“If the fundamental rights are opposed by the community, no law, no parliament, no judiciary can guarantee them in the real sense of the word.”
-Dr. B.R. Ambedkar
In 2015, two young women were sentenced by an all male, unelected village council to be gang raped, have their faces blackened and be paraded naked through the streets of their town. Their crime? The brother of the women, aged 23 and 15, had eloped with a married woman of higher social status and their more privileged neighbors demanded this ‘eye for an eye’ punishment.
The village wasn’t in some lawless corner of Afghanistan but in the Bagpat District of the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh. The women were Dalits, the lowest rung of India’s caste system, once called ‘Untouchables’.
Although the international outcry about the womens’ sentence led by Amnesty International, was such that the central government was forced to offer them protection, violent attacks and even rape targeting India’s 180 million Dalits are still all too common in many parts of the country.
A growing movement has directly come out of this caste based violence, embracing the message and some of the tactics of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement in the US, just as the Dalit Panther Movement drew inspiration from the Black Panthers in an earlier era.
Speaking to PS Magazine in the article cited above, Asha Kotwal of the group Dalit Women Fight, who was visiting with Black Lives Matter members in the US recently, explained how these movements can and should be linked, “Our challenges are strikingly similar to what the Romas face in Europe, or blacks in the United States, and if we stand together the demands and articulations of each community becomes so much more powerful.”
Cow Vigilantism and Hindu Nationalism
While the two groups surely have a lot to learn from each other, some of the Dalits’ protest actions are unique to them. These include dumping cow remains outside of government offices and refusing to do the work of skinning the animals, leaving the task to mostly higher caste municipal officials.
Although certain Dalits have long been given rights to the carcasses of dead cows, which are sacred in the Hindu religion, vigilante groups of higher caste ‘cow protectors’ have accused some of slaughtering live animals and taken the law into their own hands in terms of punishing those they see as offenders.
In July, in the town of Una, Gujarat, four Dalits accused of killing a cow were beaten twice by vigilantes with iron bars and sticks, the second time in full view of the authorities, as the attackers, members of the Shiv Sena Hindu nationalist group, marched their victims through the town to the police station. Throughout the ordeal, the victims protested their innocence.
Gujarat, the state where the four men were flogged, became infamous in 2002 when what were described as ‘riots’ throughout the state after 60 Hindu pilgrims were killed in a train fire blamed on members of the state’s Muslim minority led to as many as 2000 deaths when they were targeted in the aftermath of the tragedy.
Having events like these transpire during their time in office would end most political careers but not that of Narendra Modi, then Governor of Gujarat and now Prime Minister of the country. Modi, who champions neoliberal economics along with a sometimes inflammatory Hindu nationalism, has been embraced by western powers brokers from Silicon Valley billionaires to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
In an interesting twist as the American presidential campaign nears its end, the Republican nominee has taken and altered Modi’s 2014 campaign slogan as “Ab Ki Baar, Trump Sarkar”, which roughly translates to “This Time Trump Government” in a series of cable ads designed to appeal to the large Indian minority in the US, many of whom have embraced Modi’s politics and see similarities between him and the real estate magnate.
Growth over People
The BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government under Modi is pointed to in the western business press as successfully implementing market oriented reforms, which really began in the 1990s. Posting a growth rate of over 7% for the 2015 fiscal year, the country has overtaken China in terms of GDP growth.
However, such numbers hide the reality of the country’s many poor and hungry citizens, not only Dalits but other groups including indigenous peoples and Muslims categorized as OBCs or, “other backward classes”. While the country has seen some progress at the top and a little in the middle, many in the lower classes complain that they are in fact getting poorer. Many of the protesting Dalits are demanding rights to land they say they have long been entitled to.
Fast growing India is viewed in some ways as a counterweight to China’s increasing economic clout, especially in Asia. Also, having long struggled with its Muslim minority, its neighbor Pakistan and the disputed region of Kashmir, the country has long been seen, both in the US and Israel, as a potential partner in the battle against Muslim extremists.
Neoliberalism shows its ugliest side, not in the west but in places like India where the process of concentrating economic power in elites from whence it might “trickle down” reinforces already existing social inequalities. A recent Forbes listing of India’s richest showed that 100 individuals and families in India have over a billion dollars in assets. This, in a country where the vast majority of people earn around 30 cents a day. Many of them like Tata motors owner, Ratan Tata have long supported Modi and the BJP.
As one of the country’s greatest living writers, Arundhati Roy, explained at length in an essay for the British magazine Prospect,
Other mercantile castes like Parsis, Bohraa and Kattris have also found great wealth in recent years. This in some ways shows the incredible adaptability of the caste system, which has begun to take into account new economic realities just as it adapted to British imperialism and earlier invasions.
Until a few weeks ago I don’t think I had ever heard of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the chairman of the drafting committee for India’s constitution in the late 1940s which banned discrimination on the basis of the country’s ancient caste system. Ambedkar was a great champion of the country’s weakest citizens, including Muslims, women and Dalits. In many ways he reminds me of Martin Luther King Jr. and as such, his beliefs have been airbrushed by power when they haven’t been completely ignored.
As a Mahar, one of the Dalit castes, Ambedkar suffered discrimination from his earliest days. He went as far in his criticism of this system to convert to Buddhism and encouraged his fellow Dalits to do the same. With the recent protests by many Dalits, the memory of Ambedkar is more important than ever.
Just as in most of the 20th century when movement leaders drew comparisons between their struggle and those of peoples throughout what was then called the 3rd world to end colonialism, the current generation of activists have found solidarity with the ongoing battles of Palestinians in the Middle East and Lenca people in Honduras to name just two.
Technology has helped to facilitate these movements locally and disseminated information about them throughout the world in a way earlier generations of activists could have only dreamed about. In India and throughout the world, this new found power of communication could turn out to be a game changer.