NEW DELHI — The video footage posted on social media by India’s self-proclaimed cow saviors was brutal. It showed four bare-chested men tied with ropes to a car, flinching as an angry group of men took turns beating them with wooden sticks, belts and iron rods. Their crime: skinning a dead cow.
The savage beating of the men — all “Dalits” from the lowest rung of India’s caste hierarchy — in the small town of Una in the western state of Gujarat last month stirred outrage across the country. The men were beaten by a group of upper-caste men, highlighting how the rigid social hierarchy persists more than 65 years after India instituted laws banning caste discrimination.
Every day, newspapers are awash with stories of injustices against Dalits and their oppression by upper-caste Hindus. Among the attacks on Dalits in the past month: a 13-year-old girl who was beaten up for drinking from a temple water pump; a Dalit team in the traditional Indian sport of kabaddi attacked by a rival upper-caste squad for winning a match; an impoverished Dalit couple hacked to death following a disagreement with an upper-caste shopkeeper over a debt of 15 rupees (22 cents).
But while Dalits — formerly known as “untouchables” — are still victims of thousands of attacks each year despite laws put in place soon after India’s independence, there has been a slow change in the way they react to the atrocities, say social scientists and Dalit activists.
The outrage and protests that spread across India following the incident in Una are viewed as signs that the Dalit community will no longer tolerate the injustices they face, said Beena Pallickal of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights.
“Una was a turning point in our fight,” she said recently in her office in New Delhi. “The Dalit community will no longer stay silent. We will rise in protest against all forms of prejudice.”
The 2011 census counted about 204 million Dalits in this country of more than 1.2 billion — a population the size of Brazil, the world’s fifth most populous nation.
Dalits are finding the rigid caste divisions slowly being eroded due to fundamental changes in Indian society, at least in the urban centers.
As India’s booming economy fuels urbanization, people from different regions and all walks of life are being packed into the cities’ crowded apartments and slums. Living in such close quarters, they are becoming less concerned with centuries-old caste divisions and traditional prejudices, analysts say.
For some Dalits, though, the change isn’t happening fast enough. An emerging class of educated Dalits has begun demanding an end to caste bigotry and discrimination — demands that sometimes touch off deadly clashes between communities. India’s National Crime Records Bureau reports that more than 700 Dalits were killed in attacks in 2014, the last year for which data is available.
Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit writer, says there is a conflict between the past and the future that younger Dalits envision for themselves.
“This new generation of Dalits cannot tolerate humiliation. Nor will they accept it,” said Prasad, who has written and lectured widely on Dalit rights. “They may have done so before, because they saw no way out of their subjugation at the hands of upper-caste Hindus, but not anymore.”
For centuries, Dalits, as the lowest caste in the occupational hierarchy, have been assigned the most demeaning jobs, such as skinning dead animals or cleaning public toilets and sewers. But now they have other options to earn a living.
“The business explosion in India after the economic reforms of 1991 has thrown up many alternative avenues for Dalits to earn a livelihood,” Prasad said. “They are no longer beholden to their upper-caste landlords for their daily bread.”
After the horrific beating of the men for skinning the dead cow in Gujarat, Dalits in the state refused to remove dead cows in protest, further provoking upper-caste Hindus by telling them to handle the task themselves. Hindus consider cows to be sacred and revere them, but expect Dalits to deal with skinning and disposing of any that have died.
But even though the reaction to the incident highlighted changes in how the Dalits view their standing in society, Pallickal said there is still an unwillingness among politicians to enforce the laws.
Knowing the pernicious nature of India’s caste prejudices, early leaders who framed India’s constitution soon after independence from the British in 1947 put in place exceptionally clear and laudable laws that ban all forms of discrimination against caste, Pallickal said.
Still, according to the crime records bureau, more than 47,000 crimes of discrimination against Dalits were registered in police stations across the country in 2014.
Udit Raj, a member of Parliament from New Delhi and a strong voice for Dalit rights within India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, said the conviction rate for crimes against Dalits is 2 to 8 percent.
“In the more than six decades since India’s independence, political parties have not found the will to enforce these laws,” Pallickal said. “There is a complete lack of political will to implement the laws, which is why such outrages continue.”
Politicians across the political spectrum say it’s not just implementation of laws, but the lack of a change in people’s mindsets that leads upper-caste Indians to shun Dalits.
“Even if Dalits are empowered economically, it is not necessary that they will be accepted socially,” said Raj, who has fought for Dalit rights for the past four decades.
He pointed to injustices that continue to haunt the lower castes and the all-pervasive presence of caste divides. In many cities, Dalits are not allowed to own apartments in upper-caste neighborhoods. Although inter-caste marriages are on the rise, all Indian newspapers still carry advertisements seeking brides and grooms stating their caste and the castes they will marry into.
“Dalits are not accepted socially. Period,” Raj said.
Access to education and the clout wielded by their vote in local and national elections have empowered Dalits to dream of a better future. But the aspirations of the Dalits are often resented by upper-caste Hindus.
If their economic progress is modest and their ambitions go as far as obtaining lowly government jobs or small businesses, there is no problem, said Prasad, the Dalit writer.
“The attitude of the upper caste when they see a Dalit succeeding in life goes like this: A Dalit driving a cheap car can be endured, but a Dalit driving a BMW — that is a problem,” he said.