Dalits and the state

Published : Jul 08, 2000 00:00 IST

The failure of the Indian state to implement land reforms and give land to the landless has ensured the continuation of Dalit slavery.


THERE are numerous instances of the state machinery, mainly its law-enforcement wing, indulging in armed violence against Dalits. When culprits are identified they wield their institutional power to escape punishment. In a case relating to the murder of Lalji Choudhry in Lahra village in Uttar Pradesh's Ghazipur district, the principal accused was an Additional District and Sessions Judge. The U.P. Government, in cynical violation of an order from the Allahabad High Court that the case be transferred to the Crime Branch/Criminal Investigation Department (C.B./CID), has instead transferred it to the court at Varnasi, where the accused has the advantage of being a serving judge.

Very often the dominant castes have a reliable ally in the organs of the state. When Bhupinder Singh, belonging to the dominant Jat community in Babekar village in Rajasthan, forcefully took over the agricultural lands of the Dalits of the village, false charges were framed by the local police against the victims. When two Dalit girls were denied entry into the Kali temple at Survaniya village in Bihar in blatant violation of the Untouchability Act, the Additional Sub-Inspector booked the case as one of tension created by Dalits entering the temple with country-made pistols and sacrificing pigs. In case after case, the police and the revenue administration collude with the dominant castes, terrorise Dalits, raid their villages, beat them up, torture th em in police stations, drag their women to police stations and violate their modesty, parade them naked, heap obscene abuses on them, and in many cases rape them.

In the case of the massacre of eight Dalits in Tsundur in Andhra Pradesh on August 6, 1991, the trial is yet to begin. However, in the several cases registered against Dalits in the caste clashes that followed the massacre, the accused have been convicte d. Journalist P. Sainath informed the nine-member jury (of the Public Hearing in Chennai on April 18 and 19) that the rate of conviction in cases of atrocities against Dalits in Rajasthan was only 2.5 per cent.

As a measure to arrest the complicity of the state in anti-Dalit violence, the jury has recommended that immediate steps be taken to prevent further violence, social boycotts and other forms of discrimination against Dalits and to investigate and punish those responsible for attacks and acts of discrimination in the affected districts. The jury has also recommended that any official or member of the police who fails to respond to repeated calls from the affected people of the villages for protection, or fails to prosecute persons indulging in acts of violence or discrimination, should also be proceeded against.

Another recommendation of the jury is that decisive steps be taken to ensure that the police do not conduct raids on villages or engage themselves in arbitrary and unlawful destruction and seizure of property in response to caste clashes. It has suggeste d that the involvement of the police in such activities should be promptly investigated by an independent judicial body and prosecution launched accordingly.

Landlessness is at the core of Dalit dependence on caste Hindus. When Dalits seek protection of the law against caste Hindu atrocities, retaliation comes immediately in the form of denial of wage work on the lands of caste Hindus, the sole source of Dali ts' livelihood. The usual taunt is "Do you want your case or wages?" It is control over land, and often over water too, that gives caste Hindus the audacity to defy legislation and court orders with impunity and continue their atrocities against Dalits. The denial of farm work is often coupled with ruthless social boycott, which includes the stoppage of water supply to Dalit lands, non-supply of necessities of life and so on. The failure of the Indian state to implement land reforms and give land to the landless has ensured the continuation of Dalit slavery. Two stories of such failures, one in Gujarat and the other in Andhra Pradesh, were presented at the Public Hearing. Although Gujarat had passed the Gujarat Agricultural Land Ceiling Act in 1960, as against an estimated five lakh hectares of surplus land available for distribution, merely 51,000 hectares has been distributed.

What is worse, a substantial proportion of even the land distributed to Dalits is not actually in their possession, owing to encroachment by non-Dalits. Land distribution is done only on paper. Actual possession of land, based on the measurement done at the site, is not given effect. The local government deliberately withholds the allotted land from Dalits by various means. This is the case whether the intended land is government wasteland (unused, uncultivated land) or "ceiling land" (private land rend ered surplus over the ceiling fixed by the land ceiling Acts).

Dalits in Surendranagar district, under the banner of the Jamin Hakh Rakshak Samiti, initiated a public interest litigation (PIL) with the help of the Navsarjan Trust against the State of Gujarat in the Gujarat High Court in April 1999. The High court di rected the State to complete a survey of the lands allotted to the Dalits and give possession to them by June 15, 2000. It remains to be seen if the State of Gujarat has complied with the order.

In exceptional instances where Dalits do get to own land, they are dispossessed of it sooner or later. In Dohri Vakil in Nainital district in Uttar Pradesh, 254 Dalit families were given wasteland under agrarian reforms around 1980. Through hard work, th e families transformed the land into fertile agricultural land. But 12 years later, they were violently evicted from the land by local landlords and land mafia with the connivance of the police and revenue officials. The Dalits were arrested and thrown i nto prison. Their houses were burnt and fields destroyed. The victim who deposed at the Public Hearing cried: "Are we not Bharatvasis?"

To ensure Dalit land rights, the jury has recommended that from the land declared surplus under the Land Ceiling Act, cultivable land of a viable size be distributed to each Dalit household within three to five years, ensuring that half the land so distr ibuted is registered in the name of Dalit women. It has also been recommended that encroachments on Dalit lands be removed and protection he provided to Dalits to hold and cultivate the land.

DALIT women face the triple discrimination of caste, class and gender. Sexual violence and other forms of abuse against them are used by landlords and the police to teach "political lessons" to the Dalit community and crush dissent. A number of cases of sexual assault on Dalit women by landlords and the police came up before the jury. Lebra, an agricultural worker in Ram Nagar village in Pratapgarh district of Uttar Pradesh, complained that she and her daughter Kusuma (12) were taken to the Anatu police station on a false complaint from the landlord and raped by the Station House Officer. Lebra's desperate efforts to bring the culprit to justice through available channels have failed. She has petitioned the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) as th e last resort.

Gangawati of Laluwa Nangal village in Badayun district of Uttar Pradesh was raped at gun point by a person of the same village. The Police Inspector refused to register a case as the culprit was "one of their own caste". The NHRC acted on Gangawati's pet ition and directed the Senior Superintendent of Police to conduct an inquiry. Although a First Information Report (FIR) has been registered, the culprit has not been arrested. He keeps threatening Gangawati and her husband.

Surya, a 10-year-old Dalit girl in Surnadu village in Kollam district of Kerala, was allegedly raped by 70-year-old Balakrishna Pillai, an ex-serviceman. A case has been filed by the police, but the accused has not yet been arrested.

When Dalits seek empowerment through participation in the political process either at the panchayati raj level or through representation in Parliament/State Assemblies, they face the powerful onslaught of dominant castes, often abetted by political parti es. There seems to be a growing trend to dislodge the elected heads of gram sabhas and panchayats, who belong to Dalit communities. This is sometimes done in collusion with the officials of the district administration by fabricating false complaints, as seen in the instance of the Dalit woman sarpanch of Gujarat cited earlier in the article. The cold-blooded murder of Murugesan, the elected Dalit panchayat leader of Melavalavu in Tamil Nadu, along with five other Dalits is another instance of attacks by dominant castes on Dalits (Frontline, July 25,1997). Such attacks deny Dalits their basic democratic rights and make a mockery of the empowering potential of the panchayati raj system.

Dalits have slowly started coming together to claim a political space for themselves. In Tamil Nadu, the Dalit Panthers of India, a Dalit political outfit, fielded its candidate in the Chidambaram parliamentary constituency in the 1999 Lok Sabha election s. In the run-up to the election, widespread intimidation of Dalits by the ruling political coalition was reported. It was alleged that on election day, violence, on an unprecedented scale, was let loose on activists of the Dalit party as well as on Dali t voters. Large-scale booth-capturing was also reported. Although the State government and the State Election Commission had been forewarned about the disruptive designs, the authorities failed to ensure fairness in the election. The Election Commission turned down the demand of the Dalit Panthers of India and its allies for a re-poll in the constituency.

The National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights is carrying the Dalit question, or India's "hidden apartheid", to the international arena. An International Dalit Solidarity Network has been formed. The Network has presented a preliminary Report of the Natio nal Public Hearing, along with the cases presented, to the world conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in Geneva from May 1 to 5, 2000. Efforts are on to get "untouchability" included within the purview of " racial discrimination". The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has clearly stated that the term "descent" contained in Article 1 of the Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination refers not just to race; it encom passes the situation of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

The National Public Hearing opened with a dance by Dalit youth, which resonated at the beating of the drum. The drum, the parai, for over a thousand years the symbol of humiliation, transformed in their hands to an instrument to challenge one of t he most sub-human systems in history. As the Public Hearing drew to an end on the second day, the words of Sainath rang true: "We are witnessing the single greatest battle on Planet Earth for human dignity."

V. Vasanthi Devi, formerly Vice-Chancellor, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tamil Nadu, was a member of the jury at the National Public Hearing.

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