Meenakshi Shedde: How 'touchable' are we?

Meenakshi SheddeFor anyone with a conscience, the death of Rohith Vemula, the 26-year-old Dalit PhD scholar, on the Hyderabad Central University (HCU) campus, is a murder most foul, being passed off as suicide through a conspiracy of upper castes, who are determined to crush the lower castes. They might assume they are safe, since Vemula left a “suicide note.” But the entire chain of power involved in the humiliation, isolation and eventual provocation to “suicide” of Vemula must be held accountable for their role in the conspiracy. Vemula was punished for the alleged “crime” of assaulting a local Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) leader, which official reports have specifically disproved. Bandaru Dattatreya, the minister of state for labour and employment in the Narendra Modi government, wrote to Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani, claiming that the HCU was “a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics” and demanded action. Ms Irani’s office wrote four letters to the vice chancellor, pressurising him to take action against Vemula. The latter was one of many Dalit scholars on whom the casteist administration had perpetrated atrocities: He had been denied his fellowship, and banned from the hostel and almost all public places on campus.

A protest rally against the death of Dalit student Rohit Vemula
A protest rally against the death of Dalit student Rohit Vemula

We have the Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) Act, 1976, and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989. All offences under the PCR Act are cognisable. Under the latter, offences include if the victim is wrongfully subjected to any offence by a public servant; if someone gives false information to a public servant, resulting in injury or annoyance to a SC/ST; if someone wrongfully deprives him of his rights over any premises or access to public places (or land or water); or if he is deliberately insulted or humiliated in public. It prescribes imprisonment for minimum six months to five years, with a fine. Yet, the conviction rate of cases booked under the act was a mere 22.8 per cent in 2013, while the pendency of cases was 84.1 per cent, according to the Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment. In contrast, the conviction rate under the Indian Penal Code is 42 per cent for all cognisable offences. And the frequency of violations has been steadily rising. A Union Ministry of Social Welfare document of 1991 states: “Every hour, two Dalits (are) assaulted, every day three Dalit women (are) raped, two Dalits (are) murdered and two Dalit houses burnt in India. It is a frequent spectacle, the Dalit women are disrobed in public view and paraded naked in the villages for no fault of theirs, often mass murders of Dalits (are) committed.”

In Britain, the Macpherson Report of 1999 followed a judicial inquiry into the police investigation of the racially motivated murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993. The report made 70 recommendations to take on “institutionally racist police”, of which 67 led to specific changes in practice or law within two years. It fundamentally changed the way the police investigate murders, and profoundly impacted anti-discrimination legislation; its impact was electric. Its recommendations — whose relevant sections we could incorporate in India for minorities including Dalits and Muslims — include detailed targets for the recruitment, retention and promotion of black and Asian (police) officers and creating an Independent Police Complaints Commission. Crucially, “racial incident” was redefined: police are obliged to investigate every incident that the victim perceives as racially motivated. It abolished the “double jeopardy rule” — that nobody could be tried for the same crime twice — leading to the conviction of the two who had murdered Stephen Lawrence. Police had to meet Home Office targets of matching the ethnic proportions of Britain’s population, by employing 7 per cent of their officers from black and minority ethnic groups. In order to address “institutional racism,” the Race Relations Act 1976 was amended to bear with full force on the police and the entire public sector, against discrimination, for the first time. It specified that discrimination could take place indirectly as well as directly.

Beyond institutional redressal, we—I mean all upper castes — are ourselves accountable for these atrocities. After all, how many Dalits do we know in positions of power, heading government institutions, administration, police, law, judiciary, financial or teaching institutions? If we are not racist, how many Dalits or Muslims do we include as our close personal friends? If not, now is a good time to start. Will we find a lawyer to help fight for Dalit or Muslim rights or personally financially sponsor their education? If not, our silence or inaction make us complicit in these caste atrocities.

Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at

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