How absence of law fuels caste conflict

No corner of the world is free from discrimination and hate crime. But casteism is virulent and has endured for longer than most


The Parliament showed rare unity to vote through the constitutional amendment bill for a goods and services tax earlier this month. There’s an equally important Equal Opportunities Commission Bill that has been awaiting its day in the sun since 2013. The time for it is now. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
The Parliament showed rare unity to vote through the constitutional amendment bill for a goods and services tax earlier this month. There’s an equally important Equal Opportunities Commission Bill that has been awaiting its day in the sun since 2013. The time for it is now. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Many years ago, I called up the now-dissolved Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) in London with a reporter’s query. There were some destitute Roma women and children, possibly East European, in an underground train carriage asking passengers for money. As I fished out some coins, I heard the train driver instruct over the PA system, “There are some Gypsy beggars on this train. Please don’t give them any money. They will be taken out at the next station.”

Was it a crime to beg in the London tube, and were the driver’s comments lawful, I asked the CRE official. Not at all, he replied and, if you don’t mind, we’ll use your query as a basis to file a complaint against the driver.

I recalled this incident amid stories of another kind of discrimination—not in the UK but in my native India.

A caste revolt that was brewing for months has spilt on to the streets—most dramatically, in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat. Dalits, a combination of the lowest in India’s caste hierarchy ladder and those falling outside of it—the so-called untouchables—are refusing to stick to their pre-ordained “dirty” vocations.

They are refusing to pick up the carcasses of cattle and haul them over to the cattle mortuary and clean toilets and gutters—jobs upper caste Hindus do not do.

The reason for the agitation is a recent act of violence in Gujarat, where a so-called group of cow protectors tied four Dalit men to an SUV, stripped them waist up and publicly flogged them waist down with rods or sticks, filming their act. The four men said they were skinning a dead cow.

Several of the assailants have been arrested now and Modi himself has spoken out, reminding the nation that many of the so called ‘cow protectors’ are really vigilantes—individuals and groups—and that attacks on Dalits should cease. State governments, who are responsible for maintaining law and order, have been told not to tolerate anyone taking the law into their own hands.

What is caste? And what to do about it? According to recent academic work, caste, as we know it in modern India, is the product of British colonialism, specifically its mission for a greater understanding of Indian culture and tradition following the 1857 uprising (which was ascribed to British insensitivity to local tradition).

“Such knowledge could help explain why the rebellion took place, it could suggest how to avoid such disaffection in the future, it could delineate ways to claim the loyalty of subjects on the basis of custom and culture, and it could serve to differentiate the autonomous and proper domains of religion and custom,” writes Nicholas Dirks in his book, Castes of the Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India.

National introspection on the idea of caste—more specifically casteism, or the discrimination or violence associated with the idea of caste—has taken centrestage as India prepares to celebrate its 69th Independence Day.

If indeed it was the British who helped shape the modern understanding of caste in India, or even determine casteist behaviour, then equally the post-colonial generation of British have lessons to offer in how to tackle and perhaps end such discrimination.

A major problem is the lack of anti-discrimination legislation.

I have argued before—and it has been articulated by equal opportunities campaigners—that there is an urgent need for legislation to enforce and underpin the equality provisions of India’s Constitution. Article 15 (1) of the Constitution says, “The state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds of only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.”

The use of the word “only” here should be problematic—not only to campaigners but even for those who want to see a common-sense-based approach to the principle of equal opportunity. It will need an amendment to remove this word, but perhaps the first step would be in lawmakers recognizing the anomaly and problematizing its existence in an otherwise egalitarian Constitution.

Article 17 puts the word untouchability within quote marks, another problematic use, as if to say “we don’t believe it exists”. It says, “‘Untouchability’ is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of ‘untouchability’ shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.”

This is also the closest we get to the threat of punitive action. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Reading the two together, it is reasonable to argue: 1. How on earth does one prove a ‘disability’ arising out of someone’s refusal to touch you for reasons of caste? 2. How does one prove that they are refusing to touch you for reasons of caste? 3. Some people may not touch a Muslim or a Christian—is there a disability associated with that, too? What does the state do about it? 4. Most importantly, what if the entity carrying out the act of discrimination is not the state but a private individual, group or institution? The Constitution clearly mentions only the state.

The problem with not having laws to enforce these foundational principles of the Independent Indian state is that you may be denied a house because you are a Muslim, a job because you are a Dalit, shouted at by an immigration officer at the airport because of your Mongoloid looks—but, as long as they don’t spell out their motives for doing so, there’s not a thing in the world that you can do about it. You live in a ghetto, work with others of your kind (or open a business), and swallow your pride at the airport. You may file a police complaint, but don’t hold your breath waiting for action.

“Non-discrimination is a promise made in the Constitution of India… These constitutional promises against discriminatory acts require legislative backing in the form of anti-discrimination laws, and these must be extended to private and non-state spheres as well,” said an evaluation of the Rajinder Sachar committee report on social, economic and educational status of Muslims in India.

The evaluation committee, headed by economist Amitabh Kundu, submitted its report to the government in September 2014.

In the UK, following years of rampant racism and amid race riots, the government legislated a Race Relations Act in 1976, based on which it formed the Commission for Racial Equality, mentioned at the start of this column. It was legislated as an independent body, given the powers to investigate, and hated by the right wing of the Tory party. But governments supported it, and it proved its worth.

It has now been superseded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a body with a much wider remit.

Alongside, governments legislated to outlaw hate crime, defined as a crime that the victim or any other person perceives to be motivated by hostility or prejudice towards any aspect of a person’s identity. Police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland annually monitor five strands of hate crime: disability, gender identity, race, ethnicity or nationality, religion, faith or belief, and sexual orientation.

Anti-caste campaigners in the UK are working to bring caste, too, into the ambit of hate crime, but this is being resisted by a section of the Hindu right in that country.

No corner of the world is free from discrimination and hate crime. But casteism is virulent and has endured for longer than most. The Indian Parliament showed rare unity to vote through the constitutional amendment bill for a goods and services tax earlier this month. There’s an equally important Equal Opportunities Commission Bill that has been awaiting its day in the sun since 2013. The time for it is now.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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