INDIA: Country’s conscience nailed in the gutter of caste 

The stoning to death of 22-year-old Swapna and her husband 28-year-old Sunkari Sriniwas on 23 May by Swapna’s family near Krishnajiwadi village, Nizamabad, Andhra Pradesh state is one more proof to the stark reality of the continuing practice of caste based discrimination and caste prejudices in India. Swapna belongs to a Hindu upper caste family. Her parents and relatives were opposed to Swapna’s marriage with Sriniwas, a Dalit.

The family believed that one of them marrying a lower caste is a shame upon the family and that other upper caste families will ostracise them for having a relationship with an untouchable.

Despite her family’s resistance, Swapna married her fiancée Sriniwas in March this year. Swapna’s family wrecked vengeance upon the couple by storming into Sriniwas’ house, dragging the newlywed couple out and later stoning them to death just outside their village. A case of murder is registered against the suspects by the local police.

The brutal murder of Swapna and Sriniwas must shame every person who cares to be called an Indian.

While India has been defiant and sensitive to national and international criticism on everything related to caste based discrimination, it has refused to show similar sensitivity in dealing with the issue at the domestic level. Though the country had enacted laws to counter caste based discrimination, of which some are currently under review, like the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 it is a reality, that at the very minimum, the implementation of these legislations are half hearted and often left at the mercy of caste prejudiced law enforcement officers.

Though India boasts about some of its senior bureaucrats, a former President, Chief Ministers and constitutional court judges including the former Chief Justice as members of the Dalit community, in reality, the effect has been only symbolic. The ordinary Dalit continues to face discrimination and social stigmatisation throughout the country. The fact that the parents of a woman went to the extent of stoning their own daughter to death for marrying an untouchable Dalit, underlines the fact that mere legislations will not end caste based discrimination. The incident also is the grim reminder to the fact that caste prejudice is deep-rooted in India.

Caste based discrimination is widely considered to be worse than slavery and any other forms of discrimination known to human. Over the period of the past 3000 years, it has had its influence sans continents. While caste, its parallels and their influence have been mostly wiped off from the society in most parts of the world, in South Asia, in particular Nepal and India, caste remains the singular denominator with which individuals are evaluated in the society. To deal with such a deep-rooted violence mere law making is not enough.

A legal text is only the mere codification of certain principles, norms and rules. In punitive jurisprudence, a law could also be a deterrent against a crime. But the deterrence factor of the crime, in this case, caste based discrimination as referred to in the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, depends upon the effectiveness in the execution of the law. This is where India and its entire justice institutions and policies have failed.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has documented cases over the past ten years, where atrocities committed against the members of the lower caste were refused to be registered as crimes at police stations. The general failure of the law enforcement mechanism in the country coupled with the caste prejudice of the officer who runs the system poses a double walled challenge to a complainant who would want to register and investigate his complaint and prosecute a person who has committed a crime that is covered under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

In addition to the lack of willingness of the government to root out caste prejudice is the omnipresence of the caste prejudiced mind in government policies. One of the worst forms of caste based discrimination is the continuing practice of manual scavenging. The Indian version of manual scavenging is literally carrying of human excreta on heads by the Dalits, in particular by the members of the lowest of the lower caste communities.

In spite of a dozen laws preventing manual scavenging the practice continues in India due to more than one reason, of which an important one is the lack of adequate sanitary facilities in most parts of the country. Investment in proper sanitation facilities is a factor conveniently overlooked even in the national capital, New Delhi. Of course a government has no reason to spend money on sanitation if there are a few million lower caste persons destined to do the job of scavenging for a meagre pay.

The lower caste has also been let down by their own leaders like Ms. Mayawati, the current Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, who have spent millions worth of tax payers’ money to erect her own statues and that of her deceased political mentor.

Whenever there has been a national and/or international debate on the issue, so far the government of India has prevented any form of intervention on the issue from external agencies like the United Nations on the ground that caste and dealing with caste is an internal matter of the country. This is similar to the arguments of the Sri Lankan President, Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Mr. Robert Gabriel Mugabe the President of Zimbabwe that ethnic and other state sponsored violence is a matter of internal discussion of their respective countries and that no external help is required to sort it out.

The unique and staunch resistance posed by the government of India against any form of assistance to deal with caste based discrimination in India has resulted in the practice being allowed to continue unabated. Though, it is not for an external agency to resolve a domestic issue, but receiving some help would not hurt.

There are thousands of couples and individuals who have faced similar fate as that of Swapna and Sriniwas in India. There will be many more. But the ultimate blame for allowing such dehumanising practice to continue must be upon the governments that have ruled India for the past 62 years.

Caste prejudice and caste based violence in India can be addressed. But that requires a change in the government’s Brahminical mind, irrespective of its political colour. Until that happen India will have to bear the burden of carrying a broom of shame perpetually tied to its back.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-087-2010
Countries : India,
Issues : Caste-based discrimination,