10 August, 2016, Gunnaur, a village in Uttar Pradesh: Thirteen-year-old Sudha is helping her father Charan Singh plough his field. Thirsty, she goes to a hand pump in front of a temple nearby. “The moment I touched the pump, the temple priest screamed I had polluted the water,” she tells the media later. She is, of course, a Dalit.
Sudha runs back to her father, crying. Charan Singh instantly goes and confronts the priest, only to be beaten up roundly — and with a trident too — by the priest and his lackeys. Sudha raises the alarm and other Dalits — only a handful as it’s mainly a Yadav village — intervene.
Sudha’s father is not cowed. He goes to the police to lodge an official complaint. The police try to persuade him to “compromise”, but neither he nor his fellow Dalits relent. At last a case is registered against the priest and his aides under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
Has this tale left you depressed? One more in the never-ending catalogue of atrocities against Dalits, you feel? That too, less than a week after the prime minister’s earnest plea, “If you want to attack, attack me and not Dalits. If you want to shoot, shoot me and not Dalits.” Are you wringing your hands and wondering, is there any hope for this country at all?
Well, take heart, there is hope; a great deal of hope in fact. Both the prime minister and you should be exhilarated by Sudha’s story. And similar tales that have been flooding the media in the last few months. The Dalits are rising — and they are doing so peacefully, non-violently, on their own steam and not under the aegis of any particular political party. Rohith Vemula did not die in vain, the quartet in Una can find some solace in the mindless cruelty inflicted on them by Hindutva goons.
Sudha or her father’s torment is nothing compared to the fate of Dalit women, who are routinely raped and murdered (at times even for just being the sister of a man who had eloped with a “caste Hindu”), or Dalit children who are burnt alive, or Dalit boys who can call themselves fortunate for living to tell the tale of their being thrashed to an inch of their lives by their teachers for touching the mid-day meal plates in school, or Dalit men for just being what they are by birth, Dalits.
Crimes that went mostly unreported, un-investigated and, needless to add, untried in any court of law. They certainly did not become national news unless something particularly dastardly happened — mass killings, say, or gangrape, or the flogging of four scavengers in Una, but that too because the perpetrators had filmed and broadcast their “achievement” in full technicolour.
Yet, Sudha and her father’s run-in with the local priest, something that would hardly have raised eyebrows till recently, did. Sudha’s farm-labour father refused to be browbeaten by so-called superiors, the police did take note of his complaint, the local ANI stringer reported it in a series of tweets, the media across the country picked it up, it was news even amidst such blockbuster headline grabbers as GST and Kashmir. Dalit atrocities, of whatever nature, cannot be dismissed lightly any more. If this is not an occasion to rejoice, what is?
The National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) data shows a significant increase in crimes against those belonging to the Scheduled Castes community. The Centre itself has flagged the “anomaly and sudden increase” in crimes against people belonging to Scheduled Castes in Gujarat and Chhattisgarh and sought details from the local administration. Gujarat and Chhattisgarh have reported the highest crime rates of 163.30 percent (6,655 cases) and 91.90 percent (3,008 cases) against members of SC community during the last year.
It could be of course that Dalits are being targeted more as they are becoming more and more aware and assertive of their rights and entitlements. Especially in an atmosphere where certain ruling party elements have appointed themselves protectors of the majority religion, even if that means a throwback to practices that are long past their sell by date and definitely against current legal and humanitarian concepts. It could also be that more and more Dalits are feeling emboldened enough to seek justice, forcing the police to take their cases and pursuing them further — just as with women and rape.
Not just that, in their determination to announce to the country that Dalit lives matter, the most disadvantaged and derided sections of our society have come up with unusual methods to do so. The decision to leave dead cows untouched, not just in Una but in several part of the country, is one such — no violence, no harsh words even, only satyagraha. Gandhigiri at its best. Leaving civic bodies gasping for breath.
Similarly, have the Sarvaiyas of Gujarat. According to a report in Thursday’s The Telegraph, this 14-member family of a 27-year-old burnt alive in his village near Una in Gujarat by members of the dominant Koli Patel community four years ago, have decided to go on a fast unto death at the foot of the Ambedkar statue in infamous Una from 12 August, so as “to be heard”.
Politicians, even Dalit politicians of mainstream parties, especially the BJP, which boasts of having the largest number of representatives from the Dalit and backward communities and which has the most at stake in the electoral battles ahead, have been caught unaware by this upsurge. And are clueless as to how to tackle it.
The BJP has reportedly asked its Scheduled Caste MPs to visit five constituencies each and make voters "aware that for the first time there is a government for the backward classes, tribal people and Dalits… That Rahul Gandhi and Mayawati took time out to go to Una in Gujarat, but have no time for the family of Jisha [a Dalit student, who was raped and murdered] in Kerala, and remain silent on atrocities on Dalits in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.” A hackneyed approach to a novel situation, to say the least.
The Dalit has had enough of being defined by others; he now wants to define himself. And the BJP with its strident Hindutva platform, despite its various outreach programmes, remains the party of the other, where one of its Dalit MPs, Udit Raj, has been openly heard saying, what to do, nobody listens to me.
The Dalit today no longer fits the timorous, hapless image that even the Una videos portray. As Dalit intellectual Chandrabhan Prasad says in an interview to BW BusinessWorld, “Dailt youths are discussing these [post-Una] issues over Facebook and WhatsApp. The smartphone-wielding Dalit youth doesn’t respect the hierarchies of yore. I was told during a research study that no one can dare touch a Dalit girl who uses a smartphone. Such is the degree of empowerment.” India, take note.