Photography by Koustav Basu as part of the ‘Rainy Day’ project available to view on Behance
India’s Constitution is one that promises equality and justice for all people no matter their religion, race, sex or caste. Following independence in 1947, the country created vision of a fair and just society for a population that had endured indescribable exploitation and injustice under the British.
At the forefront of the new vision of India was a system of social welfare and equality that would redress codes of inequality strengthened by the British and the discriminatory caste system which stripped millions of people of their humanity.
The Constitution (which you can read here) prohibits discrimination based on class or caste. This includes any exclusion of a person from shops, restaurants and hotels. In addition, all people were promised access to resources of necessary public use, such as wells and roads, which would be maintained and funded by the state. In employment, all people, it was written, would be offered equality of opportunity and could not be victims of discrimination based on their background. Most importantly, the Constitution aimed to protect all people from violence.
Like many Constitutions around the world, India’s vision reflects an ideal that unfortunately has not been successful in protecting millions of the country’s citizens from injustice and discriminatory or violent practices.
This article is about the Dalit population of India. In the Hindu caste system, the Dalit are ‘outcastes’, a fifth category created to describe the lowest in the social hierarchy. They are otherwise known as ‘untouchable’ and are regarded by many as being cursed, and have been oppressed for thousands of years. The Dalit population of India is over 200 million, and for an overwhelming majority of these people marginalisation, aggression and violence are everyday realities.
From being burnt alive for trying to enter a temple to being asked to clean one’s own coffee cup due to impurity, the Dalit experience of violence pervades aspects of everyday life. The severity of the violence one might become a victim of does not depend on the extremity of an act by a Dalit person, but by the hate and prejudice of the perpetrator. In 2015 an infant and a two-year-old were burnt alive in their home in an act of aggression and violence against their caste.
Although the cases listed above caused major outrage both in India and across the globe, a majority of offences against Dalit populations go unreported. It seems that the anti-discriminatory and protective framework provided in the Constitution are not an incentive enough to encourage Dalit people to report crimes committed against them. This may be due to their marginalised status in Indian society, but is also influenced by the internalised inferiority of Dalit people that is reinforced through many Indian social institutions.
Despite unreported figures, statistics show that violence against the Dalit community is on the rise. It is clear that the social mechanisms in place to protect citizens, such as the police, healthcare services, courts and local councils are not doing enough to end violence against this segment of the population.
The conviction rates for those who commit crimes against Dalit people are shockingly low.
There are many organisations in India who work to offer people from the Dalit community protection and justice. However, the extent of prejudice, violence and discrimination cannot be covered simply by charitable aid. It is necessary for lawmakers in India to strengthen acts of protection for the Dalit people. This may include enhancing public services for Dalit security and opening further opportunities for the Dalit population. In addition, social norm change must take place throughout society, but crucially within the police force and legal bodies to allow Dalit people to feel comfortable and safe reporting crimes committed against them.
Many amendments have been suggested in order to improve the protection and justice the law offers for Dalit people. The country has recently elected a Dalit president, which could be a sign of progressive change. However, India’s presidential role is mainly ceremonial, and has predominantly shown it’s influence in forming governments in times of political uncertainty. It is the Prime Minister who has responsibility for the government of India, a role that has never been held by a person from the Dalit community.
What seems evident in a time of increasing injustice and violence is that the basis of caste relations in India needs to be redressed.With the changing landscape of India, and drastic shifts in economic, social and political life, now is the time to tackle this issue of injustice. The opportunities springing up for most people in the country should be available for all people, no matter their sex, class, race, religion or caste.
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