Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited over 50 nations in the past two years, more than any other Indian PM in the same duration since Independence. As the most visible and most effective ambassador of Brand India, with his inexhaustible energy, meticulous preparation and enviable oratory, he creates a positive buzz about India’s economic growth and its potential with high-voltage presentations on Make in India, Digital India, Skill India, Start-up India, smart cities, bullet trains, industrial corridors, green energy and numerous policy decisions that opened hitherto untouched sectors for FDI and the steps taken to make doing business easier. He has a grand vision for India and in many capitals he is perceived as capable of delivering on his transformational plans. That is borne out by the way he is lionised in the Western media, like a mascot for 21st century India.
But these efforts to project a positive image of India have been dented by the television pictures of four helpless dalits, stripped, tied and mercilessly beaten up by cow protection vigilantes in Gujarat’s Una, that were beamed across the world and seen by billions of viewers. In Parliament, predictably, all political parties condemned the incident strongly, while Gujarat’s Chief Minister and the leaders of Opposition parties descended on Una 11 days after the horror, getting themselves photographed with the families of the victims and mouthing the usual homilies. Prime-time TV shows had eminent panelists sharing their wisdom while political party spokespersons shouted at each other over claims about whose government was to blame for fewer atrocities against dalits. This surreal, and deafening cacophony, almost like a circus, will continue till the TV channels find a more TRP-friendly news item to “break”. If the rights of dalits were actually upheld and the perpetrators behind atrocities punished as per the law, would such shocking incidents be repeated with such impunity, and so frequently?
The visuals from Gujarat seemed totally out of sync with Narendra Modi’s vision of 21st century India. They more resemble Hollywood films like 12 Years a Slave and a throwback to the times of Manusmriti that prescribed molten lead to be poured in the ears of shudras if they tried to listen to Vedic chants! The past few weeks also witnessed the gangrape of a dalit student in Haryana by the same five men who had raped her twice three years ago. And the shocking news of the beheading of a dalit couple in Uttar Pradesh is reminiscent of the barbarism of the Islamic State terrorist group. These repulsive crimes are just the tip of the iceberg. A total of 47,000 attacks on dalits were reported in the past one year, though the real figure, some say, could well be four times higher. Isn’t this a sad commentary about the “world’s largest democracy” that we live in?
The stale excuse is that these heinous crimes still take place as upper class mindsets, particularly in rural India, haven’t really changed despite the rise in literacy, spread of education and economic development. In an ideal world, of course, mindsets should change with changing times, with rational thinking and an open environment. But then education in India doesn’t always make a person more enlightened: just see highly-educated individuals earning six-digit salaries who seek grooms/brides from their own caste and senior civil servants betraying deep-rooted caste prejudices. In such a climate, a change in mindsets is unlikely to come voluntarily. Mahatma Gandhi used to call these downtrodden people “Harijans” and stayed in their bastis, but did it have any impact on Indian society? B.R. Ambedkar, who suffered humiliating treatment despite his intellectual brilliance, had concluded that the Hindu caste system was beyond redemption and wrote the scathing Annihilation of the Caste.
Eventually, his total disillusionment with Hindu society drove him to embrace Buddhism along with his 700,000 followers in October 1956. If Gandhi and Ambedkar couldn’t change these mindsets, then it can only be changed by the force of law. Had our existing laws on untouchability, child labour, atrocities against SC/STs been implemented strictly, we would have seen a drastic fall in atrocities against dalits. But those charged with upholding the law don’t really seem interested. Had the five criminals who raped that dalit student been punished three years ago, would they have raped her again? The lack of exemplary punishment is the biggest factor encouraging the repetition of crimes. If the recent Gujarat and Haryana-type crimes take place in a district, the district magistrate and superintendent of police should be dismissed. If only five officers are dismissed on this count, it will have an electrifying effect on the entire administration.
If a man rapes and kills a victim, he must be given the death sentence within three months. That dalit couple was beheaded in Mainpuri in broad daylight. There is no ambiguity about the crime. The culprit deserves nothing less than death. Why is the conviction rate of all accused in crimes against dalits so low? If just one-fourth of the accused in 47,000 cases were given 10-year rigorous imprisonment, it will send shivers down the spines of all potential attackers. There is a crude saying in Hindi “laaton ke bhoot baaton se nahi maante (the ghost who understand the language of kicks can’t be convinced by just words)”. In other words, swift and exemplary punishment is the only way to instil fear in the minds of criminals and deter anti-dalit crimes.
Political parties shouldn’t admit individuals with a record of hate crimes and of aiding, abetting and financially and legally supporting criminals. Extra-constitutional bodies like khap panchayats should be banned. The commissions for SC/ST should be given judicial powers through a constitutional amendment to adjudicate in cases of attacks against dalits. Each district should have a dalit protection officer whose report should be factored in along with the police report. Sadly, institutes of higher learning — universities, IITs and other technical schools, and engineering and medical colleges have let caste discrimination get perpetuated. It’s time to clean up, or face losing government grants.