As crimes and injustice increase against the former untouchable caste, the ruling BJP can no longer rely on their votes
Members of the Indian Dalit community stage a protest in Allahabad on April 2 during a countrywide strike against a Supreme Court order that allegedly diluted the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. (Photo by Sanjay Kanojia/AFP)
A 50-year-old Dalit man was beaten to death inside a police station on April 9 in India's Uttar Pradesh state. His crime? His 18-year-old daughter had complained of rape by a state legislator.
The man, whose name cannot be published under Indian rules to protect identity, and his daughter are not the first victims of atrocities committed against the socially poor Dalit people, the former untouchable caste.
Each day an average of two Dalits are murdered and six Dalit women raped in India, according to government data. In 2015, some 707 Dalits were murdered and 2,326 Dalit women raped.
The death in police custody has infuriated Dalit groups who had already been protesting Supreme Court guidelines which they say dilute a law meant to protect the human rights of Dalit people.
The growing discontent among Dalits and their increased assertiveness are posing a major challenge to the ruling pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has relied heavily on Dalit votes for its electoral fortunes.
Dalit leaders have focused on the BJP's reluctance to protect their people, saying the Dalit man was beaten to death in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh. The man accused of rape continues to be a BJP legislator and Yogi Adityanath, the BJP state chief minister, failed to act when the alleged rape victim approached him for justice.
On April 7, Ashok Kumar Dohrey, a Dalit leader and senior BJP member, wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying Dalits and indigenous people across the country are being framed by police in false cases. He said this had led to a sense of growing insecurity.
Nothing has been done for Dalit people since the BJP came to power in 2014, he said. Dalit parliamentary members like him, who won largely because of Dalit votes, will find it difficult to face voters in their constituencies in the general election due early next year, he reportedly said.
The immediate cause for this outpouring of anger and frustration was opposition to the Supreme Court's March decision to issue a set of guidelines. But it soon become an attack on the BJP and its polices that allegedly promote a nation based on Hindu upper-caste dominance.
The court changing a three-decade-old law shows that the "administration is least worried" about the rights of Dalit people, said Father Z. Devasagayaraj, secretary of the Indian bishops' office for lower-caste people.
The original law mandated immediate arrest of a person committing a crime against a Dalit person, but the court put conditions on arrest, allegedly making the law toothless.
"There is so much anger and frustration among Dalit people. They also feel helpless," said the priest, who has been leading campaigns for Dalit rights. "The violent protests were a sign of their frustration."
At least nine people were killed in nationwide marches, protest gatherings and strikes organized by Dalit groups. Some Dalit men were killed when upper-caste men shot at a protest march in Bihar, media reports said.
The federal government has filed a petition to review the Supreme Court decision after Dalit groups claimed the move was in line with government policies that aim to establish a Hindu upper-caste hegemony.
Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani addresses a protest in in Ahmedabad on April 2 against a Supreme Court order that Dalits claim has reduced their rights. (Photo by Sam Panthaky/AFP)
The powerless majority
India's 200 million Dalits and 104 million indigenous people together form some 25 percent of India's population of 1.2 billion. Besides them, at least another 40 percent of Indians belong to backward castes, making the number of disadvantaged people close to 70 percent.
Since India gained independence in 1947, political parties have exploited the low-caste community for votes by offering them false promises of economic and social improvement and human dignity, said Praveen Prakash, a Dalit leader in New Delhi.
The BJP came to power in 2014 doing the same. "Not a single promise was fulfilled by the BJP. The conditions for Dalit people only turned from bad to worse," he told ucanews.com.
Statistics show that crimes against Dalits have been steadily increasing. Rape cases involving Dalit women have doubled in the past 10 years, while the number of murders, attacks and harassment has also increased, Prakash said.
He said young Dalits are now educated and have facilities like the internet and social media to communicate the pitfalls of blindly following political promises.
The BJP's landslide victory in the 2014 general election was helped by Dalit votes. Currently, 84 parliament seats are reserved for Dalits as those constituencies are dominated by Dalit people. In 2014, the BJP won 40 of them, according to a study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
Father Devasagayaraj said Dalit anger against the BJP will be reflected in voting at the next election as Dalit people are changing and "not ready to take political promises seriously."
Prakash said young Dalits are increasingly aware of their rights as citizens. "In the past, we were nothing but cannon fodder for both the opposition and ruling parties. The time has come when such exploitation will not be allowed," he told ucanews.com.
Sanjay Kumar, a Dalit activist in the northern state of Punjab, told ucanews.com that the present generation of Dalits have learned from the past. "The ongoing agitation wants to send a message across the Dalit people … to break the trap and demand equal rights in society," he said.
Jignesh Mevani, a Dalit leader and politician from Gujarat, is the new face of Dalit political assertiveness. He holds seminars and awareness camps that attract huge crowds of people as he eloquently speaks about ways for Dalits to advance.
Addressing a seminar in Ahmadabad city on April 9, Mevani accused the BJP government of disregarding the interests of Dalit people. He warned of more nationwide protests if the government fails to defend the Dalit protection law in the Supreme Court.
Many young Dalit leaders feel the community is irreversibly changing for the better.
"Young people are now confronting the government with facts and figures, a trend alien to the community in the past. A new revolution is in the making and the time is not far away when the community will no longer be viewed as taboo or alien to mainstream society," said Renuka Kumari, a young Dalit writer in New Delhi.
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