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I was in Delhi last week as part of a tribunal. Five of us (on the first day) and six of us (on the second day) heard the cases of Dalits who had not received justice in this fine nation and neighbouring countries. I will take you through some of the cases in a bit.
The tribunal was organized by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (India), Samata Foundation (Nepal) and Nagorik Udyog (Bangladesh).
There was a retired justice among us (C.L. Thool, who also chairs the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission of Maharashtra), and we were required to hear the petitioners and make recommendations to the state and local authorities in each case.
This was the first time I was a part of something like this. The briefing note we were given said “caste discrimination is one of the most serious human rights issues in India and the world today, adversely affecting more than 260 million people globally. The majority of people suffering from caste discrimination are Dalits living in South Asia. The prohibitions, restrictions and violations against Dalits are multiple; they are committed and enforced by both state and non-state actors, and are often the result of sanctioned impunity in the police and justice systems.”
At the end of the experience, it was difficult to disagree with these words. The victims were usually accompanied by a Dalit human rights defender, meaning someone who works on the ground on such issues.
Let’s take a look at a couple of the cases, which I will describe briefly.
Case: Dalit girl raped and family flees after threats
Date: 25 December 2015
Brief: The village in Amreli has 100 Dalit families, and 400 dominant caste families, mostly Kshatriya, called Durbar in Gujarati. On Christmas Day, two Durbars broke into a Dalit home at 11pm and kidnapped a girl. The father filed a police complaint. The girl was raped and brought back the next morning. She was examined and one of the accused was jailed, the other bailed out.
On New Year’s Day, relatives of the man in jail came to the Dalits and threatened them. The Dalits and their extended family fled the village. A second case was filed.
Current status: Unable to return home, the Dalits have been living on the road outside the district collector’s office.
Another case from Gujarat concerned the killing of three Dalits after police opened fire on them. One of the victims died from a 7.62mm round, fired from a bodyguard’s AK-56, but there has been no forensic examination to determine who opened fire.
Case: Dalits denied entry into temple, followed by social boycott
Date: 17 February 2015
Brief: The residents of Mahulpala village (population 9,000) raised a fund to build a temple. Dalits, 10% of the population, contributed money and labour to this. On Shivratri, a few Dalit women went to the temple for the arti. The note said that as a practice, Dalits are not allowed inside, “hence Dalit women observed the festival by lighting the lamp outside the temple”.
The temple priest’s son took offence at this, thrashed the women and kicked their lamps aside.
When the victims filed a complaint with the police, the village boycotted the entire Dalit population, blocking access to the temple well, stopping them from going to their fields, preventing their children from going to school and refusing to sell them anything from the shops.
District officials held a “peace committee meeting” where it was decided that the Dalits would be given access only to a newly built structure in the temple compound and not inside the temple itself.
Current status: The victims have no information on what is happening with their case. Incredibly, the district administration has signed documents on the “compromise” that Dalits may only worship from outside the temple.
One of the families who came was the young couple whose two infant children were burnt alive by Rajputs in Haryana (Union minister V.K. Singh making his infamous comment about dogs in the same case). The dead children’s mother was herself burnt badly and she broke down as she told her story.
Many of them did. A family from Bihar that had lived at the edge of a lake for 70 years was booted out by upper-caste villagers who opened fire on them. The couple who came, dirt poor and probably having left their village for the first time, brought their daughter, a bouncy little thing in a dark-blue skirt and light-blue shirt. It was her school uniform, which she wore on both days, and it occurred to me that it was the only decent clothing she must have owned.
Some of the things we heard seemed medieval. There were cases of bonded labour, denial of access to wells, sexual exploitation, and extreme violence against entire Dalit hamlets. From Bihar, there was the jailing of five youth (one 15 years old), who have been locked up on the charge of being Naxals.
I had not read or heard of any of these stories before and that is not surprising. We are a nation focused on the major issues of our time (such as disagreeable slogans). The Dalits have no voice but their vote.
For two days, we heard the stories, some from Nepal and Bangladesh. What is happening in our parts in reality, and what we report and debate in our media, is akin to madness. We have no idea what is going on in India, I assure you. The morning’s papers seem to be from another country.
Lastly, I found the Dalit human rights defenders to be well-briefed and knowledgeable, and it was warming to know that the victims had some support in their fight for justice.
Aakar Patel is executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at aakar_amnesty.