Lynchings: Public Celebration of the Suffering of the Marginalized

On 15th October 2002, between 9 pm and 10 pm, five Dalits — Dayachand, Virender, Totaram, Raju and Kailash — were lynched in Duleena village, Jajjar district, Haryana, by a frenzied mob for the “speculated crime” of cow-slaughter, while the police and administrative officials – DSP, SHO Sadar, Jajjar, and three executive magistrates: the City Magistrate, BDO, Naib Tehsildar – stood by and watched.1 These Dalits, who were leather traders and were arrested on the same day by the police and kept in the police station for carrying the corpse of a cow, were dragged out (or allowed by the police to be dragged out, or handed over by the police to the mob?) of the police station onto the main road by the violent mob, armed with iron rods, spears etc, and beaten to death. This mob was led by the Hindu communal forces like Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena, Jhajjar Gurukul and Gauraksha Samiti, who controlled the mob and directed their ire against the Dalits.1

The very first response of the VHP and the Gauraksha Samiti was to glorify the killings as just retribution for the “sin” of cow-slaughter.2 The social identity of the victims appeared unimportant, except that they were possibly cow-slaughterers. For them human life was not valuable. This was confirmed by the statement of the VHP President Giriraj Kishore, “The life of a cow is more precious than that of a human being.”2 Mind you, only the lives of Dalits (and Muslims) are less precious than that of a cow.

In the wake of the lynching of the Dalits a postmortem was conducted on the cow and the report disproved the allegations made by the Hindu communal forces that the Dalits were engaged in the cow-slaughter! What is questionable is: why didn’t the police confirm the allegations before the innocent Dalits were lynched? Why didn’t they shift the Dalits to a safe place in view of the perceived threat to their prisoners’ lives?

The lynching of the five Dalits is neither the first nor the last in the casteist Indian society. The lynching of Dalits exposes the fact that the caste-based violence is still alive and kicking and ubiquitous even in the 21st century “modern” and “developed” India.

Discrimination, oppression, subjugation, and violence are diseases of a culture. No matter what culture you are talking about, it is always a problem when human beings treat other human beings as inferior or as less than human, and expect people to stay in a subhuman state. Such a mindset contributes to atrocities such as lynching. That’s why lynching happens in the casteist Indian society! That’s why lynching happens in the racist American society!3

What is Lynching?

Lynching is a term that can be applied to whipping, shooting, stabbing, as well as hanging. It is an extralegal or extrajudicial execution carried out by a violent mob. In most cases this is done in order to intimidate a minority group, or to punish an alleged transgressor. It is an extreme form of social control by a dominant community.

Lynchings have been more frequent in times of social and economic tensions and have often been a means for a dominant group to suppress challenge from a minority group. However, lynchings also result from long-held prejudices and practices of discrimination and domination based on caste or race or class that have conditioned societies to accept this type of violence as normal practices of popular justice.

In India Dalit men are beaten to death, and Dalit women are stripped, paraded, mocked, spat upon, raped and hanged to death. That means, lynching is a “ritual celebration of ‘high caste’ supremacy and dominance,” as in the US it was a “ritual celebration of white supremacy and dominance.”4 This ritual used to attract up to 20,000 celebrants, including women and children in the US. African Americans were stripped, paraded, mocked, whipped, spat upon and tortured for hours in the presence of jeering crowds. Often the victim’s body parts were taken as souvenirs to show to those who were absent from the spectacle.5

Public celebration of pain, agony, torture, and death of a fellow human being is a symptom of sickness at the core of a human being and a society. Only in a sick culture can the pain, agony, torture, and death of a fellow human being become public entertainment and an exhibition of supremacy of a dominating community.

The purpose of lynching is similar to that of crucifixion in the ancient world – to exhibit supremacy and dominance through violence. However, lynching is carried out by a violent mob of the dominant community with the tacit approval of the state and its agencies, whereas crucifixion was employed by the state or the occupying empire.

Crucifixion in Ancient World

In the ancient world the supremacy and dominance of the state or the ruling powers was displayed through various forms of punishment to criminals, insurrectionists, slaves, and foreigners. In order of increasing severity, the aggravated methods of execution were decapitation, burning, and crucifixion.

Crucifixion was an act of nailing or binding a living victim or sometimes a dead person to a cross, stake, or tree. It was practiced throughout much of the ancient world. As a method of execution, crucifixion was employed among Persians, Indians, Assyrians and others, and later among Greeks, Jews, and Romans.6 Crucifixion was a public spectacle accompanied by torture and shame – one of the most humiliating and painful deaths ever devised by human beings.5

The act of crucifixion was heinously cruel. The crucified person experienced slow death due to either shock or a painful process of asphyxiation as the muscles used in breathing were exhausted. That’s why Roman citizens, particularly members of the upper class, were generally spared from this form of execution, no matter what their crimes were. Crucifixion was largely reserved for those of lower status – dangerous criminals, slaves, and foreigners.7 The state or the rulers used it as a deterrent against open resistance to its authority and power.

In order to send a stern warning to public, crucifixion was made a public affair. Naked and fastened to a stake, cross, or tree on the busiest road, the crucified person was subjected to savage ridicule by passersby.6

Moreover, under Roman practice the crucified person was denied burial. The corpse was left on the cross as carrion for the birds or just to rot. In this way, the general populace was reminded of the fate of those who resisted or challenged the authority and power of the state.

Among Jews, crucifixion was occasionally practiced during the Hellenistic-Hasmonean period. The Sadducean high priest Alexander Janneus (in office 103-76 BCE) had 800 Pharisees crucified and ordered their wives and children slaughtered before their eyes as they hung dying. According to Jewish law, the corpses of executed idolaters and blasphemers were hanged on a tree to show that they were accursed by God (Deuteronomy 21.22-23).8

Whether living or already dead, the victims suffered brutality, shame, and a loss of all dignity.

Lynching and Caste

The lynching of the five Dalits by the violent mob in Duleena, Haryana reflects widespread crimes and atrocities against Dalits, not only in Haryana, but countrywide over the years. Raping of minors as young as a five-year-old Dalit girl, gang-rapes, murders, and mutilating and cutting hands, legs and genitals of children, adults and the elderly, and parading Dalit women naked in broad daylight in the presence of the entire village are a few examples of thousands of organised caste brutality against Dalits.9

Comparing the period 2004-2013 to 1994-2003, reveals that crimes and atrocities against Dalits in Haryana have gone up by about two-and-a-half times. Figures compiled by National Confederation of Dalit Organisations (NACDOR) from National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports suggest a manifold increase in the number of cases related to assault, murder, and sexual assault of Dalit women, especially incidents of gang rapes. According to data released by NACDOR, a total of 3198 cases related to atrocities on Dalits have been registered between 2004 and 2013 as against 1305 from 1994 to 2003.10

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) Report for the year 2013, the total number of crimes committed in India against the SCs (Scheduled Castes) in 2013 is 39,408 as against 33,655 in 2012. Thus, there is an increase of 17.1% in crimes committed against the SCs. In terms of number of crimes committed against the SCs, the states that top the list are: Uttar Pradesh (7078), Bihar (6721), Rajastan (6475) and Andhra Pradesh (3270). However, in terms of the rate of crimes (number of crimes as against the SC population in the state) the states that top the list are: Rajastan (52.98%), Goa (47.1%), Bihar (40.2%), Odisha (36.1%), Gujarat (29.2%). A total of 2073 rapes of SC women were reported in India in 2013 as compared to 1576 cases in 2012 — an increase of 31.5%. The region of Madhya Pradesh tops the list with 397 reported cases, followed by Uttar Pradesh with 391 reported cases. A total of 189 cases of arson were reported in 2013 as compared to 214 cases in 2012, thus there was a decline of 11.7%. Bihar has reported the highest number of 51 cases, followed by Uttar Pradesh (29 cases) and Rajastan (26 cases). These three states accounted 56.1% of total arson cases reported in the country. However for various reasons, not every crime against the SCs is reported by the victims to the concerned authorities.11

Beating, killing, rape and sexual violence of Dalit women, and damaging their property are pervasive, systematic, and routine in India. A Dalit can be lynched for any perceived “offence” in the eyes of the high castes. Nowadays it seems the killing of Dalits is not so extraordinary an occurrence that it requires an explanation. It has become so normal that it hardly surprises or attracts much attention. High-caste status alone is licence enough to beat Dalits and rob them of every vestige of dignity. In Karamchedu (AP), Tsunduru (AP), Khairlanji (Maharashtra), Badaun (Haryana), Bhanwari (Rajastan), Mirchapur (Haryana) – different states at different times — the story is same throughout the vast expanse of the “largest democracy” in the world.

Bearing witness to countless incidents of caste violence mirrors the caste-ridden Indian society where “castes form a graded system of sovereignties, high and low” and power is asserted through various forms of violence along the ladder of graded inequalities.12 Caste system gets its strength through subordinating the dominated castes, and in turn sanctions power to the dominant castes over the dominated castes.

Caste, an age old social hierarchy, enjoys sanction of Hindu religion. It stratifies and discriminates more than 20 crore Dalits in India. The purity and pollution concept, based on Varna theory and geared up by four-fold creation theory of Hinduism — as defined in Rig Veda13 — bred casteism and untouchability that dehumanises Dalits to undergo social exclusion, occupational segregation, economic and political power deprivation.14 The Varnashramadharma formulates where Dalits should reside, their occupation, access to resources and powers, whom to marry, and where to be buried. It denies Dalits the right to touch and to be touched and forces them to remain as “untouchables,”15 to live mainly as manual scavengers, sweepers, gutter/drainage cleaners, cobblers, cremators, drum beaters for the funerals of dominant castes.16

Thus, Dalits are the deprived, dispossessed, and dehumanised section of Indian society. They are deprived of human dignity and rights and privileges that are being enjoyed by non-Dalits, dispossessed of access to and control over resources, and dehumanised by being outcasted and made untouchables. Further, in terms of culture, Dalits are also deprived of their own way of thinking, behaving, and living. Their perception about themselves and the society is imposed upon them by the dominant castes.

It is this individual and collective social and historical experience of exclusion, oppression, exploitation, shame, and brutality which sums up the lynching of Dalits by the dominant castes in India. Lynching is an event of high-caste supremacy and dominance with the Dalit oppression sanctioned by the Hindu religion and patronised by the Indian state.

Lynching is the high caste’s way of forcibly reminding Dalits of their inferiority and powerlessness. Bloodthirst in the name of a God, in defense of segregation, high-caste supremacy, and the purity of the high caste symbolize the lynching of Dalits and imposition of inferior status upon them. Dalits are publicly humiliated and subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty. The purpose is to strike terror in the subject community. It is to let the entierety of the Dalit community know that the same thing will happen to all who do not stay “in their place.” Lynching is a form of public announcement: Do not engage in subversion of the caste hierarchy as this person did, or else your fate will be similar. The point of the exercise is not the death of the “offender” as such, but getting the attention of those watching. Lynching is first and foremost addressed to an audience. It is intended to instil paralysing fear, silence, and passivity in the Dalit community.

Nothing is uglier and more terrifying than lynching in all of its forms: dragging, beating, burning, hanging, and shooting, as well as rape, torture, mutilation, and murder. Lynching represents the worst in human beings. One wonders how the dominant castes can live comfortably with that absurdity! The dominant castes have acted in a superior manner for so long that it has become difficult for them to recognise their arrogance, brutality, and inhumanity. That’s why there is very little apparent empathy regarding Dalit suffering in the dominant caste communities. Lacking empathy, they lack the passion to engage the unspeakable evil of lynching Dalits.

In the casteist Indian society in which the dominant castes are conditioned to see themselves as superior over Dalits, cruelty and degradation of Dalits fit easily in their mindset and value system. To see Dalits as persons deserving respect and dignity – to see them fully and equally human – would change the status quo!

Dalit Experience

For centuries Dalits have been treated in an inhumane manner. They are considered as “things” to be used, not as “persons” to be valued and respected. Dalits are, in fact, “casteless” people, as they don’t come under the caste structure of Hindu religion (only four castes come under caste structure: Brahmins, Kshathriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras). Dalits are traditionally assigned menial and degrading jobs. This is still followed in the present-day Indian society. The word “Dalit” connotes not just the “caste” of people, but a history of people who have been socially, economically, politically, and religiously crushed, and whose dignity, value, and rights have been trampled upon.

Dalits have also long been experiencing legal and extralegal high-caste terror. Deep wounds have been inflicted on them. The pain and suffering of Dalits did not end with Constitutional provisions and laws (Prevention of Atrocities (SC/ST) Act of 1989 and Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955 as amended in 1976). The violence and oppression of high-caste supremacy took different forms and employed different means to “keep them in their place.”

In temples, schools, colleges and universities, and in the political and social life of the nation, people of the dominant castes do not want to allow “untouchables” to associate with them as equals. Many feel that if lynching is the only way to keep the Dalits subservient, then it is necessary.17 For them lynching is an efficient and honourable act of justice. Impunity is guaranteed to perpetrators through police complicity or calculated inaction, through prosecutorial negligence, through judicial misdemeanour, and through the disabling of justice claims in constitutional courts with easy recourse to legal technicalities.

Assured of no governmental interference, the high castes are free to stop Dalits from attaining social, economic, and political equality by resorting to mob violence – excluding Dalits in the decision making bodies, forcing them to work in their field with low wages, resorting to social boycott, creating a rigid segregated society in which being a Dalit is a badge of shame and suffering with no meaningful future.

When Dalit men are lynched, Dalit women not only suffer the loss of their sons, husbands, brothers, fathers, uncles, nephews and cousins but also endure public insults and economic hardship as they try to carry on, to take care of their fatherless children in a patriarchal and casteist society in which dominant castes can lynch them and/or their children with impunity at the slightest whim or smallest infraction of the Indian castesist etiquette.

Powerlessness in the face of the ever present threat of death has compelled Dalits to silently bear the oppression, shame, and pain. It is descending into a pit of despair, of nothingness, what the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard called “sickness unto death,” a “sickness in the self” – the loss of hope that life can have meaning in a world full of trouble.5 Oppression follows them everywhere, like a shadow they can not shake. Dalits have come to know what it is like to be crucified.

When Dalits are challenged by caste supremacists with lynching, where can they turn to for hope that their resistance would ultimately succeed? Penniless, landless, and with very little or no political and social power in the society, Dalits can do very little to protect themselves from high-caste violence that has tacit state support. To keep hope alive is not easy for Dalits, facing state-endorsed terrorism nearly everywhere in India. The history of Dalits is enough to make any Dalit to lose meaning in an absurd world of dominant caste supremacy.

What is the meaning of this unspeakable Dalit suffering?

It is difficult to escape bitterness when we have eyes to see and hearts to feel what others are too blind and too callous to notice. Most of us have eyes to see the Dalit suffering but lack the heart to feel it as our own. The majority of Indians have exhibited a staggering level of irresponsibility and immoral washing of hands. This reflects a deep moral crisis in India. Under these tragic circumstances bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems. The most urgent and most disgraceful, the most shameful, the most tragic problem is silence. This is the national crime!

The struggle to survive in a dominant caste supremacist society is a full time occupation for Dalits. But how to survive with one’s dignity intact — that’s the challenge. Women have an additional challenge of assuring not just their own survival but also the survival of their families.

Casteism

The essence of casteism is high-caste supremacy and power. It is the high-caste supremacy and power to keep Dalits out of a home, out of a job, out of a village or town, out of a place of worship, out of access to resources. It is the high-caste supremacy and power that suppresses the voice of Dalits, exploits their cheap labour, and blocks their upward mobility. It is the high-caste supremacy and power that crushes the dignity, values and rights of Dalits. The high-caste supremacy tries to ensure that they remain supreme, that Dalits will not reach their level and remain subservient. It creates barriers for the upward socio-economic mobility of Dalits by depriving them of education, property, and political power. Thus, a caste system is not just a religious system, but also a socio-economic system much worse than slavery.

However, a revolutionary change has taken place in the self-perception of Dalits of their own nature and destiny. Once they thought themselves as inferior and patiently endured injustice and exploitation. That Dalit perception of themselves has begun to change slowly but steadily. Myriad factors have come together to cause Dalits to take a new look at themselves. Individually and as a group they have begun to re-evaluate themselves. And they have come to believe that the important thing about a person is “not his specificity but his fundamentum,” not his “caste” but the quality of his person18 – his attitude, worldview, values and conduct. They have realised how the biased interpretation of religious scriptures, and the money, muscle and political power have “assigned” them an inferior place in the society and continued to keep them in their “assigned place” for so long. This realisation has naturally prompted them to actively oppose the religiously and politically sanctioned injustice, inequality, oppression, exploitation, and marginalisation, and to assert their humanity, rights, and worth. This perception and active opposition of Dalits is subverting the status quo of the caste-infected Indian society.

Circumstances have forced and also motivated Dalits to work hard to come out of their “assigned place.” As a result their economic life has begun to rise gradually, their crippling illiteracy has begun to decline gradually.

As long as Dalits maintained their subservient attitude and accepted their “assigned place,” a sort of “casteist peace” existed in the caste-infected Indian society. But it was an uneasy peace in which the Dalit was forced to submit to insult, injustice, and exploitation. It was an uneasy peace in which the Dalit was forced to keep silent as Dalit dignity, value, and rights were crushed. It was a negative peace. True peace is not merely the absence of some negative force like tensions. It is the presence of some positive force – justice, equality, and brotherhood.

The sense of self-respect and sense of dignity, the assertion of their constitutional rights, particularly the right to equality, and the determination to come up economically and educationally on the part of Dalits have undermined the non-Dalit Indian society’s negative peace since the high caste have refused to accept the change. The tensions in caste relations and the lynchings that are witnessed today can be explained in part by this revolutionary change in the Dalits’ perception of themselves and their determination to struggle and sacrifice until walls of segregation, injustice, and exploitation have been finally crushed by the battering rams of justice.

The tension is between justice and injustice. Privileged groups rarely give up their privileges without strong resistance. When Dalits demand justice and reject high-caste dominance, they are met with violence, and threatened with reprisals to “teach Dalits a lesson” that they should “keep to their place.”19 The beginning of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was more a reaction to low castes coming up in the society. With independence and the establishment of the Indian Constitution, the march of Dalits towards equality took the next step aided by the affirmative action provided by the Indian Constitution. The changes in social scenario by 1980s led to a situation whereby high castes felt that this undeserving section is being treated like “sons-in-law” of the governments in matters of education and jobs. They felt that their “deserving” children were not able to get their due share of admissions and jobs. The result was anti-Dalit violence in Ahmedabad in 1980s.

The high caste resort even to lynchings to stop Dalits developing economically and educationally, so that the latter will never reach their level and challenge high-caste supremacy. This is the underlying cause of some of the lynchings that have happened across India and of the real situation in educational institutions.

Inter-Caste Marriages

The recent development of Dalits economically and educationally, due to moving from farm labour into various forms of urban or migrant work, is creating a situation of conflict with the landowning higher castes. Quietly and gradually, Dalits are escaping forms of dependence and in so doing are posing a challenge to the caste hierarchy. One factor fuelling the animosity of the dominant castes is that Dalits no longer act as submissive agricultural labourers in their fields. This resentment feeds into a sense of high-caste insecurity. This sense of insecurity is intensified as the Dalit men marry dominant caste women. This intensified insecurity may be captured in the slogan, “First our jobs, and now our women.” Women’s bodies, here, serve as the embodied markers of caste purity. When a Dalit man marries a dominant-caste woman, it threatens the caste identity and its purity. Caste prejudice and caste as a relationship, as Baba Saheb Ambedkar pointedly asserted, rest upon endogamous marriages.20

In the high-caste imagination, Dalits are the most serious threat to the virtue of high-caste women and the sanctity of the high-caste home. Because of their perceived threat to high-caste womanhood, Dalits must be monitored and violently kept in their place, segregated, and subordinated. Sexual intercourse between a Dalit and a high-caste woman is viewed as the worst crime that a Dalit could commit against high-caste purity. This is used as a justification for lynching. It is the moral responsibility of high-caste men to protect the purity of their caste by any means.

Inter-caste marriages have always been resented by casteists all over India – parents, caste organisations/societies, and political parties. The recent death of Illavarasan, a young Dalit man in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district, highlights once again the vice-like grip of caste prejudice.

E. Illavarasan, 23-years old, belonged to the Nathan Dalit colony. He eloped and married the Vanniyar woman Divya on 14 October 2012. Vanniyar Sangham, the caste organisation of Vanniyars, coupled with Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the political party, opposed this particular marriage in a big way and tried to weave an anti-Dalit coalition of higher castes in the area claiming Dalit youth are weaning away “our daughters.” By invoking a sense of “wounded masculinity,” PMK has established a new role for its youth, that of “boundary setters,” and a vigilante role.21 For women, seen as transgressing community norms, there is a high price to pay. The marriage of Illavarasan and Divya had become a pretext to “teach Dalits a lesson.” PMK founder S. Ramadoss expressed his ire toward Dalits and demanded dilution of the law aimed at curbing anti-Dalit atrocities (i.e., Prevention of Atrocities (SC/ST) Act of 1989).22

Weeks after the marriage of Illavarasan and Divya, the Vanniyars had a meeting in Divya’s natal village of Sellankottai, and constituted a kangaroo court consisting of members of the Vanniyar community. This court instructed the Dalits to send back the girl. Divya firmly refused to return to her parents’ house and on the same evening her father Nagarajan committed suicide over this “humiliation.” On 7 November 2012 three Dalit settlements of Natham, Kondampatti, and Annanagar Inaikkankottai in the Dharmapuri district, faced an organised attack at the hands of Vanniyars. Of the 500 houses in the three settlements, over 268 were damaged/burnt. The mob, armed with weapons and petrol bombs, indulged in a four-hour-long rampage. They looted and set the houses on fire. It was not a spontaneous outburst of anger but a planned attack. The political outfit PMK has been accused of spearheading the attack.22

All reports of the mayhem pointed to a single fact. Apart from giving verbal assurances and holding out promises, the police took no preventive action. Dalit leaders and intellectuals have seen in this violence signs that it was the economic prosperity of the Dalits that was the real target of such attacks.23

Coming under the tremendous pressure, and perhaps feeling guilt over her father’s death, Divya finally decided to sacrifice “love and my marriage” for the sake of a society that is caste-obsessed, and she returned to her mother.24

On 4 July 2013 the dead body of Illavarasan was found in a culvert in Dharmapuri. His death has been a focus of debate, as police claim it to be a “suicide,” while his family suspect it to be a “murder” dressed up as “suicide.”25 This brutally underscores the continuing tragedy of young married couples being wrenched apart by caste and political pressures. When one of the partners is a Dalit, high-caste mob fury comes as an inheritance.

Krishnan, Divya’s village landlord, said, “The lower castes are now well educated and they are better off financially, which is a good thing. Love happens at a certain age. This one became tragic because of outside interference.”

C. Lakshmanan, assistant professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, who organised a seminar to look at the history of various commissions which were set up to look into cases of Dalit atrocities, points out a very startling fact. According to him, not a single person has been punished for atrocities against Dalits in the last 70 years, though a dozen or so commissions of enquiry have been set up. Furthermore, not even one member of these commissions has been a Dalit!25

The deep rooted caste prejudices prevalent in the populace were best underlined at the time of 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami when Dalits were again discriminated against by the higher castes, though both the communities were the victims of Tsunami. A newspaper reported: “Tsunami can’t wash this away: Hatred for Dalits: In Ground Zero, Dalits thrown out of relief camps, cut out of food, water supplies, toilets…” The main news in another newspaper revealed: “The centuries old prejudice against the ‘lower communities’ was perfectly intact despite an unprecedented tragedy called Tsunami.”25

Economic Success of Dalits

The critical plight of Dalits’ economic position has been the issue of landlessness. In an agricultural society like India, land is an important consideration. Dalits are predominantly a rural people. About 89% of them still live in villages. More than half of them are landless, 26% are marginal farmers. It is widely acknowledged that the caste issue is entangled with the skewed distribution of land or the high incidence of landlessness of Dalits. The landed high caste has deprived Dalits of owning land or property of any kind. This is to ensure continuous supply of permanent cheap labour force. Landless and dependent, Dalits lead an economically unfree and impoverished life.

It is also an undeniable fact that Dalits have suffered displacement from the land through the ages. The land occupied by them has always been seized at the flimsiest excuse, forcibly or through economic strangulation. The right to hold land of these groups has always been tenuous at best.

The powerful high-caste peasantry in India, particularly in Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh and Rajastan, have forced the land reforms in India to fail. Dalits have been demanding their land rights for years, but the powerful Jat community in those states is influencing the government not to respond to the Dalit demand.

On 21 May 2012 Dalit families were thrown out of the village of Bhagana, Hissar district, Haryana, by the powerful high-caste Jats. Dalits have demanded their land rights. In response the Jats imposed an economic and social boycott on the Dalits. It was clear that Jats were not happy with the growing assertiveness of the Dalits. Villages in these parts of India are ruled by “khap panchayats” or “high caste panchayats”. Huge tracts of village land are available in Haryana. First Rs. 1000 was collected from Dalits in the name of land allotment, but that never happened. These khaps of 58 villages have asked the government not to distribute village community land to Dalits.

Dominant castes will not tolerate if Dalits grow economically. Lynching often is triggered by envy of the economic success of Dalits. The dominant castes detest the idea that Dalits are equal to them. The Bhotmange family paid dearly for their resistance to the high-caste supremacy. The struggle that led to the annihilation of the entire family, except one member, was a struggle against caste domination by challenging its supremacy through education and small attempts at building family assets in their native village Kherlanji.

Kherlanji is a village of 780 people, about 170 households, in the Bhandara district of Maharashtra. The Bhotmange family was one of the three Dalit families in a village dominated by high castes. The family consists of Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange, his wife Surekha Bhotmange (45), two sons Sudhir (23) and Roshan (21), and a daughter Priyanka (17). Bhaiyyalal and Surekha had the courage to live like their higher-caste peers by sending their children for higher studies and acquiring a plot of land. Although Roshan was blind and Sudhir a university graduate, they both helped with farming the land. Priyanka was more ambitious – a top class 12 student and a National Cadet Corps cadet. The Bhotmange family originally had 7 acres where they tended to paddies and cotton. Two acres were taken away in 1996 to build a road so that neighbouring farmers from the high castes could drive their tractors through the land.26

All these indicators of upward mobility seemed to have earned the wrath of the high-caste villagers. The Bhotmange family had been facing oppression from the entire village for 17 years.

The high-caste dominated village panchayat had consistently refused to enter Bhaiyyalal’s name in the revenue records, thereby preventing him from building a pucca house. On the two occasions when he tried to build it, the construction was forcibly demolished, and he was threatened with dire consequences if he ever attempted to build his house again. As a result they lived in a thatched hut.26

Siddharth Gajbhiye, a police patil (an associate of police hired on an honorarium), lived in the neighbouring village Ghusala. He was also a Dalit. He used to help the Dalit households who lived in constant fear of the high castes. Sidharth also helped the Bhotmange family protect a portion of their 5 acre land from being grabbed by villagers who wanted it for a waterway for their own fields. He also owned some 50 acres of land and employed labourers out of which quite a few were high-caste men from Kherlanji, which the high castes found hard to digest. This compounded the harassment of the Bhotmange family.26

On 3 September 2006 Sidharth was beaten up by 15 Kherlanji people. He complained to the local police. On 16 September, 12 culprits were arrested by the police because of the eyewitness accounts of Priyanka, Surekha, Sudhir, and Bhaiyyalal. This did not go well with the arrested. After being released on bail on 29 September 2006, they assembled around 40 villagers and planned to attack and murder Sidharth and his brother Rajan. But somehow Surekha and Priyanka got wind of it and they informed Rajan. Not finding Sidharth and his brother, and learning that they were informed about the looming attack by the Bhotmange family, the villagers became furious and sent their hoodlums to Bhotmange’s house with weapons of bicycle chains, axes, daggers, and sticks. Seeing the mob, Bhaiyyalal ran away. At home were Surekha and the children. They dragged all of them out of the house, stripped them and paraded them naked at the village square where the villagers watched. They tried to force Priyanka and Sudhir to copulate. When they refused, the villagers crushed Sudhir’s genitals. They gang-raped Priyanka, thrust sticks in her genitals and threw her dead body in the nearby canal. The other three dead bodies were hidden and later thrown in the canal. 26

Just prior to this crime happening, Sidharth informed the local police, but the police did not take immediate action. The next day when Bhaiyyalal narrated the story and filed a First Information Report, the police found the four bodies of the Bhotmange family. The medical officers performed the autopsy hurriedly and reported that the death was due to trauma and wounds on her body. Although there was a large incision on Surekha’s head, it was not reported. The local politicians are suspected of being complicit in inciting the villagers of Kherlanji against Bhotmanges.26

The reason for the lynching of the Bhotmange family is simple. Though Dalits, the Bhotmange family was economically independent and unwilling to be bullied by the high castes. They even provided education to their children. Thus, they had undoubtedly acquired some upward mobility – economically, educationally, and socially that higher castes fear. 26

The penalty for defiance of any kind by the Dalits across India, particularly subversion of the status quo, has often been a public lynching by bloodthirsty high-caste mobs. For Dalit women it is often much worse: humiliation, rape, mutilation, and a painful death.

Education

Baba Saheb Ambedkar was convinced that education was a powerful instrument of social change that could liberate the Dalits from centuries of prejudice, discrimination, and denial of access to common resources and public facilities and liberate them from economic exploitation.

Because of their economic conditions, 99% of Dalit students study in government educational institutions, most of which lack basic infrastructure.9 It is in such abysmal and oppressive conditions that Dalit boys and girls pursue their studies. The role of educational institutions has also been dubious. Ranging from overt discrimination and hostility in elementary schools, to covert discriminatory practices and policies at higher education institutions, Dalits continue to be subjected to a culture of hostility and indifference.

In 2009 India passed the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act. It provides free and compulsory education for children between 6 and 14 years of age. The Act also requires that every local authority ensure that children belonging to disadvantaged groups “are not discriminated against and prevented from pursuing and completing elementary education on any grounds.”

However, Navsarjan, a grassroots Dalit organisation working in more than 3000 villages and cities in Gujarat, produced “Voices of Children of Manual Scavengers,” a survey of caste based discrimination faced by children of manual scavengers (They are Dalits). Between 6 July and 9 August 2009, Navsarjan interviewed 1048 children between the ages of 6 and 17. The survey, which was conducted across 11 districts in Gujarat, reveals that teachers, local governments, and community members routinely subject the children of manual scavengers to discrimination and forced labour as part of their daily experience of attending school and living in their communities. They are forced to perform cleaning and scavenging work at schools. The testimonies reveal that teachers, school administrators, and other students deny Dalit children access to an equal education by systematically excluding them from opportunities and school activities and treating them as unequal, often resulting in an effective exclusion from school altogether. Discrimination undermines all aspects of their education and often causes them to drop out of schools altogether. “I used to sit in the front row of my class” explained one Dalit girl, “But the students complained that they were getting polluted. So the teacher started making me sit at the back… When I was grade 6, unable to bear anymore, I dropped out. I wanted to become a Nurse or a Doctor. But now all my dreams are broken.”

Even the 2012 study, commissioned by the government’s flagship education programme, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, found exclusionary practices in schools. The Human Rights Watch Report 2014 titled “They Say We’re Dirty”27 finds that discrimination takes various forms, including teachers asking Dalit children to sit separately and making insulting remarks. Teachers and other high-caste students address the Dalit students using derogatory terms for their caste. Dalit students are asked to sit separately for the mid-day meals in schools, and are not allowed to drink water from the same water container. In some schools, Dalit children are not considered for leadership roles. Many students are expected to perform unpleasant jobs such as cleaning toilets. Schools in marginalised neighbourhoods often have the poorest infrastructure and least well-trained teachers. Many have fewer teachers than required.

Such discriminatory treatment in schools discourages Dalit children from attending school regularly. The children stay away from school, fall behind in classes, and eventually drop out. An education activist in Bihar told Human Rights Watch, “Dalit children are made to feel inferior in schools and schools reinforce caste norms. When it comes to any manual work such as cleaning of classrooms or picking up garbage, it’s always the Dalit children who are asked to do it.”

These practices endanger children’s health, welfare and education, and help to perpetuate a caste system that continues to keep millions in a state of poverty and underdevelopment.

Despite the abolition of Untouchability by the Constitution of India, and despite the passage of numerous legislations classifying untouchability in any sphere as a cognizable offence, the heinous practice lives on and takes on new expressions.

The other instrument that the high caste uses to dissuade Dalit children from attending school is rape. Rape is not only an instrument of high-caste supremacy, but also a ploy to desist Dalits to attend school. Some organisations working for Dalit welfare termed atrocities as a ploy of high caste to deprive the Dalits from getting good education. Kalyani Menon Sen, an activist attached with the NGO Women against Sexual Violence and Repression, said: “Dalit children going to government schools in villages are the first layer of victims. They stop going to school after any girl falls victim of sexual offence. They are not rich enough to go to any other school. Hence, they will remain educationally backward. Once they are educationally backward, they will not be able to compete with upper caste or those socially superior to them. Hence, sexual offences against Dalits are being used as a tool now.”10

Police and the State

The police, as custodians of law, have a special role to protect the vulnerable sections of the population, in particular Dalits. However, physical and verbal abuse and intimidation of individuals by police on the basis of caste is commonplace not only for detainees but also for those who visit the police station to make a complaint.

There are many incidents in which police have reportedly beaten Dalits, including women, following requests by members of high-caste communities that they be punished. Dalit women are particularly vulnerable to sexual torture by law enforcement officials, often as a means to punishing male relatives or “teaching their community a lesson.” Many times the police have failed to register complaints of violence against Dalits to pursue investigations under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989 – even though well documented.9

60-year old Moolchand, a resident of Ballabgarh in Haryana, has lost faith in the police. Landlords of a nearby village have kept his 16-year-old daughter hostage for three months. Whenever Moolchand approaches police, the policemen start beating him up and sometimes senior officials make derogatory remarks because he is a Dalit. He says, “There is nobody in the village who will help me, simply because I am a Dalit. I know that my daughter is in the custody of landlords. Even the local police know that. When the landlords kidnapped my daughter, I lodged a complaint with the local police, but no action was taken against the landlords. After lodging several complaints, I requested police officials several times to rescue my daughter. But now the policemen have started abusing me. Sometimes they beat me and pass derogatory remarks against me and my community. Now with the help of the local police, the landlords have threatened me with dire consequences. I am worried about my wife and the other four children. The landlords sometimes threaten my family in my absence. I don’t know what to do.”9

The present police structure encourages discrimination by allowing police to act on the behest of particular powerful groups rather than to act lawfully in the interests of society as a whole. The prevalence of political interference and the influence of powerful individuals and groups in policing glaringly prove that the most socially and economically weak members of society are most vulnerable to abuses including torture and ill-treatment by police at the behest of these groups. Victims have nowhere to turn but to police to enforce laws designed to end discrimination. But police are not equipped or willing to do so. It is an enduring problem which can no longer be overlooked.9

Added to this is the State’s apathy in regards of Dalit rights. The State’s attitude has been lackadaisical regarding cases of Dalit atrocities. Instead of taking action against the guilty, the state has pressured the Dalits to come to terms with the guilty. In the administration of justice, police, prosecutors and judges fail to properly pursue cases brought by Dalits concerning discriminatory acts. This is evidenced by the high rate of acquittals and the large number of cases involving offences and atrocities against Dalits still pending before the courts.9

Conclusion

India’s national crime is the lynching of Dalits. It is not the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of people who openly avow that there is “unwritten law” that justifies them in putting Dalits to death without complaint under oath, without trial of jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right to appeal. The lynchers know very well that they have the blessings of the law-makers, the law-enforcers, and the administrators of justice.

High-caste supremacy has been the central organising principle of Indian life. We have it at our core that a certain group of people, who belong to certain “castes” must always be at the bottom of society – socially, economically, and politically. We should confront the religion-sanctioned institutional casteism that continues to pervade our society. From the segregation to the lynching of Dalits, we need to examine our motives more intently and reconcile the moral debt and psychological and economic damage inflicted upon generations of Dalits. A Dalit child that comes into this world is, because of the prevailing culture in this country, going to arrive with injuries that a high-caste child just isn’t. Until we directly confront the problem of casteism, we cannot rid society of it. To ignore the fact that one of the largest democracies in the world was erected on a foundation of high-caste supremacy is to cover the sin of national lying.

If high-caste Indians can look at the terror they have been inflicting on their own countrymen, women, and children – slavery, segregation, and lynching – and repent, then one can expect and experience democracy in India.

However, moral persuasion alone will never convince high castes to relinquish their supremacy over Dalits. Only Dalit power can do that. Because power concedes nothing without struggle. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”28

Kaj Munk, a Danish pator killed by the Gestapo in 1944, said, “What is therefore, our task today? Shall I answer: ‘Faith, hope and love’? That sounds beautiful. But I would say – courage. No – even that is not challenging enough to be the whole truth. Our task today is recklessness. For what we Christians lack is not psychology or literature… we lack a holy rage – the recklessness which comes from the knowledge of God and humanity. The ability to rage when justice lies prostrate on the streets, and when the lie rages across the face of the earth… a holy anger about the things that are wrong in the world. To rage against the ravaging of God’s earth, and the destruction of God’s world. To rage when little children must die of hunger when the tables of the rich are sagging with food. To rage at the lie that calls the threat of death and the strategy of destruction peace. To rage against complacency. To recklessly seek to change human history until it conforms to the norms of the kingdom of God (and its values of justice, love, compassion and equality).”29

  1. Lynching of Dalits at Jhajjar, Haryana.” [] []
  2. “Dalit Lynching at Dulina: Cow – Protection, Caste and Communalism.” People’s Union For Democratic Rights, New Delhi, February, 2003. [] []
  3. James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2014), p. 163. []
  4. To be clear, the writer does not subscribe to caste system and caste hierarchy, and neither to the notion of “high” and “low” hierarchies among humans. []
  5. James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. [] [] []
  6. Joel B. Green, “Death of Jesus,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. by Joel B. Green and Scott Mcknight (Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press, 1992), p. 147. [] []
  7. Joel B. Green, p. 148. []
  8. Gerald G. O’Collins, “Crucifixion,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. by David Noel Freedman, Vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 1207. []
  9. Narinder Kumar, “Dalit Atrocities in Haryana.” [] [] [] [] [] []
  10. Crimes against dalits rise 245% in last decade.” Times of India, 9 August 2014. [] []
  11. All the statistics that I have provided are related to Dalits, including arson. Damage to the property of Dalits is done by the “high caste” in order to put a dent to their economic status, so that they will not be equal to the “high castes”.
    See NCRB. []
  12. Ghanshyam Shah, ed., Caste and Democratic Politics in India (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2002), p. 104). []
  13. See Ralph T.H. Griffiith, The Hymns of the Rigveda, tenth book, hymn 90,verse 12, Vol. II, Second ed. E.J. Lazarus and Co. Benares, 1897, p. 519. []
  14. Satish Deshpande and Geetika Bapna, Report prepared for National Commission for Minorities, India, Delhi, 2008. []
  15. M.E. Prabhakar, “The Search for a Dalit Theology” in A Reader in Dalit Theology, ed. by Arvind P. Nirmal and V. Devasahayam (Madras: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College & Research Institute, 1996) p. 41. []
  16. Irudayam A., JayaShree, P.M and Joel G, Dalit Women Speak Out, NCDHR, 2006, p. 22. []
  17. There is something called “Honour Killing” in India. If a “high caste” person marries a “low caste” person, both will be killed. The “murder” of Illavarasan (Under the heading “Inter-Caste Marriages”) supports the point. In the case of the lynching of Bhotmange family members (Under the heading “Economic Success of Dalits”), the “high caste” celebrated their act, because they took it as the retributory justice. []
  18. Non-Violent Procedures to Inter-Racial Harmony.” []
  19. Ghanshyam Shah, Harsh Mander, Sukhadeo Thorat, Satish Deshpande and Amita Baviskar, Untouchability in Rural India (New Delhi: Sage Publication, 2006), p. 12. []
  20. Baba Saheb Ambedkar was the chairman of the committee that wrote the Indian Constitution. He was a Dalit from the state of Maharashtra. He is the father of Dalit movement. B.R. Ambedkar, “Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development.” []
  21. P.V. Srividya, “Lost in Caste Politics, A Woman’s Right to Choose Her Partner.” []
  22. “Fighting Caste Fighting Patriarchy” in Economic and Political Weekly, vol XLVIII(29), July 20, 2013 p. 6. [] []
  23. “Fighting Caste Fighting Patriarchy” in Economic and Political Weekly, vol XLVIII(29), 20 July 2013, p. 6. []
  24. Subhashini Ali, “Killing love with violence and politics.” []
  25. Subhash Gatade, “Pabnava To Natham: Whatever Happened to the Struggle for Annihilation of Caste?Countercurrents, 18 July 2013. [] [] []
  26. Atrocities against Bhotmange Family in Khairlanji.” [] [] [] [] [] []
  27. They Say We’re Dirty“: Denying An Education To India’s Marginalised. HRW, 22 April 2014. []
  28. Quoted in Johnnetta B. Cole and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Gender Talk: The Struggle For Women’s Equality In African American Communities (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2003), p. 217. []
  29. Quoted in Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution Living as an Ordinary Radical (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2006), p. 241. []
Kamalakar Duvvuru teaches the New Testament in India with an objective of promoting peace, justice, unity and love. He can be reached at: kamalakar.duvvur@gmail.com. Read other articles by Kamalakar, or visit Kamalakar's website.