- Indians and Indian Americans who are appalled by George Floyd’s last words have no trouble turning a deaf ear to the cries of the people brutalized by the chokehold of the caste system.
Three weeks ago, 46-year-old George Floyd’s murder by white police officer Derek Chauvin set off a wave of protests in America and countries across the globe. The fire is still raging. The protestors are out on the streets, calling out institutionalized racism and clamoring for the long overdue end to police brutality. Their cries have jolted the world awake.
As the news from Minneapolis spread, Indians rushed in droves to social media platforms to express their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and to demand justice for George Floyd. Many Bollywood actors and actresses burst out of their padded cocoons to tweet in solidarity. India is abuzz with conversations — online and offline, virtual and real — about Floyd’s murder, police brutality in America, and the American justice system’s sustained assault on black citizens and their constitutional rights.
There is an exquisite irony to this. The Indians who bristle at injustice elsewhere, the Indians who broadcast their indignation and horror loud and clear, manage to stay perfectly silent when Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, migrant workers, and other minorities become the targets of brutal violence unleashed by the state apparatus and an increasingly emboldened, aggressive majoritarian faction in India.
Violence against minorities has become a daily affair in the country — public beatings repeated ad infinitum, lynchings seeped in blood, Muslim houses burnt, Muslim businesses destroyed, Dalit shanty towns razed to the ground. News reports about Dalits being shot, raped, lynched, beaten up or paraded around naked by upper-caste Hindus keep pouring in. For 280 million so-called lower caste and tribal (SC/STs) citizens, everyday life has become a deadly tightrope walk.
Consider this. In the last one month, a Dalit teen was shot dead in Amroha, Uttar Pradesh, after he prayed at a temple where Dalits are barred entry; a 20-year old Dalit youth was hacked to death in Pune for having an affair with an upper-caste girl; a scheduled caste minor girl was gang-raped in Bharatpur, Rajasthan and is now pregnant; two Dalit men were hacked to death in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu; and three Dalit men were assaulted and paraded with footwear around their necks in Lucknow, UP. In Tamil Nadu, caste atrocities are reported to have increased nearly fivefold during the nationwide lockdown, from March 25 on.
This list barely scratches the surface. Caste atrocities play out with unfailing regularity like a grisly horror show, a comfortably numb nation carries on. Dalit activists and progressive groups have been campaigning for justice and calling attention to systemic oppression. But the majority of Indians continue to stay indifferent to it at best and shockingly casteist at worst.
I’ve met more than one highly educated and well-travelled Indian who cling to the notion that caste is a defining aspect of “Indianness,” whatever their definition of that nebulous quality happens be. By this twisted logic, they argue that if you speak up against casteism and oppose discriminatory practices, you are maligning India itself. This is, of course, pure bunkum. Traditionally, Hinduism has four main castes, which are divided into a number of sub-castes. Each caste has a particular hierarchical status. Dalits, the ‘outcasts,’ are placed at the lowest rung of the ladder. The deeply flawed caste system, designed many moons ago, openly discriminates against Dalits, limiting their access to everything from education and housing to health services and employment.
It boggles the mind when Indians with Ph.Ds and graduate degrees from Oxford and Harvard reveal their casteist stripes and wax eloquent about the caste system in this day and age. This tribe is living proof of the fact that caste is so deeply rooted in the Indian psyche that an education — no matter how comprehensive or liberal the curriculum — can do little to uproot it.
“Caste is outlawed in India, right?” Many of my American friends ask me this question, expecting a yes or no answer. If only life was that simple. If only prejudice could be pulled up like a weed and wiped out for good by the arm of the law. The gap between the idea and thing, the distance between a law on paper and the proper implementation of said law, is wide and grotesque. The Indian constitution outlawed caste-based discrimination in 1950. There are several laws including the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and provisions in the Indian Penal Code that are meant to protect SC/STs and address instances of violence and discrimination.
Chokehold of Caste
But people continue to fall through the cracks. Both the police and the judiciary, which have many members who are infected with caste prejudices, fail to step up to the plate. When police brutality is unleashed on Dalits or justice is denied or delayed by the courts, Indian society responds with a resounding silence. Nobody organizes Dalit Lives Matter marches or blacks out their profile pictures on Facebook. Indians who are appalled by George Floyd’s last words have no trouble turning a deaf ear to the cries of the people who have been brutalized by the chokehold of the caste system in this country for decades.
Structures and practices that keep the caste system alive survive with impunity in India. The outmoded concept of ‘purity’ and ‘untouchability’ has not lost currency. Many consider ‘lower castes’ ‘unclean.’ Dalits are not allowed to fetch water from the wells used by upper caste households in most villages. Their freedom of movement is restricted and they are forced to live in Dalit settlements, which are physically distanced from the homes of the rest of the population.
When violence is perpetrated on Dalits, the business of responding to it is left to the activists. The marching and protesting, the organizing and sloganeering — all handed at once to the activists. The Indian state on its part is quick to pounce on activists and slap charges on them. Much like in the times of the British Raj, activists are being charged with sedition, branded ‘anti-national,’ and accused of hatching convoluted and far-fetched conspiracies. Indian jails are overflowing with people who have dared to speak up for the marginalized and fight for their rights. Activists like Sudha Bharadwaj and G.N. Saibaba, continue to languish in jail without hope of bail or trial, while criminals roam the streets targeting minorities and unleashing violence on them.
The house is on fire. The flames are right here, eating away at the foundations of the secular republic. Indians who seethe at the gross miscarriage of justice across the Atlantic need to speak up, and speak up now. If it is possible to tune into the cries of the oppressed from across the oceans, surely it is possible to stop being deaf to the cries echoing across the length and breadth of your own country. Silence is complicity. Silence in a time like this is the worst hypocrisy.
Vineetha Mokkil is the author of the short story collection, “A Happy Place and Other Stories” (HarperCollins). Her fiction has appeared in the Santa Fe Writers Project Journal, Gravel, Barren magazine, Asian Cha, and in the anthology, “The Best Asian Short Stories 2018.” She is currently based in New Delhi.