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15 October, 2013

Elusive social justice

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

A high court judgement acquitting 26 men, whom a lower court had sentenced to either death or life imprisonment for the murder of 58 Dalits, including 27 women and 16 children, has brought to the fore the question of social justice.

The case arose out of a massacre, allegedly by members of Ranvir Sena, a militia set up by Bhumihar Brahmin landlords to terrorise farmhands into submission, at Lakshmanpur Bathe, 100 kilometres from Patna, capital of Bihar state, in 1997. The victims included pregnant women and infants.

The Patna High Court freed the accused, saying they are entitled to the benefit of the doubt as the prosecution witnesses, most of them local Dalits, are not reliable. The state government has said it will go in appeal to the Supreme Court. The Dalits are afraid the killers will strike again.

Voicing the Dalits’ despair, a man who lost seven members of his family told a reporter: “After 58 murders, no one is guilty. The courts are theirs, the government is theirs, the lathi (police baton) is theirs. The poor have nothing. This is injustice.”

The Ranvir Sena, set up in 1994, was banned the following year but has continued to operate with the patronage of influential people.

The 2011 Census put the number of Dalits — members of erstwhile untouchable communities — at 201.4 million, or 16.6 per cent of the total population. Four states account for nearly half of the Dalits: Uttar Pradesh (20.5%), West Bengal (10.7%), Bihar (8.2%) and Tamil Nadu (7.2%). In UP, the Bahujan Samaj Party, which draws its support primarily from the Dalit community, is a major political player and its leader, Mayawati, has been its chief minister more than once. Dalits form 31.9% of Punjab’s population but the BSP has not been able to make much headway there.

Congress Vice-president Rahul Gandhi recently said Mayawati was preventing the emergence of other Dalit leaders. She hit back saying the Congress was anti-Dalit. However, she continues to support the Congress-led government at the Centre from outside.

Gandhi said the Congress would build up hundreds of thousands of Dalit leaders to carry forward the process of empowering the community. He gave no inkling of awareness of the flaw in his party’s efforts in this regard. It has helped to elevate individual Dalits to the high offices of the president, the chief justice, chief ministers and Speakers of legislative bodies. However, in the absence of determined efforts to ensure social justice, a primary objective of the Constitution, of which BR Ambedkar, a Dalit, was the chief architect, its contributions do not rise above the level of tokenism. 

Police often refuse to register complaints of atrocities against Dalits. Slackness of investigators and prosecutors results in extremely low rates of conviction.

Ambedkar had embarked upon his mission of emancipating the Dalits by burning the Code of Manu, a treatise dating back to the first or second century BCE, which provided ideological underpinning and religious sanction for the highly iniquitous caste system. The state apparatus, dominated by beneficiaries of the system, has been slack in translating the constitutional guarantee of equality and equal opportunity into reality. Manu figures, in approving terms, in more than 300 Supreme Court judgements of the past six decades.

Statistical data provides an appalling picture. Every 18 minutes a crime is committed against a Dalit. Every day at least two Dalits are murdered, 11 beaten up and two Dalit houses destroyed. More than 54% of the Dalit children are undernourished. As many as 83 out of 1,000 live-birth Dalit children die before their first birthday. Men belonging to so-called upper castes systematically subject Dalit women to sexual violence as a means of punishment, control and dominance.

Although manual scavenging is banned by law, about 1.3 million Dalits, mostly women, are still engaged in the demeaning activity. More than 10,000 of them are in the national capital. 

Untouchability, prohibited by the Constitution, is still practised in many villages. In an extension of the practice of this evil, cooperatives in Gujarat’s Mehsana district do not accept milk from cows owned by Dalits.

Recent migrants have carried the caste baggage with them to the West.  Last year the UN Human Rights Council, acting on representations by NGOs and findings of its own Rapporteurs, directed India and the United Kingdom to take certain specific steps against caste discrimination.

Significantly, the older Indian communities in the West Indies and Fiji were able to develop untroubled by caste and religious differences due to virtual absence of Brahminical elements among them. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 15, 2013.

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