Yet another outbreak of riots and arson in the western Indian state of Maharashtra has brought the spotlight back on the ugly reality of casteist violence in the country.
The trigger in this particular episode stems from attacks by right-wing groups on a commemoration ceremony by the Dalits, or so-called untouchables, in the western city of Pune last week. The attacks sparked a furore and violent protests soon spread to India’s financial capital of Mumbai.
More than 160 million people in India are considered untouchables. In spite of growing efforts to assert their rights, including efforts by the government, Dalits still remain mostly on the fringes of society. Discrimination takes several forms — from residential segregation and discrimination in job markets to disparities in educational and covert instances of untouchability. The fact that organised mobs, masquerading as self-styled champions of national pride, could attack a Dalit ceremony shows the growing impunity with which such rabble-rousers are now spreading hate across India in the current political climate. However, the genesis of the problem lies elsewhere. When decades of promises do not translate into reality, when entire swathes of population are used as political pawns to win elections, when backward segments of the society are continually discriminated against, then it’s only a matter of time and a trigger before that seething anger finds an outburst.
India’s status as an emerging economic powerhouse will be utterly meaningless if its people are still being killed in the name of caste or religion. Therefore, more than tokenism, India must heed the voices and demands of its marginalised segments and work to integrate them into the mainstream. Affirmative action has mostly been reduced to political favouritism in India. It is time to formulate realistic plans to end the casteist menace and offer everyone the same right to safety and dignity irrespective of his or her social status.