The rising ire against Dalits and Muslims

Aakar Patel on why violence against these communities will not end


Dalits protesting at Surat’s Udhna Junction earlier this month.Photo: PTI
Dalits protesting at Surat’s Udhna Junction earlier this month.Photo: PTI

Violent attacks against Muslims and Dalits will not end, and that is our unfortunate lot. Of course, they are not a new thing in our part of the world. However, the current escalation is the product of policies that are being forced on India. We should understand why this round of violence against Dalits and Muslims is happening and why it will not just go away easily.

But first, we must know that the clouds have darkened with frightening rapidity.

Last week, Hindustan Times wrote that “Gujarat reported a five-fold jump in crimes against Dalits in 2015 over the previous year, data released by the national commission for scheduled castes shows.”

The Economic Times reported that “in 2015, Gujarat reported the highest crime rate against Dalits (163.3%, 6,655 cases), followed by Chhattisgarh (91.9%, 3,008 cases), Rajasthan (58.5%, 7,144 cases) and Bihar (43%, 7,121 cases). UP (8,946) reported the most number of cases of crime against Dalits.”

The Gujarati paper NavGujarat Samay reported on 25 July that an error may have exaggerated the Gujarat numbers but the trend is unmistakable. There is no similar data for cases against Muslims, probably because the Dalit cases referred to are purely those registered under the SC/ST Atrocities (Prevention) Act. There is no such law to protect Muslims.

Anyway, what explains this escalation? Let’s look at a similar phenomenon elsewhere to understand it here.

In 2012, in a column for a Karachi newspaper explaining why Pakistan’s blasphemy law produced violence, I wrote this: “Only seven cases of blasphemy were registered in undivided India and Pakistan from 1927 to 1986, according to a group of Pakistani Christians. The (Pakistan’s) National Commission for Justice and Peace says that in the last 25 years, 1,058 cases of blasphemy were registered.”

So what changed in 1986? Did people suddenly begin blaspheming more? Of course not. In 1986, Pakistan introduced a change in the law for blasphemy. It was now punishable by death. Though India and Pakistan share almost identical penal codes (gifted to us by Lord Macaulay), the punishment for Section 295-C was tweaked. This is what produced the violence.

And it happened in a period—the era of General Zia-ul Haq—when Islamism was being forced on the population. So the atmosphere there was akin to the charged one here today in terms of religious majoritarianism.

Of the 1,058 Pakistani accused, 456 were Ahmadi, 449 were Muslim, 132 were Christian and 21 were Hindu. Non-Muslims, who are only 4% of Pakistan’s population, accounted for 57% of those accused of blasphemy.

Why? Because members of the general population were using the law to go after communities they hated. The law gave them the excuse to get angry over “blasphemy”, just as we are angry today over “cow slaughter”. In many of these Pakistani cases, the accused did not reach trial because they were lynched by mobs while the police stood by, either too terrified to act or complicit.

This is precisely what is happening in India. It is why I say that the violence here will not just go away. The same conditions as Pakistan obtain here.

The law on cattle slaughter touches communities that are despised. It is the Dalit and the Muslim that must skin dead cattle, not the Brahmin and Baniya. It was inevitable that once the issue had been fired up nationally by Hindutva, it would bring the wrath of caste Hindus down upon these groups they despise.

It must have been absolutely clear to Bharatiya Janata Party leaders that their pushing a ban on cow slaughter would have a nasty fallout on these two communities. If it did not occur to them, they are innocent of the reality in India. The state, even under a genius prime minister, has no capacity to prevent mob violence, which occurs with regularity on issues touching religious sensibilities and prejudices. It is why political parties and national leaders in India have always spoken in inclusive terms.

The Hindustan Times report included this paragraph: “Addressing the meeting, social justice minister Thaawar Chand Gehlot said there had been a rise in cases of atrocities against people of reserved class. ‘We feel such incidents should not happen. It is a matter of concern for us. If at all such cases happen, states must ensure speedy and prompt justice to victims,’ the minister said.”

This phrasing elides over a fact. Law and order is a state subject so states must deal with it, is what the minister is saying. But is it not the responsibility of the Centre to not light the fires? Both in terms of laws and policies but also utterance and actions.

Former prime minister V.P. Singh once remarked on something essential about Hindutva. He said that to understand what Hindutva meant, we must not listen to the reasonable words of its leaders. They were not aimed inwards, at Hindutvawadis, but outwards, at sceptics and opponents. It was the language of their supporters that revealed the true meaning. For decades, its leaders have spoken with a forked tongue.

But now, in this atmosphere where Hindutva is vitalized under a great individual, even the leaders are free of restraint. Listen to the language of people like V.K. Singh and Subramanian Swamy, leave alone the assorted sadhus and sadhvis representing us in the Lok Sabha.

It should be expected that people further down the echelon will be even worse and more vicious. All this leads me to conclude that we are in for a long spell of trouble.

Aakar Patel is the executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at aakar_amnesty.

Also Read: Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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