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The constitution has merely prescribed, but has not given any description of the ground reality. We can make a dent only if we recognise the fact that the caste system is a major source, indeed an obnoxious one, of human rights violations.

With little land of their own to cultivate, Dalit men, women, and children numbering in the tens of millions work as agricultural laborers for a few kilograms of rice or Rs. 15 to Rs. 35 (US$0.38 to $0.88) a day. Most live on the brink of destitution, barely able to feed their families and unable to send their children to school or break away from cycles of debt bondage that are passed on from generation to generation. At the end of day they return to a hut in their Dalit colony with no electricity, kilometers away from the nearest water source, and segregated from all non-Dalits, known as caste Hindus. They are forbidden by caste Hindus to enter places of worship, to draw water from public wells, or to wear shoes in caste Hindu presence. They are made to dig the village graves, dispose of dead animals, clean human waste with their bare hands, and to wash and use separate tea tumblers at neighborhood tea stalls, all because—due to their caste status—they are deemed polluting and therefore “untouchable.” Any attempt to defy the social order is met with violence or economic retaliation.

As documented throughout this report, the perpetuation of human rights abuses against India’s Dalit population is intimately connected to police abuse. Local police officials routinely refuse to register cases against caste Hindus or enforce relevant legislation that protects Dalits. Prejudiced by their own caste and gender biases, or under the thumb of influential landlords and upper-caste politicians, police not only allow caste Hindus to act with impunity but in many cases operate as agents of powerful upper-caste groups to detain Dalits who organize in protest against discrimination and violence, and to punish Dalit villagers because of their suspected support for militant groups.

Under constitutional provisions and various laws, the state grants Dalits a certain number of privileges, including reservations (quotas) in education, government jobs, and government bodies. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 was designed to prevent abuses againstmembers of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes and punish those responsible. Its enactment represented an acknowledgment on the part of the government that abuses, in their most degrading and violent forms, were still perpetrated against Dalits decades after independence. The laws, however, have benefited very few and, due to a lack of political will, development programs and welfare projects designed to improve economic conditions for Dalits have generally had little effect. Dalits rarely break free from bondage or economic exploitation by upper-caste landowners.

Political parties have frequently fashioned their manifestos and campaign slogans around the need for “upliftment” of these marginalized sectors, while political leaders, mostly drawn from higher castes, offer the promise of equal status and equal rights.18 It would be difficult to convince the Dalits of Dholapur district, Rajasthan, that, fifty years after independence, the government had done anything to end the violence and discrimination that have ruled their lives. In April 1998, a Dalit of the area was assaulted by an upper-caste family who forcibly pierced his nostril, drew a string through his nose, paraded him around the village, and tied him to a cattle post—all because he refused to sell bidis (hand-rolled cigarettes) on credit to the nephew of the upper-caste village chief.19 The message sent from the judiciary on caste discrimination is equally grim: in July 1998 in the state of Uttar Pradesh, an Allahabad High Court judge had his chambers “purified with Ganga jal” (water from the River Ganges), because it had earlier been occupied by a Dalit judge.20

The remainder of this chapter describes the basic tenets of the caste system, the context for the abuses described in this report, the political movements they have helped fuel, and the legal framework of the government’s response.

The Caste System

India’s caste system is perhaps the world’s longest surviving social hierarchy. A defining feature of Hinduism, caste encompasses a complex ordering of social groups on the basis of ritual purity. A person is considered a member of the caste into which

he or she is born and remains within that caste until death, although the particular ranking of that caste may vary among regions and over time. Differences in status are traditionally justified by the religious doctrine of karma, a belief that one’s place in life is determined by one’s deeds in previous lifetimes. Traditionalscholarship has described this more than 2,000-year-old system within the context of the four principal varnas, or large caste categories. In order of precedence these are the Brahmins (priests and teachers), the Ksyatriyas (rulers and soldiers), the Vaisyas (merchants and traders), and the Shudras (laborers and artisans). A fifth category falls outside the varna system and consists of those known as “untouchables” or Dalits; they are often assigned tasks too ritually polluting to merit inclusion within the traditional varna system.21

Within the four principal castes, there are thousands of sub-castes, also called jatis, endogamous groups that are further divided along occupational, sectarian, regional and linguistic lines. Collectively all of these are sometimes referred to as “caste Hindus” or those falling within the caste system. The Dalits are described as varna-sankara: they are “outside the system”—so inferior to other castes that they are deemed polluting and therefore “untouchable.” Even as outcasts, they themselves are divided into further sub-castes. Although “untouchability” was abolished under Article 17 of the Indian constitution, the practice continues to determine the socio-economic and religious standing of those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy. Whereas the first four varnas are free to choose and change their occupation, Dalits have generally been confined to the occupational structures into which they are born.

“Untouchability” and Segregation

A 1997 report issued by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes underscored that “untouchability”—the imposition of social disabilities on persons by reason of their birth in certain castes—was still practiced in many forms throughout the country. The report described a number of social manifestations of caste-based discrimination in the 1990s: scheduled-caste bridegrooms were not permitted to ride a mare in villages, a marriage tradition; scheduled castes could not sit on their charpoys (rope beds) when persons of other castes passed by; scheduled castes were not permitted to draw water from common wells and hand-pumps; and in many tea-shops and dhabas (food stalls), separate crockery and cutlery were used for serving the scheduled castes.22

The prevalence of “untouchability” practices was also noted by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 1996, while reviewing India’s tenth to fourteenth periodic reports under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination:23

Although constitutional provisions and legal texts exist to abolish untouchability and to protect the members of the scheduled castes and tribes, and social and educational policies have been adopted to improve the situation of members of the scheduled castes and tribes and to protect them from abuses, widespread discrimination against those people, and the relative impunity of those who abuse them, points to the limited effect of these measures. The Committee is particularly concerned at reports that people belonging to the scheduled castes and tribes are often prevented from using public wells or from entering cafes or restaurants and that their children are sometimes separated from other children in schools, in violation of article 5 (f) of the Convention.24

Most Dalits in rural areas live in segregated colonies, away from the caste Hindus. According to an activist working with Dalit communities in 120 villages in Villapuram district, Tamil Nadu, all 120 villages have segregated Dalit colonies. Basic supplies such as water are also segregated, and medical facilities and the better, thatched-roof houses exist exclusively in the caste Hindu colony. “Untouchability” is further reinforced by s tate allocation of facilities; separate facilities are provided for separate colonies. Dalits often receive the poorer of the two, if they receive any at all.25

As part of village custom, Dalits are made to render free services in times of death, marriage, or any village function. During the Marama village festival in Karnataka state, caste Hindus force Dalits to sacrifice buffalos and drink their blood. They then have to mix the blood with cooked rice and run into the village fields without their chappals (slippers). The cleaning of the whole village, the digging of graves, the carrying of firewood, and the disposal of dead animals are all tasks that Dalits are made to perform.26

In villages where Dalits are a minority, the practice of “untouchability” is even more severely enforced. Individual attempts to defy the social order are frequently punished through social boycotts and acts of retaliatory violence further described below. Activists in Tamil Nadu explained that large-scale clashes between caste communities in the state’s southern districts have often been triggered by Dalits’ efforts to draw water from a “forbidden” well or by their refusal to perform a delegated task. Dalits have responded to ill-treatment by converting, en masse, to Buddhism, Christianity, and sometimes Islam. Once converted, however, many lose access to their scheduled-caste status and the few government privileges assigned to it. Many also find that they are ultimately unable to escape treatment as “untouchables.”

The Relevance of Land

The caste system is an economic order. It prevents someone from owning land or receiving an education. It is a vicious cycle and an exploitative economic arrangement. Landowning patterns and being a high-caste member are co-terminous. Also there is a nexus between [being] lower-caste and landlessness... Caste is a tool to perpetuate exploitative economic arrangements.

— R. Balakrishnan, chairman, Tamil Nadu Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes27

Most Dalit victims of abuse are landless agricultural laborers.28 According to the 1991 census, 77 percent of the Dalit workforce is in the primary (agricultural) sector of the economy. Those who own land often fall into the category of marginal landowners.29 Land is the prime asset in rural areas thatdetermines an individual’s standard of living and social status.30 Lack of access to land makes Dalits economically vulnerable; their dependency is exploited by upper- and middle-caste landlords and allows for many abuses to go unpunished.

India’s policy of economic liberalization is also having an effect on Dalits and their livelihood. As the public sector shrinks due to privatization, the reservations model is affecting—and able to assist—fewer people, inasmuch as government-related jobs are being drastically reduced. Globalization has also led to coastal lands increasingly being acquired by multinationals (via the central government) for aquaculture projects. Dalits are the main laborers and tenants of coastal land areas and are increasingly being forced to leave these areas—to live as displaced people, for the most part—as foreign investment rises.31

Land reform and increased wages for rural laborers are the central demands of most leftist guerrilla organizations active in West Bengal, Bihar, and Andhra Pradesh. Private landlord militias and state security forces have targeted civilians thought to be guerrilla sympathizers. The failure of most state governments to implement land reform legislation has only added to the sense of economic vulnerability that fuels militant movements. In Bihar in particular, guerrillas enjoy Dalit support, as most of the Dalit community lives on the edge of starvation. Laws and regulations that prohibit alienation of Dalit lands, set ceilings on a single landowner’s holdings, or allocate surplus government lands to scheduled castes and

scheduled tribes have been largely ignored, or worse, manipulated by upper castes with the help of district administrations.

In 1996 a nongovernmental organization undertook a door-to-door survey of 250 villages in the state of Gujarat and found that, in almost all villages, those who had title to land had no possession, and those who had possession had not had their land measured or faced illegal encroachments from upper castes. Many had no record of their holdings at all. Even those who had been offered land under agrarian reform legislation refused to accept it for fear of an upper-caste backlash. In the late 1980s in Chenaganambatti village in Madurai district, Tamil Nadu, 9.5 acres of idle land belonging to a temple under the Hindu Religious Endowment Act were auctioned and sold to villagers for cultivation. At the time, some 500,000 acres of such idle land existed in Tamil Nadu. Caste Hindus did not allow Dalits to take part in the auction. In 1989 Dalits began demanding participation and, in1992, finally succeeded in entering the auction. Caste Hindus protested and appealed to the commissioner of the Hindu Religious Endowment Act, a central government official. The commissioner decreed that the lands, once bought at auction, legally belonged to the Dalits. One month later, and in broad daylight, one hundred members of the Kallar community, an upper-caste group, invaded and destroyed nine acres of paddy (rice) fields belonging to Dalits. In subsequent attacks, the Kallars murdered two Dalit men and assaulted three Dalit women, who sustained head injuries. As the leader of the Dalit Panthers movement in Tamil Nadu (see below) recalled:

They just cut their throat on the road. Even though the land belongs to Dalits, they [the Dalit owners] cannot plow it, even today. The accused were never punished. No trial took place.32

Social Boycotts and Retaliatory Violence

Whenever Dalits have tried to organise themselves or assert their rights, there has been a backlash from the feudal lords resulting in mass killings of Dalits, gang rapes, looting and arsoning, etc. of Harijan [Dalit] basties [villages].

— National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes33

Whether caste clashes are social, economic, or political in nature, they are premised on the same basic principle: any attempt to alter village customs or to demand land, increased wages, or political rights leads to violence and economic retaliation on the part of those most threatened by changes in the status quo. Dalit communities as a whole are summarily punished for individual transgressions; Dalits are cut off from their land and employment during social boycotts, women bear the brunt of physical attacks, and the Atrocities Act is rarely enforced.

Describing one such boycott, a village resident and social worker in the Marathwada region of eastern Maharashtra recalled:

The upper caste got together and said that we touched their god so we shouldn’t live here. They put a social boycott on all the Dalits. We could not enter their land, we could not work for them, we could not get wood, we could not buy goods from their stores, and we could not grind grain in the flour mill. We were not even allowed to go near the wells in upper-caste territory to fetch water. We could use our government pumps, but that wasn’t enough.34

The social boycott is reinforced when the village council levies fines against caste Hindus who refuse to participate in it. In villages in Karnataka state, upper castes are generally fined Rs. 501 (US$12.53) for giving employment to Dalits during a social boycott.35

Violence Against Dalit Women

As Human Rights Watch was told by a government investigator in Tamil Nadu, “[n]o one practices untouchability when it comes to sex.”36 Rape is a common phenomenon in rural areas. Women are raped as part of caste custom or village tradition. According to Dalit activists, Dalit girls have been forced to have sex with the village landlord.37 In rural areas, “women are induced into prostitution (Devadasi system)..., which [is] forced on them in the name of religion.”38 The prevalence of rape in villages contributes to the greater incidence of child marriage in those areas. Early marriage between the ages of ten years and sixteen years persists in large part because of Dalit girls’ vulnerability to sexual assault by upper-caste men; once a girl is raped, she becomes unmarriageable. An early marriage also gives parents greater control over the caste into which their children are married.

Dalit women are also raped as a form of retaliation. Women of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are raped as part of an effort by upper-caste leaders to suppress movements to demand payment of minimum wages, to settle sharecropping disputes, or to reclaim lost land. They are raped by members of the upper caste, by landlords, and by the police in pursuit of their male relatives.

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, upper-caste leaders deny the prevalence of sexual abuse against Dalit women. A prominent leader of the Thevar community in Tamil Nadu, who wished to remain anonymous, vehemently denounced the assertion that sexual relations between Dalit laborers and their landowning employers were nonconsensual.39 The very practice of “untouchability,” he explained, was until recently looked upon favorably by Dalits. He added that in the present day, the practice has almost completely disappeared. In an interview with Human Rights Watch, he claimed:

In the past, twenty to thirty years ago, harijans [Dalits] enjoyed the practice of “untouchability.” In the past, women enjoyed being oppressed by men. They weren’t educated. They didn’t know the world. Ladies would boast to others that my husband has more wives. Most of Dalit women enjoy relations with Thevar men. They enjoy Thevar community men having them as concubines. It is not done by force. Anything with Dalits is not done by force. That’s why they don’t react. They cannot afford to react, they are dependent on us for jobs and protection. Harijans formerly enjoyed their masters. “Untouchability” was there in various forms, but because of education, economic improvement, now in 95 percent of places, “untouchability” is not practiced. Thevars never say anything against them. Without Dalits we cannot live. We want workers in the fields. We are landholders. Without them we cannot cultivate or take care of our cattle. But Dalit women’s relations with Thevar men are not out of economic dependency. She wants it from him. He permits it. If he has power, then she has more affection for the landlord.40

Attacks on Dalit women during massacres, police raids, and caste clashes are discussed throughout this report. Dalit women are easy targets for any perpetrator because upper castes consider them to be “sexually available” and because they arelargely unprotected by the state machinery. The Bathani Tola massacre in Bihar in 199641 epitomizes this phenomenon.

The “landlords” wanted to reassert their feudal tyranny over the poor who have started becoming more vocal and by attacking the most vulnerable, women and children, they sent a clear message that they would not allow anyone to disturb the social structure... Women were raped and hacked. The huts and small houses in which the victims took shelter were burnt down. The shrill cries failed to draw the attention of the police posted a kilometre and a half away because their food came from the landlords’ houses.42

The Role of the Police

In 1979 the government of India constituted the National Police Commission to analyze the factors behind the dismal performance of the police throughout the country. The commission’s eight-volume report, which includes recommendations to address the problem, is still considered by government officials and civil rights activists to be the most comprehensive and definitive document on the issue. Moreover, the problems of corruption, police brutality, and impunity documented in the report persist to this day. A Times of India editorial by a New Delhi-based human rights activist summarized the findings of the report as follows:

The sum of the report, in fact, detail and verify what common sense tells us. Subversion begins at recruitment which is rife with patronage. Promotions follow suit depending on the “reach” of lucky people. Transfers substitute for punishment as a bad egg is foisted on one community after another. At the police station, a normal young recruit enters such a strong atmosphere of routine violence that in a few years he has been molded into something quite unrecognisable. Low pay, bad housing, little insurance against the hazards of police work, absurdlylong hours, practically no forensic support to assist in crime detection, and punishing demands for results, all confirm the ordinary policeman’s need for a “Godfather” to guide him through the thickets of survival. Favour for favour then ensures that the only agency legally allowed to use force against citizens gets transformed into a powerfully armed untamed assemblage that masquerades as the Law.43

The National Police Commission’s recommendations include a section on “police and the weaker sections,” which detailed police abuses specific to scheduled castes. The section noted that “complaints against the police in their handling of cases arising from atrocities against Scheduled Castes often relate to refusal to register complaints, delayed arrival on the scene, half-hearted action while investigating specific cases, extreme brutality in dealing with accused persons belonging to weaker sections, soft treatment of accused persons belonging to influential sections, making arrests or failing to make them on malafide considerations, etc.”44

Two decades later, none of the commission’s recommendations have been adopted, and police continue to detain, torture and extort money from Dalits without much fear of punishment. Frustration with the police has also helped to fuel armed and unarmed Dalit movements.

Dalit Political Movements

In addition to a growing number of lower-caste-based political parties and human rights movements, Dalits have taken part in struggles against the state and their upper-caste counterparts since the 1960s to claim their rights; several of these movements have used arms and have advocated violence. While some Dalit leaders have argued that the fundamental rights of Dalits should be addressed within a constitutional framework, many non-urbanized Dalits have taken the position that their problems cannot be resolved without a militant struggle against those in power.

Mainstream political parties in India have generally adopted a top-down interventionist approach to Dalit problems, offering promises of loans, housing,and proper implementation of reservations (quotas allowing for increased representation in government jobs, education, and political bodies) as compensation for past mistreatment. Issues of “untouchability,” temple entry,45 violence, and economic exploitation were largely left unaddressed by the state and political parties. As the traditional political parties abandoned or avoided efforts to mobilize support among Dalits at the grassroots level, they paved the way for an autonomous Dalit leadership to emerge in the early 1990s. This new leadership has been threatening for backward and upper castes.

Dalit Panthers of India

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Dalit Panthers, and several groups with a Marxist/Leninist or Maoist orientation, emerged outside the framework of recognized political parties and parliamentary politics to confront the established powers. The Dalit Panthers were formed in the state of Maharashtra in the 1970s, ideologically aligning themselves to the Black Panther movement in the United States. During the same period, Dalit literature, painting, and theater challenged the very premise and nature of established art forms and their depiction of society and religion. Many of these new Dalit artists formed the first generation of theDalit Panther movement that sought to wage an organized struggle against the varna system. Dalit Panthers visited “atrocity” sites, organized marches and rallies in villages, and raised slogans of direct militant action against their upper-caste aggressors.46

The determined stance of the Dalit Panthers served to arouse and unite many Dalits, particularly Dalit youths and students. The defeat of ruling party candidates and the boycott of elections in some areas forced the government to take notice of the movement: Panther leaders were often harassed and removed from districts for speaking out against the government and Hindu religion. They also became frequent targets of police brutality and arbitrary detentions. Disagreements over the future of the movement and the inclusion of other caste groups ultimately led to a dispersal of Dalit Panther leadership. The former aggressiveness and militancy of the Dalit Panthers have for the most part dissipated, though small splinter groups or groups that have adopted the name still survive.47 In Tamil Nadu, for example, the Dalit Panthers of India have thrived since the 1980s as a nonviolent awareness-raising and organizing movement concentrating primarily on women’s rights and land issues and claims. They are currently led by a man named Tirumavalavan. As documented in chapters V and VIII, their members are continually harassed and detained by the police.


The origins of the Naxalite movement can be traced to a breakaway Maoist group in West Bengal, which in March 1967 split from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) over differences in ideology: while CPI(M) chose the parliamentary path to change, the Maoist group chose to engage in armed struggle. The group initiated a series of peasant uprisings beginning in a village in the state of West Bengal called Naxalbari, from which rebel leaders took the name “Naxalite.” The peasant communities seized land, burned property records, and assassinated exploitative landlords and others identified as “class enemies.” Although the uprising was brutally crushed within a few months, similar revolts broke out elsewhere in West Bengal and in other parts of India.48

By 1970, Naxalite groups had expanded their efforts to large areas of the countryside stretching from West Bengal to the southern state of Kerala. They engaged in a campaign of land seizure and violence against the police and security forces, as well as against political figures, civil servants, landlords, and other civilians. In many instances, land seizures and other demonstrations of peasant resistance forced landlords to flee their lands. The Naxalites’ abuses included targeted assassinations and kidnappings of political figures and police officials. Naxalite groups also carried out bombings and arson in areas where they were likely to cause civilian casualties and summarily executed, and in some cases tortured to death, suspected police informers. All such practices constitute gross violations of international law. Although the Naxalite insurgency was brought to an end in most parts of the country by a brutal police crackdown designed to eliminate the militants and their supporters, the movement continues to survive, albeit with some splits and regroupings, in the rural areas of West Bengal, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, and Bihar.

From the outset of the Naxalbari uprising, the government has resorted to extra-legal measures to deal with the Naxalite threat, including extrajudicial executions, torture, and forced disappearances. Most of the victims of police abuse are peasants and laborers. Members and organizers of peasant unions are automatically labeled as Naxalites. Tribal and Dalit villagers are often singled out as Naxalite sympathizers, while attacks on rural activists and striking laborers are sanctioned as part of a campaign to fight “Naxalite terrorism.” Senior police officers with a record of “killing Naxalites” even receive promotions, cash rewards, and favored postings.49

The significance of the Naxalite movement in Bihar’s caste clashes is further discussed in Chapter IV.

The Rise of the “Backward Castes”

For those within the four principal varnas, caste has not proved to be a completely rigid system. Just as the higher ritual status of Brahmins does not necessarily translate into economic or political supremacy, those lower in the ranks are able to move up in the local hierarchy through the capture of political power, the acquisition of land, and migration to other regions. A combination of these strategies and India’s policy of quotas or reservations have particularly benefited the so-called backward castes, or Shudras. Referred to as “other backward classes” (OBCs) in administrative parlance, backward castes are defined as those whose ritual rank and occupational status are above “untouchables” but who themselves remain socially and economically depressed.

Contrary to the general presumption that the OBCs belong to the deprived sections of Hindu society, few groups in independent India have made progress on a scale comparable to the OBCs. However, it must be noted that the term OBCs is a problematic categorization. One author writes that OBCs

span such a wide cultural and structural arch as to be almost meaningless. There are at one extreme the dominant, landowning, peasant castes which wield power and authority over local Vaishyas and Brahmins, whereas at the other extreme are the poor, near-Untouchable groups living just above the pollution line. The category also includes many artisan and servicing castes.50

Some academics have divided Shudras into two clearly identifiable subcategories: upper Shudras and lower Shudras. In north India the upper Shudras comprise such economically powerful and politically aggressive groups as the Jats and Yadavs. The Jats, though not officially included in the OBC list, still regard themselves as the leaders of the backward castes.

The inclusion of so many heterogeneous groups within the OBC category has both made for its enormous size and has enabled its leaders to advocate their claim for special status and land in post-independence India. The first wave of land reform in the 1950s aimed at conferring ownership rights on existing tenants of land. Land reform legislation was responsible for displacing the large class of zamindars (large landowners) and creating a substantial class of medium-sized owner-cultivators, many of whom were OBCs. After cornering the benefits of this first wave of legislation, these groups attempted to block all subsequent land reformmeasures designed to benefit marginal farmers and the landless, who usually belonged to castes and groups lower on the social hierarchy, most notably Dalits.51 Economic prosperity soon translated into political gains for OBCs, while the reservation system of quotas—successfully implemented—ensured them a presence in the state machinery.52

In 1980 the National Police Commission noted a disturbing trend in caste conflicts between backward castes and scheduled castes:

In the recent years we have also seen a new factor emerging in the social struggle in rural areas in which the “backward classes” have been surging forward to take up positions of power and control in society, knocking down the upper castes who had held sway in such positions all along in the past. In this process of marching forward, the backward classes tend to push back the Scheduled Castes and others who occupy the lower rung in the social hierarchical ladder. There is greater tensionbetween structural neighbours in this hierarchy than between the top level and the bottom level.53

The pattern has since solidified such that caste clashes are far more prevalent between scheduled castes and backward castes than they are between these groups and upper castes. The Home Ministry’s Annual Report for 1995 reported that caste-related incidents in Tamil Nadu, Bihar, and Maharashtra increased by 25 to 30 percent from previous years. A majority of these incidents were taking place between scheduled castes and OBCs.54 The trend has continued, particularly in the state of Tamil Nadu, as documented in Chapter V.

Legal Context

The Constitution of India came into effect in 1950, the year that India became a republic and three years after India’s independence from British rule. It embodies the principles of equality, freedom, justice, and human dignity and requires both state and central governments to provide special protection to scheduled-caste members, to raise their standard of living, and to ensure their equality with other citizens. To women, the constitution guarantees equal rights, liberty, justice and the right to live with dignity. Discrimination on the basis of religion and gender is prohibited, and compensation for past discrimination is promoted.55

Building on constitutional provisions, the government of India has pursued a two-pronged approach to narrowing the gap between the socio-economic status of the scheduled-caste population and the national average. The first approach involves regulatory measures designed to ensure that relevant legal provisions are adequately implemented, enforced and monitored; the second focuses on increasing the self-sufficiency of the scheduled-caste population through financial assistance for self-employment activities and through development programs to increase education and skills.56

The protective component of this two-pronged strategy includes the implementation of legal provisions contained in the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989; other state and central government laws; and reservations or quotas in the arenas of government employment and higher education.57 India’s policy of reservations is an attempt by the central government to remedy past injustices related to low-caste status. To allow for proportional representation in certain state and federal institutions, the constitution reserves 22.5 percent of seats in federal government jobs, state legislatures, the lower house of parliament, and educational institutions for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. These protective measures are monitored by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The development measures for the educational, social, and economic upliftment of scheduled castes are administered by the Ministry of Welfare through the state governments.58

Like many of the protective measures described in this report, the reservation policy has not been successfully implemented for Dalits. In the highlights of its fourth report for the years 1996-97 and 1997-98, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes noted that reservations had only been provided in government services and stressed that reservations in defense forces and the judiciary should be enforced. It added that the private sector, which continues to enjoy government patronage in terms of concessional land, financing, and excise and sales tax relief, should also be brought under the purview of the reservation policy.59 Despite a large body of legislation and administrative agency mandates assigned exclusively to deal with the plight of scheduled castes, the persistence of caste-based prejudices and the denial of access to land, education, and political power have all contributed to an atmosphere of increasing intolerance. Violence against Dalits in their communities, which has steadily climbed since 1994, is only the most extreme form of that intolerance.

Between 1994 and 1996, a total of 98,349 cases were registered with the police nationwide as crimes and atrocities against scheduled castes. Of these, 38,483 were registered under the Atrocities Act. A further 1,660 were for murder,2,814 for rape, and 13,671 for hurt.60 Given that Dalits are both reluctant and unable (for lack of police cooperation) to report crimes against themselves, the actual number of abuses is presumably much higher. While there are not yet official figures available on killings and attacks in 1997 and 1998, the latest wave of attacks described in this and other reports confirms that the violence has continued.

17 Dr. R. M. Pal, “The Caste System and Human Rights Violations,” in Human Rights from the Dalit Perspective [no date] (Madras: Dalit Liberation Education Trust), p. 23. 18 Kothapalli Wilson, “Human Rights in a Caste Society, An Indian Perception” (Madras: Dalit Liberation and Education Trust), [no date], pp. 3-4. 19 Indian Express (Bombay), April 28, 1998. 20 “LS Concerned at ‘purifying’ act by HC judge,” Times of India (Bombay), July 23, 1998. 21 See generally, Ainslie Embree, ed., Sources of Indian Tradition: From the Beginnings to 1800 (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1988); Pauline Kolenda, Caste in Contemporary India: Beyond Organic Solidarity (Menlo Park: Benjamin/Cumming Publishing Co., 1978); M. N. Srinivas, ed., Caste: Its Twentieth Century Avatar (New Delhi: Viking, 1996). 22 National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Highlights of the Report for the Years 1994-95 & 1995-96 (New Delhi: Government of India, 1997), p. 2. The National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes is a constitutional bodyset up pursuant to Article 338 of the Indian constitution. It has been entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that the safeguards and protections which have been given to scheduled castes and tribes are implemented by the various implementing agencies. 23 In its review the committee noted that the situation of scheduled castes fell within the scope of the convention. See also Chapter X for more on the convention and its applicability to Dalits. 24 Consideration of Report by India to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, CERD/C/304/Add.13, September 17, 1996. 25 Human Rights Watch interview with Nicholas, director of Integrated Rural Development Society, Madras, February 14, 1998. In Tamil Nadu, the father’s given name, which comes before one’s given name (often in the form of an initial), often serves as the family name for his children. Throughout the country, Dalits and lower castes also use their caste name as their last name. Many of the people interviewed in this report, therefore, identified themselves only by their given name, and not their caste name or their father’s name. 26 Human Rights Watch interview with activists in Karnataka, Bangalore, July 26, 1998. 27 Human Rights Watch interview with R. Balakrishnan, chairman of the Tamil Nadu Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Madras, February 13, 1998. 28 Studies conducted by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. 29 “Social Conflict,” The Pioneer (Delhi), December 30, 1997. 30 National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Highlights of Fourth Report (New Delhi: Government of India, 1998), pp. 4-5. 31 See also, Anand Teltumbde, “Impact of Economic Reforms on Dalits in India,” (A Paper Presented in the Seminar on ‘Economic Reforms and Dalits in India’ Organized by the University of Oxford, Oxford, UK, on November 8, 1996), 32 Human Rights Watch interview with Tirumavalavan of the Dalit Panthers of India, Madras, February 13, 1998. 33 National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Highlights of the Report of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes for the Years 1994-95 & 1995-96 (New Delhi: Government of India, 1997), p. 2. 34 Human Rights Watch interview, Usgaon, Maharashtra, January 29, 1998. The boycott took place in 1992, arising from Dalits attempting to enter the village temple. 35 Human Rights Watch interview with Karnataka activists, Bangalore, July 26, 1998. 36 Human Rights Watch interview with R. Balakrishnan, director of Tamil Nadu chapter of National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Madras, February 13, 1998. 37 Dr. R. M. Pal, “The Caste System...,” p. 19. 38 "Statement made by the Dalit Liberation Education Trust on the Situation of Untouchable People (Dalits) in South Asia region, at the World Conference on Human Rights of the United Nations on 24th June 93 at Astoria Centre, Vienna during the 11th meeting of the Main Committee,” Annexure I in Human Rights from the Dalit Perspective (Madras: Dalit Liberation Education Trust), p. iii. 39 Thevars are a powerful “backward caste” in Tamil Nadu. For more on backward castes, see below. 40 Human Rights Watch interview, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, February 18, 1998. 41 See details in Chapter IV. Nineteen Dalits and Muslims, mostly women and children, were killed by members of the Ranvir Sena, a private militia of upper-caste landlords, in Bathani Tola (a Dalit hamlet of Barki Kharaon village) in July 1996. The attack was reportedly an effort to weaken the resolve of CPI(M-L), a leftist guerrilla organization, and to prevent a labor boycott on hundreds of acres of land. 42 Neena Bhandari, “Sexual Assaults on Women: Women are being sexually violated in India for various reasons including land disputes and caste conflicts,” [no date] Inter Press Service. 43 Maja Daruwala, “Cop Out on Police Reform,” Times of India, August 13, 1998. Maja Daruwala is the director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, a New Delhi-based NGO. 44 National Police Commission, “Police and the Weaker Sections of Society,” Chapter XIX, Third Report of the National Police Commission (New Delhi: Government of India, 1980), p. 4. 45 Until 1917 the National Congress refused to take up social reform for fear of creating divisions within the growing nationalist movement. However, leaders such as Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi made the removal of “untouchability” a priority and declared that it was no less important than the political struggle for independence. In 1923, Congress began taking active steps toward the eradication of “untouchability” by educating and mobilizing support among caste Hindus. The campaign against “untouchability” was perhaps most vibrant in the state of Kerala, where the problem was particularly acute and where social reform movements had been active since the end of the nineteenth century. The Vaikam satyagraha (passive resistance) from 1924 to 1925 offered Gandhi his first opportunity to act on behalf of Dalits who were denied entry into temples and the use of roads outside the Vaikam temple in Kerala state. Gandhi negotiated with the Nambudri Brahmin trustees of the Vaikam temple and managed to convince the temple authorities to open the temple roads to all. Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar had stated that for Dalits “the most important event in the country today is the satyagraha at Vaikam” but also pointed out that, after a year of protest, there had been few results. Dalits remained unable to enter the temple until 1936. The main weakness of the temple entry movement was that even while arousing people against “untouchability,” it lacked a strategy for ending the caste system itself. Bipan Chandra, ed., India's Struggle for Independence: 1857-1947 (New Delhi: Viking, 1988), pp. 230-234; Eleanor Zelliot, “Gandhi and Ambedkar: A Study in Leadership,” in E. Zelliot, From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement (New Delhi: Manohar Publications, 1992), pp. 160-165. 46 Sandeep Pendse, ed., At Crossroads: Dalit Movement Today (Bombay: Vikas Adhyayan Kendra, 1994), pp. 69-82. 47 Ibid. 48 One such revolt began in 1967 in a tribal district in the forest regions of northeastern Andhra Pradesh known as Srikakulam. As a result of confrontations between landlords and tribal activists demanding better wages and land rights, armed tribal committees began seizing land and crops from local landlords. The police responded by imposing restrictions on public gatherings, raiding tribal villages, and arresting and killing several hundred villagers. In reprisal, Naxalite groups accelerated campaigns to eliminate “class enemies,” which included landlords, money-lenders, and the police. By 1972 the insurgency was brought to an end, but Naxalite groups continue to operate in the state. Asia Watch (now the Asia division of Human Rights Watch), “Police Killings and Rural Violence in Andhra Pradesh,” A Human Rights Watch Report, September 1992, pp. 8-9. 49 Ibid., pp. 1-10. 50 Meenakshi Jain, “Backward Castes and Social Change in U.P. and Bihar,” in Caste: Its Twentieth Century Avatar (New Delhi: Viking, 1996), p. 136. 51 Ibid., pp. 136-151. 52 The Mandal Commission was appointed in December 1978 by then-Prime Minister Morarjibhai Desai. In 1980 the commission’s report recommended that 27 percent of federal government jobs be reserved for OBCs and classified 3,743 sub-castes throughout the country as backward and deserving of special treatment through reservations in government employment and education. Most government officials ignored the report’s recommendations until 1990, when then-Prime Minister V. P. Singh announced that his administration would implement the reservation scheme. The decision led to a violent public outcry, especially from students from lower-middle economic classes belonging to caste backgrounds that did not qualify under the reservation scheme. Thousands of students protested, boycotted classes, blocked traffic, destroyed public property, and engaged in violent confrontations with the police. Some students even set themselves on fire in protest. Widespread civil unrest and rioting, spurred on by the Bharatiya Janata Party, eventually led to the removal of Prime Minister V.P. Singh from office in November 1990 through a no confidence vote in Parliament. In September 1991 the newly installed government of Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao announced that it would retain the reservation scheme recommended by the Mandal Commission Report and reserve an additional 10 percent for poorer members of the upper castes and non-Hindu minorities. In September 1993, in Indra Sawhney v. Union of India, the Supreme Court ruled the Mandal scheme constitutional. “Constitutional Fairness or Fraud on the Constitution? Compensatory Discrimination in India,” Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Winter 1996 (28 Case W. Res. J. Int’l L. 63). 53 National Police Commission, "Police and the Weaker Sections of Society,” Chapter XIX, Third Report of the National Police Commission (New Delhi: Government of India, 1980), p. 3. 54 “Caste Tensions on the rise in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Bihar: govt. report,” Times of India, August 2, 1996. 55 Women are given equal status with men in most respects, with the exception of personal laws—laws relating to marriage, divorce, adoption, and succession. 56 Ministry of Welfare, Annual Report 1995-1996 (New Delhi: Government of India, 1996), p. 8. 57 For more detailed accounts of legal protections, see Chapter X. 58 The provision of finances to members of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes for self-employment activities is administered through the National Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Finance and Development Corporation. 59 National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Highlights of Fourth Report (New Delhi, Government of India, 1998), p. 4. 60 National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, National Crime Records Bureau (M.H.A.), Statement Showing Cases Registered with the Police Under Different Nature of Crimes and Atrocities on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes from 1994 to 1996 (New Delhi: Government of India, 1997).

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