Bengaluru: The violence on the 200th anniversary celebrations of the battle of Bhima-Koregaon has once again put the spotlight on violence against Dalits in India. Recently published data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show that the rate of crimes against Dalits has risen in recent years, even as the conviction rate for such crimes has declined.

One caveat here is that part of the increase in crime rates may simply be a reporting effect — it is possible that more crimes against Dalits are being reported and registered, but the data does not allow us to segregate the reporting effect from the actual increase.

In 2016, an estimated 214 incidents of crimes against scheduled castes (SCs) were reported per million SC population, up from 207 the previous year, the NCRB data shows. Till 2015, NCRB provided data on crimes recorded under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities (POA) Act as well as overall data on crimes against SCs, which included crimes registered under other provisions. However, from 2016 onwards, this overall figure has not been provided. The estimate for 2016 has been generated based on the ratio of POA/non-POA crimes. Also, as pointed out in an earlier Plain Facts column, the population projections used by NCRB to calculate crime rates are not consistent over time. Hence they have been re-estimated for this analysis.

The increase in crimes against Dalits in recent years has followed a sharp plunge in conviction rates for such crimes, NCRB data shows. From 35% in 2010, the conviction rate for such crimes fell seven percentage points to 28% in 2015. Over the same period, the overall conviction rate in the country for all Indian Penal Code (IPC) crimes increased nearly six percentage points to 46.9%.

The decline in the conviction rate for crimes against Dalits may have created an impression that this may be driven by false filing of cases. Indeed, that has been the contention of middle caste groups such as the Marathas in Maharashtra, who have been demanding a repeal of the POA Act. But data from NCRB does not seem to support this contention. In fact, the share of false cases filed under this provision has declined over time.

The data seems to suggest that it is the rising impunity with which crimes are being committed against Dalits that may be contributing to the rising violence against the community.

Another factor that may be contributing to the spike in anti-Dalit violence is rising living standards of Dalits, which appears to have led to a backlash from historically privileged communities.

A 2014 research paper by Smriti Sharma of the Delhi School of Economics published in the Journal of Comparative Economics showed that an increase in the consumption expenditure ratio of SCs/STs to that of upper castes is associated with an increase in crimes committed by the latter against the former.

“They may be perceived as a threat to the established social, economic and political position of the upper castes…if an improvement in the expenditure ratio is on account of a worsening of the upper caste economic position, crimes could be used as a means of asserting their superiority and expressing their frustration at their worsened relative economic position," Sharma argued in the paper.

While Dalits continue to count among the poorest of all social groups in absolute terms, their position vis-a-vis upper castes has improved over the past decade.

Between 2004-05 and 2011-12, upward income mobility among Dalits was also higher than among other social groups, according to an analysis of Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS) by the economist Thiagu Ranganathan and co-authors published in the Economic and Political Weekly last year.

Rising income and growing educational achievements may have led many Dalits to challenge caste barriers, causing resentment among upper caste groups, leading to a backlash, according to social scientists.

“Increase in education levels (among Dalits) has been accompanied with an increase in awareness of the world as they aspire to leave their villages and travel to urban areas," said Dipankar Gupta, sociologist and former professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). “The effect of reservation in institutions has seeped in and they’ve become more aware of what the country owes them," he added.

The stasis in farm income over the past few years may have added fuel to fire, causing disquiet among predominantly agrarian middle caste groups, who perceive their dominance in the countryside to be weakening.

The growing scramble for Dalit votes by different political actors has only added a fresh twist to a conflict that has been simmering for some time.

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