NEW DELHI – The president of India recently received a letter from a young man from the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. It included graphic details of how the writer said he was abused by the police in his village.
Vara Prasad, 22, said she was seeking permission from President Ram Nath Kovind to join the Naxalites, an outlawed Maoist rebel group fighting a guerrilla war against Indian security forces.
“The system of law and order has disappointed me,” said Prasad, a “Dalit” from the bottom rung of the caste hierarchy of India, in the letter dated 1
The Indian caste system – and the violence perpetrated against those at the base of the rigid inherited social stratification – were once again center stage.
Prasad lives on the banks of a delta stream of the Godavari, the second longest river in India. The river bed is a reservoir for rampant illegal sand extraction, controlled by powerful local political and business cliques.
“There was a death in our village that day,” Prasad told NBC News by phone, referring to July 19, the day before he was beaten by police.
“We were organizing the funeral when a truck of a local politician went by to get sand from the river bed. I asked them to wait a while while we moved the body. They didn’t listen, and there was an altercation.” .
In the ensuing melee, Prasad said, shots were exchanged and, according to his account, he was hit first. He also admitted that he damaged the truck’s windshield.
“They didn’t listen and the words came to blows,” he said. “The driver slapped me and I damaged his windshield.”
“The next day, I was taken to the police station,” he said. “The officers beat me and used the vilest curses. They called a barber and made him shave the top of his head and mustache. It was so humiliating. I wrote to the president to get attention.”
Local police acknowledge that the incident took place. In a two-page document, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, Shemushi Bajpai, the district police superintendent, said a departmental investigation found that Prasad had been the victim of “inhuman acts against a accused person “and the officer involved had been arrested.
Prasad claims he was a victim of Dalit.
The police filed a lawsuit against the officer in question under what is commonly known as the Atrocities Act, which specifically targets crimes based on the victim’s caste. It was an internal, departmental investigation.
Dalit is a word that can mean oppressed, broken or crushed and refers to those previously known by the dehumanizing term “untouchables”. Over the years, the community has chosen the term Dalit for itself, avoiding the official nickname Scheduled Castes. There are 200 million Dalits in India out of a population of 1.3 billion.
The Hindu caste system, in which identity and status are attributed at birth, dates back to an ancient Sanskrit text called “Manusmriti” (The Laws of Manu), and uses a doctrine of purity and pollution to classify people into four varna or castes. .
At the top are the Brahmins (priests), followed by Kshatriyas (soldiers / administrators) and Vaishyas (merchants), with Shudra (servants / workers) at the bottom. The Dalits are beyond the scope of this system, which considers them “untouchable”.
Untouchability was legally abolished in 1950 when India became a republic. In fact, it remains embedded in the psyche of India.
“Caste hate at work”
Beyond prejudice, Dalit activists see a more sinister agenda, tied to the ruling party Bharatiya Janata’s vision for a Hindu nation.
The BJP – or the Indian People’s Party – leads the alliance at the head of the central government. In his second consecutive term in power, he is known for his solid assertion of nationalism.
A party spokesperson denied that the Hindu nationalism of the BJP contributed to the increase in the number of attacks on Dalits.
“Ours is an inclusive nationalism,” Sudesh Verma, the party’s national spokesperson, said over the phone. “We believe all Indians are Hindu by descent.”
India, however, has a significant population of minorities, including around 194 million Muslims, which equates to 14.9% of the population. This is the second largest Muslim population of any country in the world after Indonesia, according to a Pew Research Center paper published in 2019. There are also around 28 million Christians and 20 million Sikhs.
For example, activists point to a wave of mass lynchings for beef, in which people were attacked and often killed out of mere suspicion.
Hindus worship the cow and its slaughter is illegal in most states.
The lynchings are carried out by vigilante groups; the victims are mainly Dalits and Muslims. Many of these events are filmed and broadcast widely on social media.
The president’s office said it forwarded Prasad’s letter to local government officials, asking them to investigate.
While the police officers involved were suspended and a departmental investigation ordered, Prasad says the policemen were following orders. He hopes the president’s directives will lead to action against villagers of ruling castes – those, he said, who instigated police brutality.
The note released by the police confirms Prasad’s accusation and names Kavala Krishna Murthy, a local man of the ruling Kapu – a caste of landowners – along with five unnamed people – as accused. The note says the complaint is under investigation. Murthy could not be reached for comment.
“This is caste hatred at work,” Prasad said.
Litany of violence
Prasad’s experience at the police station is just the latest in a long list of cases where Dalits have experienced violence in India.
India has a special status for dealing with crimes against the Dalits. Parliament passed the planned caste and tribes (atrocity prevention) law in 1989. Its existence is a recognition that Dalits experience disproportionate violence and hatred and the law targets crimes against the group. It also allows for quick trials, special courts and severe penalties. Prasad’s case was registered under this act.
But less than half of the cases go to court and the conviction rate was 15%, according to government data. A 2017 Interior Ministry document said that “despite the deterrent provisions introduced in the act, the growing atrocities … have been a cause for concern for the government.”
The National Crime Records Bureau publishes an annual “Crime in India” report. In its 2018 report, it lists 42,793 cases, meaning a Dalit was a target for crime, on average, every 15 minutes. The number of cases has increased by 66% over the past decade.
S.R. Darapuri, who uses his initials instead of his surname like many Indians, is a retired policeman, a member of the Indian police service. He is also a Dalit and spent his retirement campaigning for Dalits and minority rights.
“I know strength well, and caste prejudice is rife across all ranks,” he said by phone.
In addition to police violence, violence between castes is also widespread. Triggers can be harmless acts such as walking into a temple or falling in love.
In September 2018, 25-year-old Pranay Kumar was assassinated to death in broad daylight in the city of Miryalaguda, in the state of Telangana. His wife, Amruta, accused his father of hiring hitmen to kill Pranay because he was a Dalit. The father, Maruti Rao, was charged and he committed suicide while the case was still under discussion.
His funeral was broadcast live on local TV and was celebrated for his “fatherly love”. Amruta was trolled as an indifferent daughter and defamed on social media.
“We have seen the chaste face of the media and the public,” Kumar’s father Balaswamy, who has a name, said over the phone. “We don’t want revenge. We want this story to be known so that there can be an end to these castes and so-called ‘honor killings’.”
The history of India as a republic is littered with even more gruesome incidents. There have been Dalit massacres in distant states such as Tamil Nadu and Bihar, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. There was also reprisal violence.
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In 2016, in Una, a city in the state of Gujarat, seven members of a family were tied to a car and publicly flogged, stripped and marched naked into the city. They were skinning a cow, which they bought after she died. They were accused of slaughtering him.
In another incident in Jharkhand state in 2018, a BJP minister gave flowers to six men accused of lynching to celebrate their release on bail. There has been criticism from Dalit and minority activists, political opposition and media commentators that the ruling party has never clearly condemned these incidents.
In March 2018, the Supreme Court diluted some provisions of the Atrocities Act. It limited the powers of the police and introduced “safeguards” to protect those accused under the law. The ruling even suggested that some Dalits could have used the act as a weapon for blackmail and harassment.
Indian Dalits exploded in protest.
A national strike was announced for April 2, 2018, and thousands joined across the country. They blocked the railways and highways. There have been clashes with the police in several states and many incidents of violence and arson. Fourteen people died and several hundred were injured, according to Jignesh Mevani, 38, an independent lawmaker in the state of Gujarat, and a Dalit youth leader.
It was the first time that Dalit protesters have secured a nationwide blockade, Mevani said. And this, without the support of any major political party.
The protests galvanized the government. She filed a petition for review and went even further. The hastily drafted amendments to the act, annulling the judgment, were rushed to parliament. Eventually, the Supreme Court recalled its ruling in October 2019.
This was no small victory for the Dalit movement.
The BJP used his response to plan an increase in its share of Dalit votes in the 2019 election.
“Educated Dalits are no longer meek,” Mevani says. “They are organizing and demanding what is due. This is resented by the non-Dalit castes, exposing them to more violence, but we are not giving up.”
However, the road ahead for activists like him is fraught with danger, according to Darapuri, the retired police officer.
“The current dispensation operates on two levels: at the political level it uses rhetoric to court the Dalit vote, with great success,” he says. “But on the streets the vigilantes now feel encouraged and are more aggressive. They feel protected.”
The caste system also chases Indian communities as they migrate and settle overseas.
A recent poll of Dalits living in the United States said 25 percent of respondents reported experiencing verbal or physical assault and 60 percent caste-based derogatory jokes.
There have also been lawsuits filed in California against large IT companies for alleged caste discrimination against Dalit employees by their managers of other Hindu castes.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME at 741741, or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for more resources.