Doctrine divides, Action unites


  October 2014


Dalits Trapped in India

Asian Human Rights Commission

Dalits, or Untouchables, do the “polluting” work of preparing the
dead for burial, receiving little or no payment for their labor. Their
social status makes them easy targets for attacks by those from
India’s higher castes. (Photo from )

The recent escalation in atrocities committed on Dalits is surprising even for Bihar, a state notorious for crimes against members of the community. The only things worse than the state’s failure to stop the crimes are the reasons the crimes are being committed.

Can one really burn alive a 15-year-old child for the “crime” of his goats straying into the paddy fields of a so-called upper caste man?

This gory incident in Rohtas District is not a stand-alone example. It follows the gang-rape of six Dalit women on Oct. 9 in Bhojpur District and the incident involving more than 150 Dalits getting chased out of their village in Gaya after a member of the community was killed in September.

It is still too early to fear the return of caste-based massacres that once bedeviled Bihar. Yet the situation is bleak for many reasons. The violence can be attributed, in part, to the changed political scenario. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), considered to be the party representative of the upper castes in the province, deserted the incumbent government led by the Janata Dal United (JD-U), which itself largely draws its support from the backward castes and Mahadalits, a term it coined for those worst off among the Dalits.

The uneasy, yet successful, alliance between the JD-U and BJP had brought together communities with centuries of animosity and had resulted in a temporary lull in violence against Dalits. To state it differently, while there was no decline in everyday acts of individual atrocities committed on members of the Dalit community, large-scale organized violence along caste lines had witnessed a decline. There were, of course, exceptions to this general reality, for the community did face occasional collective attacks, such as in the aftermath of the killing of Brahmeshwar Singh, alias Mukhiyaji, the head of the notorious upper caste militia blamed for many Dalit massacres.

The alliance had compelled erstwhile warring communities to share space without reconciliation, without dealing with past animosities. The upper castes in the alliance saw it as a political necessity, that is, to keep the other backward castes away from power after having a government more representative of their interests. On the other hand, the marginalized saw it as a way to maintain their claim on state resources. However, the dogged refusal of the then-chief minister, and JD-U’s top leader, Nitish Kumar, to accept Narendra Modi as a prime ministerial candidate unraveled the alliance and exposed the fault lines of old animosities and atrocities.

It is in this context that Bihar is witnessing a renewed cycle of atrocities committed on the community, often on the flimsiest of grounds, i.e., grounds that would have earlier been ignored by the same criminals. The fact that few of the perpetrators get caught and punished for such crimes emboldens them. If one goes by the recent verdicts of the High Court of Bihar, it would perhaps be the only place in the world where pogroms and massacres have been found committed by no one. This outcome is the refrain in case after case, be it the Bathani Tola massacre in 1996 of 21 Dalits, which witnessed the acquittal of the 23 accused that were convicted by a lower court, or the Lakshmanpur Bathe massacre with 26 deaths the following year or the Nagri massacre involving the killing of 11 Dalits in 1998 or even the Mianpur massacre of 2002 that saw the killing of nine Dalits. All the accused have been acquitted for a lack of evidence.

The acquittals were bound to create tension and reopen wounds, and this they did. These acquittals also emboldened the upper castes to attempt a recovery of their political control in the state from the other backward castes and Dalits.

Unfortunately, the response to the renewed wave of attacks from the political leadership has been inadequate. The state administration keeps failing to enforce the rule of law and punish the perpetrators of caste violence to deter others. The BJP, on its part, has kept quiet on the increasing attacks to ensure that its core support base remains unoffended.

This inaction is precisely what makes the threat of further escalation in violence loom large. The way forward is to ensure that those guilty of committing such heinous crimes do not get away without punishment and for political will to be mobilized to normalize relations.

* The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is a regional non-governmental organization monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984. More information is available on AHRC’s web site at <>.


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