India battled apartheid in the foreign soil of South Africa when they raised the issue on the agenda of UN General Assembly in 1948. But, the nation that took a principled stand against racial discrimination, interfering bravely in the internal affairs of a distant land, failed miserably to counter and control the raging apartheid within its borders. Even seven decades later, India’s caste malice still systemically oppresses one-fifth of its population. This article explores how the post-colonial affirmative actions against the Dalit oppression have proved to be India’s failed crusade against apartheid.
The meager Affirmative Action analyzed
India’s Constitution banned the practice of untouchability. The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, and the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, prescribe punishments from crimes against Dalits that are much more stringent than corresponding offenses under the IPC. Special courts have been established in major states for speedy trial of cases registered exclusively under these Acts. Despite the Constitutional protection and legal safeguards, let us look at some tell-tale numbers* on the issue:
- 37% of Dalits live below the poverty line,
- 54% are undernourished,
- 83 per 1,000 children born in a Dalit household die before their first birthday
- 45% of Dalit children remain illiterate
- Dalit children have been made to sit separately while eating in 39% government schools
- Dalits are denied access to water sources in 48% of our village
Let us also ponder on the contentious PoA act, on which the Supreme Court has recently imposed some restraints, leading to the current Dalit protests. (Read details here).
- The conviction rates under the Act are low at just 22.8% in 2013 and a pendency rate of 84.1%, compared to the conviction rate for general crimes under the Indian Penal Code that is nearly double at 40.2%
- According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, 14,318 crimes were committed against SCs in 1981; the number increased to 17,646 in 1991, 33,501 in 2001 and 33,719 in 2011.
How the Upper Caste views the Issue
Yesterday, while I was flipping through news of the Dalit protests, I chanced upon this 2017 article by Manik Sharma, that aptly captures how India’s upper-caste millennials view the caste situation in the country. The article hits the nail on the head. The only time ‘caste’ came up in my urban, middle-class, Bengali upbringing was when we discussed either admissions or marriage. We were miffed by the loss of ‘general’ seats as much as we opposed the idea of marrying someone of a lower caste! The fact that we were launching our opinions off an elevated platform of decades of privilege has been lost to most of us.
When stories of atrocious caste-based crimes come up, urban millennials disregard them as half-true, political drama. When Dalit men are thrashed because they cleared coveted IIT seats, or Dalit women are raped and paraded naked on the streets just because, we turn our heads away. Well, they got their reservation. What more could they really want?
The reservation system, as propagated by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, has led to the emergence of a Dalit middle class, who have struggled against ages of oppression to garner some economic mobility. But, even for the handful who have risen, the same has not translated into social mobility.
Anecdotally, let’s look at Dr. Vinod Sonkar, who has a Ph.D. in Law and a teaching position at Delhi University. In a Rajasthan teashop, the professor was asked to wash his teacup after use, since the stall owner wouldn’t wash after one of a ‘lower caste’. Now, imagine the plight of the uneducated and chained 200 million who are living in abject poverty. Nothing has changed for the vast majority of Dalits in India, suffering oppression, ridicule, and harassment based on a system that was created in ancient times.
Why the Protests are significant
The Supreme Court has passed a judgment to ban the automatic arrest of a non-SC/ST accused for cases of filed atrocities. The judgment is based on the flimsy idea that Dalits are ‘misusing’ the law to harass innocent citizens. There are only 10% mala fide cases registered against this act till date. Given the statistics, and the limited access that Dalits have to basic human rights in the country, it is a harsh position to take. It is time to wake up to the apartheid that we are all instrumental in. It is important to understand that infantile affirmative actions are pointless in the face of such deep malice. We need to empathize, reinforce available resources and fight with them, instead of against, if we have to eradicate the evil. It is time we abolish caste instead of wedging the gap further. The test of modern India lies in its ability to identify its own privilege and deal with the inequality and injustice that has become woven into its social fabric.
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*According to the NHRC statistics put together in 2010 by K.B. Saxena, a former additional chief secretary of Bihar