India: Dalit activism: the "God of Small Things" and endemic discrimination

God of Small Things

Arundhati Roy’s 1996 novel drew international attention to the plight of India’s Dalit community, Formerly known as “untouchables,” Dalits suffer endemic discrimination and are systematically denied access to public spaces and resources. Over a decade after the book’s publication this situation has worsened, as has that of Dalit human rights defenders (HRDs.)

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, has said that “Indian authorities have proven themselves unwilling to protect minority religious communities and other vulnerable groups from frequent attack.” According to the National Crimes Records Bureau, crimes against Dalits occurred every 15 minutes on average in 2016, an increase over 2015 figures. Tallies by NGOs and news organisations suggest that the upward trend has intensified throughout 2017 and 2018. Dalit women are particularly vulnerable to abuses. Conviction rates for crimes against Dalits are extremely low in certain regions; the state of Maharashtra, for example, stands at less than 5%. Photojournalist Sudharak Olwe’s ongoing case study of crimes against Dalits in this state found that in most incidents, “the victim was involved in either emancipatory work for his community or struggling to make his life better.”

The spike in abuses may in fact be a response to Dalits’ increasing assertion of their rights, according to Dalit HRD Asif Shaikh. In March of this year, a Supreme Court judgement claimed that a law which offers significant legal recourse for Dalits was used “as an instrument to blackmail or to wreak personal vengeance”. Nationwide protests, referred to by Al Jazeera as a Dalit Spring, followed. Though they began peacefully, demonstrations were met with violence; 11 people were killed.

In May, Sachin Walia was shot dead. His brother Kamal is a leader in the Bhim Army, an organization that works for Dalit emancipation through education. A month after Sachin’s killing, five Dalit HRDs were arrested and may face life in prison for allegedly inciting caste violence. Urgent action appeals have been issued for dozens of other violations of Dalit HRDs’ rights.

Violence against Dalits is often framed as nothing new, which may actually be fuelling the increase in abuses. It is more important than ever to support the empowerment of this community, remembering Dalit leader BR Ambedker’s words: “ rights are protected not by law but by social and moral conscience of the society. If social conscience is such that it is prepared to recognise the rights which law proposes to enact, rights will be safe and secure.”