Our conversation this week turns to the question of Dalit rights in India, assessing the progress that has been made and what further change must come. To discuss this, we are thrilled to be joined by Dr. Sumeet Mhaskar from Jindal Global University. An Associate Professor at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, Dr. Mhaskar’s research takes in the experiences and vulnerabilities of workers both specifically in Mumbai and across the Indian nation. He talks with our podcast host Muna and panellist Akshata about the everyday persecution and discrimination Dalits still face, the failure of political and legal reforms to fight the Dalit cause and what the international community can do to bring about meaningful and long-lasting change. 

Though not codified in law or the Indian constitution, caste systems and hierarchies persist to this day, infiltrating all aspects of everyday life. Dr. Mhaskar describes how the effects are unavoidable, especially for those, such as Dalits, who fall at its lower end. From the area in which they are permitted to live to the type of job they are able to obtain, the caste system has an oppressive effect on all aspects of life for the Dalit community. They are frequently forced to take up manual and heavy labour jobs, with their hopes of more lucrative or skilled employment quashed by the persistent stigma that surrounds their background. Attempts to set up and create their own businesses are often met within police intervention or strategic abstinence from higher caste citizens. They can be denied the right to live in certain, typically more affluent, areas and attempts to marry those of a higher caste are still far too frequently met with the practice of ‘honour killing’. As Dr. Mhaskar outlines, such is the practice of killing one or both of the man and woman in a perceived attempt to save the reputation of the higher caste family. As Akshata and Sameet discuss, the presence of almost two sets of laws, one constitutional the other based on the strictures of the caste system, is greatly hindering the closing and combatting of social divides. With these inequalities so deeply ingrained across society, radical change is needed. 

“we cannot think about Hinduism without thinking about Caste” 

Dr. Mhaskar

Conversation also takes in the failings of political and legal reforms, which have been proven to do little to tackle the deep-rooted prejudices faced by communities like the Dalits. From the adopting of a modern constitution in 1950, in the eyes of the law, all Indian citizens have been viewed as equal regardless of their caste. Nevertheless, as Dr. Mhaskar alludes to, this is still yet to become a reality. Though legal rights may be increased through measures such as the 1989 Prevention of Atrocities Act, in everyday life these benefits are rarely felt. Many in the police continue to adhere to caste norms and perpetrators of caste-based crimes and atrocities can be seen to often receive sentences or punishments that do not accurately reflect the severity of the crime they committed. Our guest gives an example of this, citing the case of a 13-year-old Dalit girl who had been kidnapped and raped. In the legal processes that followed, those charged with the crime should have been done so both under the Protection of Children and Sexual Offences Act 2012 and legislation relating to the committing of caste-based crimes. Nevertheless, issues of caste were brushed aside and such is representative of the struggle Dalits face in having both their voices heard and their lives respected. As the discussion throughout this episode shows, discrimination is deeply rooted in all aspects of life. 

“A complete system failure” 

Dr. Mhaskar

In turning to changes in recent years, however, there are glimmers of hope. Amongst the Indian diaspora there is increased recognition of the need to apply pressure and show solidarity with the Dalit cause in India. Social media plays an important role here, increasing awareness of the problems. Indeed, Dr Mhaskar talks of how, from around 2007, there has also been a growing diversification of students on university campuses in India. The changing of the demographic in this sphere offers hope of both more inter-caste friendships as well as increased recognition of the need to push for substantial change in the treatment of Dalits.

It is important, however, that we are not too optimistic. Whilst social media platforms such as Twitter can bring pressure to bear, there has been evidence in recent months of Twitter officials in India not approving tweets or hashtags that openly discuss issues surrounding caste. Equally, whilst student cohorts become more diverse this does not directly translate into significant legislative or legal change. Without sustained and persistent pressure on the Indian government and state to tackle the issues faced by Dalits, Dr. Mhaskar sees little hope of meaningful change. Both within India and the international community we must work to promote and push for change, levying sustained pressure on the Indian government and individual state legislatures to address the blatant inequalities that still exist. 

Further Resources: 
Dr. Mhaskar’s recent work on Ambedkar’s fight against the caste system and labour activism: https://t.co/A3WoUBnXK6?amp=1