India’s police forces opened fire on demonstrators in the recent protests by India’s Dalit resistance movement on April 2, killing at least eleven people from the Dalit community. Once deemed a population of ‘untouchables’, the Dalits continue to protest against the Supreme Court’s order on the Prevention of Atrocities Act, which serves to protect the rights of the Dalits (the Scheduled Castes, SC) and the Adivasis (the Scheduled Tribes, ST). Together, this demographic represents 20% of India’s population, meaning that approximately 250 million people will continue to be structurally underprivileged. While the protest was said to be peaceful, consisting of road blocks, sit-ins and chanting, it was forcefully dispersed by police and right-wing conservative groups.
Following similar Dalit protests in January, Al Jazeera characterized the protest as the emergence of the ‘Dalit Spring’. While the caste system deeming the Dalits as ‘impure’ was constitutionally abolished in 1950, de facto discrimination remains entrenched in Indian society. For example, data from the Planning Commission revealed that 31.5% of Dalits living in rural areas were living below the poverty line, compared to 25.7% of the broader Indian population. Similarly, 21% of Dalits living in urban areas experienced severe poverty, compared to 13.7% of those from non-scheduled caste backgrounds. A report by the Permanent Mission of India to the UN in 2016 highlighted an increase in reported crimes against SC’s in 2014 compared to prior years. However, the New York Times described the latest Dalit activism with less sympathy, controversially tweeting that “today there are Dalit millionaires. So why are they protesting?”
Indeed, certain legislative reforms have encouraged greater social mobility. These include the Prevention of Atrocities Act and the system of Reservations, which guarantees SC and ST descendants a quota of positions in education and government institutions. Nevertheless, a three thousand year legacy of systematic oppression restricts the social, marital, and occupational opportunities of many Dalits. The existence of a small Dalit middle-class does not speak representatively to the quality of life of all those from the scheduled castes. The misconception espoused by the New York Times is shared by many Hindu fundamentalists, who have resisted the process of departure from the rigid hierarchical system.
The reigning Bharatiya Japatha Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, and has been increasingly aligning its policies with those of the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) party. The RSS hopes to restore and protect Hindi traditions like the caste system and untouchability, whilst reversing the relatively new framework of equality and affirmative action for the Dalit community. A fundamental issue with the Indian political landscape is that the government is over-represented by privileged members of the upper castes. Ashok Bharti, Chair of the National Confederation of Dalit and Adivasi Organisations, states that a mindset of denial about the social realities of casteism has occurred because most political agents “are victims of their own guilt and will therefore try to hide their faults”.
The rhetoric of the Indian government has routinely evaded the root causes of poverty in the region. On a recent trip to one of India’s poorest regions, Indian politician Narendra Modi prompted parents to remember to feed their children to stem the high rate of child malnutrition. Rather than considering the disadvantages facing SC and ST descendants or the high rate of female illiteracy, such politicians readily misdiagnose the trademarks of poverty. This problem is exacerbated by the concentration of the mass media in India, which offers limited diversity in its coverage of pertinent political issues. .
Furthermore, the BJP and RSS parties have been somewhat insidious in conflating their policies with traditional sentiment to appeal to voters’ sense of nationalism. For example, the BJP has been strictly implementing cow protection laws since it came to power. While Hinduism classifies cows as sacred, the SC and ST population are traditionally the only individuals allowed to partake in the ‘debased’ leather and tanning industries, in which cows are an intermediary. Human Rights Watch states that 38 members of the Dalit and Adivasis communities have been attacked and ten killed in relation to the cow protection laws.
Meanwhile in the international domain, the Indian government has been particularly resistant to criticism around caste discrimination. At the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban, NGOs and international diplomats argued to have the pertinent remnants of the caste system put on the agenda, but the Indian government vigorously opposed such arguments, stating that it was an internal matter independent of racism. When the UN Human Right’s Council published a report on caste-based criticism, the Indian government questioned the ‘seriousness of work’ undertaken by the UN body.
While the latest Dalit protests focused on the softening of protective legislative instruments, the correction of India’s three thousand year legacy of caste hierarchy depends critically on social reform as much as legislative reform. Ostensibly, India has been slow to change because the perceived inferiority of the SCs and STs has become so ‘naturalised’ within society. Doudou Diène, the Senegalese Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism for the UN stated, “You have to go beyond the law. You have to get to the identity constructions…One of the key strategies of the racist, discriminating communities is to make us believe that discrimination is natural, that it is part of nature, and that you have to accept it.” Creating the foundations for long-term equality will involve some social upheaval that will inevitably entail some upper middle-class individuals sacrificing status inherited from previous generations. Effective leaders will focus on managing this change, and prioritizing the dividends that equality must pay in the long-run.
One way in which upper-middle class members can be reassured of the fairness of the protective measures in place is by transforming preferential admission policies, such as the reservations system, into rules found on universal social criteria. This would see that all Indians facing adversity – whether this is measured by parental income or proximity to healthcare services – is entitled to benefits. The effective corporate tax rate can also be slowly elevated to liberate more resources for the provision of essential amenities and social services.
However, this process also demands greater representation of the SCs and STs in decisive political positions. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 82% of Indians see inequality as a major problem, but this sentiment is yet to be translated into tractable change at a government level. Furthermore, there are a number of factors hampering democratic accessibility for descendants of the lower classes. The National Dalit Election Watch recorded 263 incidents of election violence against Dalits, who were threatened, abused, prevented from voting, and violently attacked after the polls. Universal enfranchisement for the Indian population needs to be regarded as an enforced right rather than a notional idea, therefore, voting access must be more adequately policed in future elections.
India has made profound progress in establishing democratic electoral institutions, freedom of the press, and rule of law since independence from British colonial rule. However, the Indian government needs to be aware that a socially stratified state will take longer to realize the benefits of growth. With a population expected to exceed that of China by 2025, India will be a high stakes nation for the international community. Consequently, bilateral diplomatic efforts need to maintain their encouragement of equality-building policies.