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India’s Achilles heel

Anisha George | Updated on April 20, 2018

Bottom rung: Data shows that most crimes against dalits have been perpetrated on women. Indian women hold candles and placards during a protest march against two recently reported rape cases .   -  Reuters

The failure to bridge gender and caste inequalities will impair India’s growth story irreparably

India is witnessing an intense summer of discontent. Barely a week apart from each other, the dalit protests against the dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and the anger against the Kathua and Unnao rape cases have raised the tempo of agitation and debate across the country. These two agitations speak to the two biggest structures of social inequality and injustice, among others: caste and gender. While many have predicted the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP)’s dubious stands on these fronts, the same maybe said for the future of one of the youngest populations in the world.

The Supreme Court judgement in Subhash Mahajan vs State of Maharashtra 2017 instituted a procedural safeguard, in a bid to arrest the alleged misuse of the Atrocities Act, deferring the immanent arrest of the accused pending a police inquiry. Far from protecting the innocent from false accusations, this would embolden perpetrators and create further hurdles in the path of those seeking justice. Predictably, the move was greeted with severe criticism and protest from dalits, adivasis and civil society in general, culminating in the massive Bharat Bandh on April 2, 2018 and prompting the government to announce a review petition against the Court’s order. A week later, news of two cases of rape of minor girls, one in Jammu and the other in Uttar Pradesh shook the nation.

Yet, beyond the immediate disturbing milieu, we need to confront the deeper malaise that pervades our society. In a country that exploits its deep-rooted sociopolitical inequalities, what keeps us from overthrowing our present political system is the continued domination of a class relegated to permanent servitude — dalits, adivasis, and women. Thus, crimes against these groups are perpetuated both as structural privilege and as a pedagogic exercise (to teach them a lesson as it were). Such acts operate within the feudal ethos syndromes of “honour” and “humiliation”. On a daily basis, it translates into a variety of practices — pollution-purity within the household and public spheres, surveillance of women’s mobility, devaluation of work for women and dalits, and the severe opposition to inter-caste marriages, among others. When multiple social deprivations or disabilities overlap, they produce such orgies of violence as the Mathura rape case, the Bhanwari Devi gang rape, the Manorama rape and murder, Khairlanji, Badaun, and Kunan Poshpora, among others. In India, diversity of identity has for long been brandished, even celebrated, to cloak the entrenched hierarchy and disparity.

It is telling that the allegations of the misuse of law in India have most commonly been heard and alleged in cases of domestic abuse and sexual harassment filed by women (citing fears of breaking up families and harassing innocent men) and in cases of atrocities filed by dalits (citing fears of perpetuating casteism and harassing neighbours).

Data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau reveals that crimes against dalits have been steadily increasing — 40,801 atrocities against dalits were reported in 2016, up from 38,670 in 2015. The data also revealed that most of the reported crimes against SCs were crimes against women, and that included assault, sexual harassment, stalking, voyeurism and insult to modesty. A reporting bias notwithstanding, these figures testify to the social reality of caste violence in modern-day India. With a conviction rate of less than two-three per cent, there is a swelling fearlessness of the law among the accused as well as hopelessness among dalits and women with regards to securing justice.

A close examination of either of the above categories gives us a sense of how difficult it is for victims to even file an FIR, no matter how grievous the crime and how difficult it is for the complainants, their families and supporters to keep up the fight in the face of social isolation while the perpetrators turn belligerent rallying wider support. Kathua and Unnao are but fine demonstrations of these struggles. The advocacy surrounding cases of sexual violence has been incredible, however we are a long way away from accepting the operation of caste in every sphere of life.

The present political moment calls for deeper introspection. Much time and energy has been wasted in the public and private realms negating the existence of caste and gender inequalities, and rather counter-intuitively arguing that reporting on these issues leads to the perpetuation of these structures. Such denial of systemic and structural violence must end to pave way for an examination of privileges and a commitment to justice. This must be abetted by stronger, not diluted, laws that capture the intersectional nature of caste and sexual violence in Indian society and reinstate the role of the state in mending social antipathies.

In his last speech to the Constituent Assembly in November 1949, Dr BR Ambedkar, warned his colleagues that “political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy.” His premonition captures the essential contradiction of the contemporary Indian polity. India’s growth story has hinged on its political resilience and robustness, internationally considered India’s ultimate advantage over China. The present developments undoubtedly raise fears over this aspect. What is at stake is not just the promise of India but the very idea of India.

Anisha George is assistant editor with the Economic & Political Weekly

Published on April 20, 2018

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