- The Everyday Violence of Caste
Caste violence in India is one of the most long-standing instances of the routinization of violence, predating European colonialism although not unshaped by it, and now firmly enmeshed within the new global order. Despite untouchability being constitutionally abolished in 1950, caste oppression is pervasive today. Over 160 million Untouchables—or Dalits—are subject to different forms of discrimination: they are denied access to places of worship, clean water, housing, and land; their children are still kept out of, or ill-treated within, schools; they are forced into menial and degrading occupations, notably manual scavenging; and, despite a governmental policy of affirmative action, they remain largely excluded from the country’s businesses, educational establishments, judicial services, and bureaucracy.1
If violence against lower castes and outcastes is rendered banal by being woven into the fabric of everyday life, it is also conducted via spectacular acts. Dalits are raped and murdered for daring to aspire to land, electricity, drinking water, and to non-Dalit partners. Inter-caste marriages, especially those between lower caste men and women of higher castes, result in murders, kidnapping, and the public punishment of such men and (often) the women involved. Dalit women remain subject to constant sexual assault by upper caste men. In general, caste segregation shapes India’s rural landscape, as well as large parts of its urbanity. [End Page 220]
Martin Macwan rightly argues that this is a war whose violence is disguised by its routinization:
The systematic elimination of six million Jews by Nazis hit us hard on the face because it took place in such a short span of time. In the case of Dalits, though the “genocide” has been systemic, it has taken place at a slow pace. The current government statistics of murder, rape, and assault that Dalits are subjected to paint a horrible picture if extended to a history of 3000 years. We have reason to believe that approximately 2,190,000 Dalits have been murdered, 3,285,000 raped and over 75,000,000 assaulted.(Macwan 2001)
By one count, every eighteen to twenty minutes a crime is reported against Dalits in India, and if one remembers that many—indeed most—such crimes do not get reported, we can only imagine the real extent of caste violence. Moreover, most instances of anti-Dalit violence, even if reported, do not make the headlines; within mainstream culture such events are considered banal, hardly worthy of being called “news.” Even when they make the headlines, even when they result in legal cases, over time the perpetrators are set free. The war against Dalits is fought by the public, by the police, and by the legal system. Although often described as the result of a medieval, or premodern outlook, this violence is very much part of the life of urban, modern, globalized India.
In 1945, B. R. Ambedkar, a Columbia-educated sociologist and leader of Dalits, traced the roots of anti-Dalit violence to Hindu philosophy:
The sanctity and the infallibility of the Vedas, the Smritis and Shastras, the iron law of caste, the heartless law of karma and the senseless law of status by birth are to the Untouchables veritable instruments of torture which Hinduism forged against the Untouchables. These very instruments which have mutilated, blasted and blighted the life of Untouchables are to be found intact and untarnished in the bosom of Gandhism.(Ambedkar 1946, 308)
Ambedkar unpacked the attitudes of a reformist like Gandhi to reveal the overlap between a Hindu “humanism” and Hindu orthodoxy. But at the same time, he also repeatedly argued that the violence of caste was not just part of some outdated ritual practice but also a key to an exploitative economic order, an order that Gandhi wanted to maintain. So effective has been the deification of Gandhi that Ambedkar’s passionate and brilliant expose of Gandhi’s position on both caste and class has been all but obscured in mainstream India and abroad. But Ambedkar remains central to anti-caste struggles and is revered among Dalits. The fact that Gandhi and Ambedkar speak to different constituencies illustrates the ongoing cleavage between the privileged and oppressed castes...