canteens we eat – we will never get to know the issues they face. The very few who are already around will never share them either, because of the hostile environment we have created. And the spiral of silence and ignorance continues to grow.
Being an ally
The pandemic and the lockdown which followed has revealed many ugly sides of caste system, but the silence over it hasn’t changed. One might argue that the plight of migrant labourers wasn’t discussed enough, but the fact that a large number of them were Dalits and tribals was hardly mentioned. In recent news from Odisha, at least 50 Dalit families were ostracised after a 15-year-old girl allegedly plucked flowers from the house of an upper caste. This reminds us that social distancing doesn’t need a pandemic in India. This term is our own ancient heritage, which we have carefully preserved.
The struggle has to be led by the ones who are suffering. But the least we can do is to listen, lend our support, and be courageously anti-casteist and not just ‘not casteist’.
Imaad ul Hasan is a Journalism Student at Jamia Milia Islamia’s AJK MCRC, New Delhi.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty