Why Dalit lives don’t matter in a castiest India

Why Dalit lives don’t matter in a castiest India

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Jitendrapal Meghwal was young, fashionable and Dalit, and he died last month with a knife stabbed multiple times to his back, chest and stomach. On June 23, 2020, Meghwal, a resident of Barwa village in Rajasthan’s Bali tehsil in Pali district, was beaten up by two upper caste men – Suraj Singh and Ramesh Singh – for looking into their eyes directly. According to his brother, the...

Jitendrapal Meghwal was young, fashionable and Dalit, and he died last month with a knife stabbed multiple times to his back, chest and stomach.

On June 23, 2020, Meghwal, a resident of Barwa village in Rajasthan’s Bali tehsil in Pali district, was beaten up by two upper caste men – Suraj Singh and Ramesh Singh – for looking into their eyes directly. According to his brother, the attackers were already peeved at Meghwal’s good looks and lifestyle – particularly his handlebar moustache which is something a Dalit man isn’t supposed to aspire to have.

Following the incident, Meghwal had approached the local police and filed a complaint under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The police filed a chargesheet against the two accused but after spending some time in jail, the two men were released on bail. They took up a job in Gujarat’s Surat, while Meghwal started working at a hospital in Bali.

But on March 15 this year, Suraj and Ramesh travelled over 800 km from Surat to Bali and killed Meghwal while he was on his way home from work.

Meghwal’s brother Om Prakash has alleged that the former was murdered because the upper caste men could not tolerate his moustache and lifestyle.

In Rajasthan, men take pride in their distinctive long, thick moustaches. In Pushkar, a moustache competition is organised every year as a symbol of the state’s pride and culture. Yet, only upper caste men are supposed to be the custodians of this pride and culture. Dalits in the state are forbidden from sporting the twirly. The price of defying this unwritten ‘diktat’ could range from merciless assault to murder.

In his dying declaration, Meghwal said, “They attacked me while I was riding a motorcycle. They attacked my back, shoulders and neck from behind after which I fell from the bike. They were stabbing me with a knife. I told them to stop and talk it out but they kept stabbing and hurling casteist slurs at me.”

The Rajasthan Police, however, attributed the killing to ‘old enmity’, saying it had nothing to do with Meghwal deciding to sport a moustache. “There were charges under the SC/ST Act against the accused filed by Jitendrapal. They wanted to compromise while Jitendrapal didn’t want to. This was an old enmity. He was not killed because of his moustache,” claimed Devendra Singh, station house officer of the area.

Jitendrapal Meghwal’s murder over his moustache, however, doesn’t come as a shock to members of his community who say such incidents are a routine. Just a day after Meghwal’s death, members of the Gurjar community allegedly attacked a Dalit man in Rajasthan’s Bharatpur on March 16 for keeping a moustache.

Such oppressive restrictions against Dalits are not limited to Rajasthan alone. In the past five years in Gujarat, about a dozen Dalits have either been killed or beaten just for having a moustache.

However, the upper caste men continue to take it upon themselves to decide what a Dalit can or cannot do. In fact, they proudly justify crimes committed against the community without any reason or remorse.

“Moustaches historically have been meant for upper caste Hindus. Only the Brahmins and Kshatriyas can grow moustaches. Vaishyas and Shudras are not allowed. This is a known historical fact. The Dalits these days are keeping moustaches. This is an insult to us. Killing is not the solution, I don’t support killing, but Dalits should also respect our Hindu culture,” said Ramesh Thakur, a member of the Kshatriya Yuvak Sangh.

The defiance of such ‘rules’ by the Dalits often leads to violence by upper caste people. The main object behind that, Dalit rights activists say, is to perpetuate a social hierarchy, servitude, and maintain conditions for the exploitation of the poorest people. In all this, Dalit women are the worst sufferers – often subjected to sexual violence.

Rape as a tool against Dalit women

If a Dalit man could get killed for keeping a moustache, Dalit women have been repeatedly subjected to sexual violence. A spate of rapes and murders of young girls in the recent past, has exposed the ongoing use of sexual violence as a tool of oppression and revenge against lower caste communities.

As recently as March 15, a 26-year-old Dalit woman was gang-raped by six upper caste men at gunpoint in Rajasthan’s Dhaulpur. In her complaint registered with Kanchanpur police station, the woman alleged that she was returning home with her husband from the field around 6 pm when they were accosted by six men belonging to her village. The men thrashed her husband and hit him with a country-made pistol. While the husband managed to escape, two of the six men raped her.

Many a time, these crimes and the criminals enjoy a tacit support from the state – for instance, the alleged gangrape and murder of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in Hathras whose body was forcibly cremated by police in Uttar Pradesh in 2020. The UP Police relied on an FSL (forensic science lab) report to rule out rape. Intriguingly, samples – from her hair, clothes, nails, bed, vagina and anus — were collected from her eight days after the crime (instead of doing so within four days, as rules mandate) and sent for forensics 11 days after the attack. As a result, the FSL report ruled out rape.

She was the fifth girl and third Dalit girl who was allegedly raped and brutally murdered within two months in UP.

While some of the incidents manage to make headlines, most other such crimes against Dalit women, particularly in lawless and impoverished rural areas, go unnoticed.

Roshni (name changed) is one such victim. “I used to work as a farm labourer in Rajasthan. I was raped by the person who owns the farmland along with two of his friends. The first time it happened, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak for days. Then it became a routine for the men to rape me. I was raped several times. I thought of ending my life but since I am the sole breadwinner of my family, and my parents and siblings are dependent on me, I couldn’t even choose to die,” she said.

Asked why she didn’t approach the police, Roshni said, “Another girl from my community was raped. She reached out to the police and the police just said compromise with the accused. When she returned from the police station, the upper caste men destroyed her house and beat up her family members. She was boycotted and forced to die by suicide. We don’t know where her family went after that.”

Roshni feared the same misery would befall her family. “Looking at all that, I couldn’t go to the police. Moreover, if people get to know I have been raped, I may have to face boycott within my own community.”

When asked how did things (her sexual abuse) come to a stop, Roshni said, “Who said it has stopped. I am a dead soul inside, just living for my family.”

Dalit women make up the majority of landless labourers and scavengers in India. In rural areas, a number of them are forced into prostitution or sold into urban brothels. According to a report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), at least 10 Dalit women were raped every day in 2019.

Dalit women, who make up 16 per cent of India’s female population, face higher risks of gender and caste-based violence and are often exposed to widespread sexual assaults. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report found that one of the reasons Dalit women are more vulnerable to violence is because they make up the majority of India’s landless labourers and scavengers, and a significant percentage of them are forced into prostitution or sold to brothels.

The Centre for Dalit Rights group examined 100 incidents of sexual violence against Dalit women and girls across 16 districts in India between 2004 and 2013. It found that 46 per cent of the victims were aged below 18 and 85 per cent were less than 30 years old. The perpetrators of the violence came from 36 different castes, including the Dalit community.

“The first problem is that they are women. And the last problem is that they are Dalit women. They are marginalised in the marginalised section. In this country, Dalit women live under bad economic conditions. Women perform unskilled labour due to systematic gender and social discrimination,” said Renu Sharma, professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

“The internal and international movement of women into the labour market has exposed them to the vulnerability of sexual exploitation. In such circumstances, women of marginalised communities easily become commodities. Rendered optionless by the situation and with the challenge of ensuring the survival of the family, women become more and more gullible to be deceived or forced to look at other options for sustenance.”

Role of governments

While various political, social and economic factors usually lie behind caste-related violence, the role of the state often comes under question. This, despite the fact that caste has always been a political issue and managing caste equations has been a priority for all parties during elections – scrambling to tap the Dalit vote bank.

The recently contested elections in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and earlier in Bihar (where the number of crimes against Dalits was highest among all states in 2020), caste equations played a major role in deciding the outcome.

The formation of cabinets in the respective states also reflected that equation. The BJP in Uttar Pradesh, traditionally famous for having Brahmins and Thakurs as its core vote base, has bent over backwards to woo the Dalits. In the newly announced cabinet, there are nine Dalit ministers — a move that shows the BJP’s eyes firmly set on 2024 general elections. In Punjab too, a first-time Aam Aadmi Party government has inducted four faces from the SC community into the cabinet. In another such signal, the Punjab government decided to do away with photographs of political leaders in all its offices other than BR Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh.

Asked why atrocities against Dalits continue despite special provisions in the Constitution, various laws and tall promises and grand gestures by those in power, Suraj Kumar Bauddh, founder of Mission Ambedkar, said, “Despite all such laws, nothing has been done to save Dalits. There is a nexus between the oppressors, the police and the judiciary in this country.”

If a Dalit man could get killed for keeping a moustache, Dalit women have been repetedly subjected to sexual violence. Photo: Reuters

While the killing of upper caste Hindus, Bauddh added, has often been termed as genocide, crimes against Dalits hardly find a mention anywehere. “Even the current party in power is neglecting them. We have to fight for ourselves. No one is going to stand for us.”


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