Dalits snare trapped

[This is an AHRC Statement.]

The recent escalation in atrocities committed on Dalits is surprising even for Bihar, a province notorious for crimes against members of the community. The only things worse than the state’s failure to stop the crimes are the reasons the crimes are being committed.

Can one really burn alive a 15-year-old child for the “crime” of his goats straying into the paddy fields of a so-called upper caste man?

The gory incident in Rohtas is not a standalone one. It follows the gang-rape of six Dalit women on October 9 in Bhojpur and the incident involving more than 150 Dalits getting chased out of their village in Gaya after a member of the community was killed in September.

It is still too early to fear the return of caste-based massacres that once bedevilled Bihar. Yet, the situation is bleak for many reasons. The violence can be attributed, in part, to the changed political scenario. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), considered to be the party representative of the upper castes in the province, deserted the incumbent government led by the Janata Dal United (JD-U), which itself, largely, draws its support from the backward castes and Mahadalits, a term it coined for those worst off amongst the Dalits.

The uneasy, yet successful, alliance between the JD-U and BJP had brought together communities with centuries of animosity and had resulted in a temporary lull in violence against Dalits. That is, to state it differently, while there was no decline in everyday acts of individual atrocities committed on the members of the Dalit community, large-scale organised violence along caste lines had witnessed a decline. And, of course, there were exceptions to this general reality; the community did face occasional collective attacks, such as in the aftermath of killing of Brahmeshwar Singh, alias Mukhiya, the head of notorious upper caste militia, blamed for many Dalit massacres.

The alliance had compelled erstwhile warring communities to share space without reconciliation, without dealing with past animosities. The upper castes in the alliance saw it as a political necessity – to keep the other backward castes away from power, after having a government more representative of their interests On the other hand, the marginalised saw it as a way to maintain their claim on state resources. However, the then chief minister, and JD-U’s top leader, Nitish Kumar’s dogged refusal to accept Narendra Modi as prime ministerial candidate unravelled the alliance and exposed the fault lines of old animosities and atrocities.

It is in this context that the state is witnessing a renewed cycle of atrocities committed on the community, often on the flimsiest of the grounds, i.e. grounds that would have earlier been ignored by the same criminals. The fact that few of the perpetrators get caught and punished for such crimes emboldens them. If one go by the recent verdicts of the High Court of Bihar, it would, perhaps, be the only place in the world where pogroms and massacres have been found committed by no one. This is the refrain in case after case, be it Bathani Tola massacre case of 21 Dalits, which witnessed the acquittal of the 23 accused that were convicted by a lower court, or the Nagri massacre case involving the killing of 11 Dalits, or the Lakshmanpur Bathe massacre case of involving 26 deaths, or even the Mianpur massacre case which saw the killing of 9 Dalits. All the accused have been acquitted for lack of evidence.

The acquittals were bound to create tension and re-open wounds, and that they did. These acquittals also emboldened the upper castes to attempt a reclamation of their political control in the state from the other backward castes and Dalits.

Unfortunately, the response to the renewed wave of attacks from the political leadership has been inadequate. The state administration keeps failing to enforce the rule of law and punish the perpetrators of caste violence to deter others. The BJP, on its part, has kept quiet on the increasing attacks, to ensure that its core support base remains unoffended.

And, this is precisely what makes the threat of further escalation in violence loom large. The way forward is to ensure that those guilty of committing such heinous crimes do not get away scot-free and for political will to be mobilized to normalise relations.