Rural India is often the site of unspeakable atrocities against Dalits. The violence there doesn’t imperil the urban sprawls where we live – the political class, journalists, policy people, opinion-makers included. Communal riots, barring a few exceptions, are an urban phenomenon. They threaten to upturn our ordered lives.
Then again, caste violence stems from a dominant social group’s quest to retain its socio-economic superiority, whether through payment of low wages, or competition for resources, or through imposition of the social code affirming the Hindu caste hierarchy. We in urban India can comprehend caste violence in rational terms. What we can explain is also easy to reconcile with, particularly when it doesn’t menace our urban space.
Atrocity upon atrocity
Take some of the major incidents of violence against Dalits – the Kilvenmani massacre in Tamil Nadu in 1968 (44 Dalits killed), the gang-rape of Phoolan Devi and her own vengeance against 22 Rajputs in Behmai in 1981, the 1996 killing at Bathani Tola in Bihar (21, including three infants, died), the Laxman Bathe bloodbath in Bihar (58 died) in 1997… You could go on and on. Last year, in Dangawas, Rajasthan, a tractor was driven over three Dalits, crushing them to death. The names of places marked in bold are all villages.
Yet, in the wake of the burning alive of two children in Haryana last week, most media commentaries referred to the September 2006 incident at Khairlanji. This too is a village, near Nagpur, in Maharashtra. A land dispute resulted in a caste mob stripping naked a Dalit woman and her 17-year-old daughter, and marching them through the village before they were raped, in front of an assembly of people, and killed. The woman’s two sons were also murdered.
Why is it that we remember Khairlanji so vividly? Because of the shocking nature of the crime, you’d say. But perhaps a more compelling reason is that Khairlanji intruded upon the urban space. The resentment brewing among the Dalits over Khairlanji spilled out at the desecration of an Ambedkar statue in faraway Kanpur, UP. Nanded, Nashik, Aurangabad, Pune and Mumbai and its neighbouring areas began to burn. The urbane equipoise was ruffled, indelibly etching Khairlanji on our consciousness.
Threat to urban life
By contrast, Hindu-Muslim riots represent a perpetual threat to urban life. No doubt, these have an ideological framework, but the immediate goad for the periodic eruptions is petty, even irrational. They fight over the route a religious procession should take, the singing of kirtans and the recitation of azaans in temples and mosques simultaneously, the discovery of pork or beef at places of worship, and, now increasingly, over gender relationships. The causes for riots don’t have an economic underpin, and in cases where it is indeed present, it is not visible to us.
Communal riots, therefore, seem like an outburst of atavistic passion, anathema to the organising of urban space. This is because life in a city can’t be lived in isolation. Regardless of the emergence of fenced neighbourhoods, we are required to attend offices or schools or colleges or shop around for our necessities. The atavistic passion can swamp us all, as the densely populated urban sprawls help spread it rapidly.
Villages, in contrast, are relatively isolated and self-sufficient to a degree, at least enough to create a firewall to stem caste violence. It affects only a few; a village or two brought to a standstill can’t insinuate into the national consciousness. We remember violence because of the severity of its impact, its ability to impinge on urban life.
Caste violence in India is terribly one-sided. Barring a few exceptions, it follows a typical course – members of a family or a couple of friends are killed for defying the dominant caste; at times, the dwelling units of the community are set ablaze. Dalits protest, pelting stones or blocking traffic on an obscure highway, police make arrests, and politicians issue statements. Life slips into its familiar pattern of exploitation.
The Dalits are too disempowered to retaliate against their tormentors, whose social group is often of the urban privileged. We know a circle of violence will not be created to suck us into it. This is why Maoist violence shocks, for it targets the representatives of the state. Its growth is potentially a threat to our future.
Riot after riot
We prioritise what we want to remember on the basis of our past experiences. Communal riots have a distinct echo in the collective memory because of the price already paid. There were stray incidents of rioting in the beginning of the 19th century, such as the one Banaras witnessed in 1809.
But riots became alarmingly frequent in the 1880s and 1890s, particularly in UP, over issues such as, yes, cow-slaughter. Then there were those horrific Partition riots: millions were killed. Every riot, or the communal ambience, as it exists today, whispers a warning of the bloody past visiting us again.
This is ostensibly paradoxical. Though the large-scale Hindu-Muslim violence witnessed between the 1960s and the 1980s has faded away, barring the riots in Gujarat (2002) and Muzaffarnagar (2013), yet we recall our bloody past more frequently now.
This is because the riots now serve ideological purposes. The concept of a Hindu rashtra is to us today what separatism and the demand for Pakistan was to the people before Independence. A minor communal incident acquires menacing overtones because of the growing strength of the Hindu Right, mimicking, in some ways, the rise of the Muslim League in the years before the Partition.
The politics of caste
The politics of caste doesn’t have as violent a legacy as the politics of religion, though Tirunelveli witnessed riots in 1899 because of the Nadars’ insistence on entering temples. Caste riots stained Kerala in 1905.
However, the dominant legacy of caste is reservations. It evokes in us urban Indians the fear that the idea of building a meritorious society has been compromised. They took a percentage of government jobs and seats in educational institutes that could well have been our children’s, we argue. This conjured sense of deprivation has perhaps made us insensitive to the barbarity against Dalits.
Another cause could be that violence is built into the caste system. The violation of caste codes traditionally invited sanctions. It legitimised violence. Since the caste system persists even today, so does the justification for the violence implicit in it. We are wedded to the equality of all as enshrined in the Constitution. But then we add: “Rural India is like that only.”
Through caste is exercised social control. It has loosened, no doubt. But a good many Dalits wonder what their fate would have been had Gandhi not undertaken a fast unto death and compelled Ambedkar to relinquish the demand for a separate Dalit electorate. In return, seats were reserved for the Dalits in a joint Hindu electorate. It is because of the system of reserved constituencies that there are 84 Dalits in the Lok Sabha today, 85 MLAs in Uttar Pradesh, 29 in Maharashtra, 38 in Bihar, and 17 in Haryana.
Why don’t the elected representatives of Dalits protest against the atrocities committed against their community with a monotonous frequency? This is because the system of reserved constituencies means every political party must field a Dalit candidate. The votes of Dalits are therefore split. The winner in these constituencies is one who polls the maximum votes of non-Dalit communities.
In other words, a Dalit MP or MLA has to be dependent on the goodwill of even the oppressing castes. He or she can’t alienate them through their rhetoric or action. He or she must not also stray away from the line of the party to which he or she belongs. This is particularly true of those parties dependent on the votes of the oppressive groups, whether upper or intermediary castes. The famed middle path full of ambiguity and lip service to the Dalit cause becomes the party line.
Perhaps the only exception to the above rule is Tamil Nadu’s Pattali Makkal Katchi, whose leader Anbumani Ramadoss has been vitriolic in his attacks against Dalits. But urban India mostly knows there are methods of social control subtler than invoking fear.
I often turn to Dr Satish Prakash, a Dalit activist and associate professor in Meerut College, for issues pertaining to the community, as I did for this piece. He said, “Let me be very frank – the presence of Muslims in India is the greatest protection for Dalits.”
Indian democracy, Dr Prakash argues, relies on mobilisation through the politics of identity. The Hindu Right seeks to control Dalits – that is Scheduled Castes and lower OBCs – by turning them against Muslims, by making them feel a part of the Hindu monolith. Had the Muslims not been around, the Dalits would have been targeted directly.
Urban India understands this, doesn’t it? We all know the atrocities against Dalits will be episodic, will remain confined to rural India, and not spiral out of control to enmesh us in cities as well. We trust the Hindu Right on this count at least.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.