Dalit Lives Matter

Over the past couple of days, discourse in elite circles has undergone a familiar pattern- outrage at a heinous hate crime, a regrettably delayed realisation of privilege accorded at birth, and finally, belatedly demanding accountability and calling for winds of change to flow through India’s long-rotting bureaucratic and law enforcement machinery. If the past is anything to go by, the outrage is likely to last for a couple of weeks, before it becomes yet another forgotten footnote in the history of a country that continues to fail its minorities- be it on grounds of gender, caste, religion or another. 

Though the modern, urban Indian wants to believe it is a thing of the past, accomplished scholars continue to detail thousands of incidents of caste-based discrimination that plague all aspects of Dalit and tribal lives. Some of these take the form of microaggressions that are difficult to identify. Others are more explicit, yet the common thread is that discrimination continues to play a central role in the development and evolution of the Dalit identity. Yet, for the cause of Dalits to gain mainstream traction, it appears that explicit and gruesome violence has become a necessity. Centuries of oppression has led to the creation of a system that actively disenfranchises sections of the Indian population. 

Under the British raj, the Indian Forest Act displaced a series of scheduled tribes from their lands and livelihoods amidst large-scale opposition. The promise of independence did not, however, bring about any change in the functioning of the still-extractive state machinery. Though the early Congress governments paid lip-service to environmental conservation, they continued to profit off of these institutions that they had  inherited from the Empire. To many, independence from the British did not deliver the freedom from oppression they so greatly craved. It merely saw a change in the colour of the skin of the oppressor. The capture of institutions by the elite has only worsened as India opened itself up to the world, and it’s showing no signs of decline. To merely understand this as a class problem would be an incredible disservice to the complex social hierarchies that continue to govern Indian society. 

A survey from 2015-17 showed that Upper Caste Hindus owned 41% of total assets. The Indian caste identity is and should be integral to our understanding of class and poverty. The disenfranchisement runs deep – it includes negligible access to education, a denial of equal treatment, and an inability to move on from the idea of birth ascribed occupations. In an India that is still governed by deeply entrenched social hierarchies and does not give its people equal social and economic opportunity, meritocracy simply becomes a farce. In our India, where the police seize the phones of a Dalit victim’s grieving family to muffle press coverage, where only minority activists face the wrath of the state machinery, where outdated and patriarchal notions of ‘strong men’ continue to guide electoral politics and where majoritarianism rules the roost, the façade of equality has well and truly taken its last breath. 

Yet, every once in a while, you will see a tacit shift in the conversation. In early 2020, the CAA brought together the youth and minorities of this country in a way that neither thought possible. Last year, the rape and subsequent murder of Priyanka Reddy made the front pages of most newspapers. In 2012, India had a moment, insensitively christened the ‘Nirbhaya moment’, which was supposed to wake us up and bring forth change. This idea of change remained just that- an idea. The collective does not seem to seek justice, it  looks for displays of violent and public vengeance. Symptomatic of the ‘male saviour’ mindset that plagues our society, the death penalty and enraged calls for castration doth not mindsets change. 

Yet, with the coming of a new regime, it appears as if the chinks have developed in our ability to have collective outrage. Shock at the creation of a ‘Hindu Ekta Manch’ to defend the criminals that saw it fit to abduct, sexually abuse, and murder an8-year-old minor in cold blood in Kathua has given way to a sense of resignation. While disgust at the audacity of defenders persists, it no longer shocks us like it used to. Forceful cremations, carried out in the dead of the night in the enforced absence of a grieving Dalit family, would never have seen the light of the day were it not for the chance presence of a citizen. The UP police’s subsequent denial that there never was a rape,  and the claims that the narrative is being manipulated.  This, coupled with the imposition of yet another communications blackout by the regime, muffling the cries of the victim’s family amidst allegations of police intimidation and violence should jarr any free democracy. It  looks clear then–  India no longer fits the bill.  

The fact that this country has such a short attention span is concerning, but that it needs visceral imagery of atrocities to introspect is  distressing. What use is this graphic imagery, forgotten to the annals of history till the next time a story of assault gains virality, if innumerable cases of sexual and physical assault go unreported? What use is this reflection if it leads to twitter trends, but the status quo does not yield? With no real breakthrough or transformation in sight, a protest for the idea of a ‘real’ India goes on. In the face of abject hopelessness, this takes up more meaning than ever before. And dramatic as it may be, the one thing that should be kept in mind till we find the breakthrough- Never forget, India. And never forgive.   

Aryaman Sood is a third year student of Economics and International Relations at Ashoka University.

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