The practice of untouchability being a criminal offence did not deter ‘upper caste’ villagers in Sigaranahalli in Holenarsipur Taluk of Karnataka from mercilessly driving out four Dalit women who dared to enter a local Hindu temple. It did not deter them from fining the women with 10,000 rupees (about $150 USD) for a crime they, not the women, had just committed.
The incident has come a full 75 years after the Dalits launched their first major struggle against the curse of untouchability that these ‘upper castes’ had inflicted on them for millennia under the leadership of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Despite being certain about the mere symbolic importance of the act and its expected outcome, Ambedkar led 15,000 Dalits and marched towards the historic Kala Ram Temple at Panchavati in Nashik on 2 March 1930. And, as he had anticipated, he was denied entry by the then priest of the Temple, Ramdasbuwa Pujari because of his being, in the Pujari’s words, an untouchable.
Ambedkar had no doubts that the Hindus never considered Dalits as human beings, forget about being equal ones. He knew that colonials, otherwise on a civilizing mission, chose to turn a blind eye to the practice of untouchability, holding it as an internal and religious matter of the natives, and therefore best left alone. That morning Ambedkar had achieved what he had set out to. He later commented on the incident:
Your problems will not be solved by temple entry. Politics, economics, education, religion- all are part of the problem. Today’s satyagraha is a challenge to the Hindu mind. Are the Hindus ready to consider us men or not; we will discover this today… We know that the god in the temple is of stone. Darsan and puja will not solve our problems. But we will start out, and try to make a change in the minds of the Hindus.
Ambedkar made his point. But then he, together with 15000 other Dalits that day, was in fact an ‘untouchable’ both in religious and legal terms. After all, despite all their pretension of being on a ‘civilization mission’, the British had never taken the issue of caste seriously. In fact, they could not as it would have upset the ‘upper castes’, their main collaborators among the natives, they desperately needed for ruling India. This reflected in their persistence denial of pushing forward for social reforms and keeping their interventions limited largely to the overtly ‘barbaric’ practices like sati and child marriage which they illegalized.
They codified and institutionalized many other regressive tenets of the then Indian society and caste was most notable of them. Even a cursory glance at the history of sanitation workers in India exposes their role in forcing a section of the Dalit community in their ‘hereditary’ profession of cleaning toilets which hardly existed before their advent to power. On meeting protests over the same, they took drastic actions to curb the newly invented sweepers’ right to refuse to do manual scavenging work and made this a cognizable offence through acts like the United Provinces Municipalities Act II of 1916. As in their ‘we-are-out-of-this’ reaction to many of social and religious evils plaguing the society, the British hardly took any stand on temple entry as well.
They did this despite significant decisions by many others like Sree Padmanbhadasa Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, the Maharajah of Travancore, who had thrown temples open for everyone through a Temple Entry Proclamation on 12 November 1936.
Being born in independent India whose constitution was drafted by Ambedkar himself, the women of Sigaranahalli have never carried the stigma of being ‘untouchable’. Abolition of untouchability and criminalising its practice in any form was one of the very first things that the Constitution of India had done through Article 17. This abolition was soon followed by the Untouchability Offences Act, 1955, outlawing the enforcement of disabilities “on the ground of untouchability’. Denial of temple entry, along with denial of access to other public spaces, like water sources, public conveyances, hospitals, and so on were specifically listed in the disabilities that untouchability had inflicted and that needed to be set right.
However, the Act did not change much for the Dalits because of a stranglehold of ‘upper castes’ on society and justice institutions, including police. Atrocities continued on the ground and vested interests deeply entrenched in the judicial system stalled victims’ attempts to seek redress as much as they could. Because of its failure to put an end to the practice, the Act was amended by Untouchability (offences) Amendment Bill, 1972, which later got enacted as Protection of Civil Rights (Amendment) Act, 1976. The new and much more stringent Act made untouchability offences non-compoundable and enhanced both the fines and imprisonment, while also providing for sentencing offenders with both. The real strength of the Act, however, lay both in criminalising direct or indirect preaching or justification for untouchability on any grounds whatsoever and introducing collective fines for its practice. Practice of untouchability is a social crime after all, and must be tackled accordingly. With little change in the structure of both the society and the justice system, the Act was poorly implemented once again.
However, the partially successful democratic experiment in India was bringing a silent change in the Indian countryside and people were no longer ready to accept centuries of exploitation and atrocities committed by the ‘upper castes’. The change led to the emergence of movements for social justice, through the mobilisation of the Dalits and other backward classes (the legal term for the so called backward castes that were not untouchable but shared many other disadvantages like landlessness) in various permutation and combinations.. The sustained demand from this mobilisation succeeded in forcing the State to bring an even more stringent Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
This Act too failed to make much of a difference on the ground barring the notable exception of Uttar Pradesh, a bastion of caste based atrocities, where, for a short while, it worked. The momentary success during a coalition government led by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a party that champions Dalits’ cause, had exposed both the reasons behind the failures of the Acts and the way ahead for implementing them to end caste based atrocities.
The then government had mobilised political will to implement the Act in the letter and spirit, and ordered all police stations in the state to act swiftly on the cases or be prepared to face disciplinary action, a first, perhaps, in the history of the country. Thousands and thousands of people had then been arrested for committing something that was a routine practice for them till then. Caste might still have been a ‘social evil’, committing atrocities was not; it was now a crime as it must have always been. The Act had succeeded in creating deterrence and given voice to those who did not have one for millennia. Political equations, unfortunately, led to the collapse of the BSP led government soon thereafter. The political will to implement the Act at the cost of upsetting deeply entrenched vested interests was gone too.
Yet, the lessons learnt from that experiment are all there. The first of them is that what the ‘upper castes’ did with the Sigaranahalli women is a crime, not a social evil as made out, even if unconsciously, by both the civil society and the media. Take, for example, how media groups brought the issue to the notice of N.R. Purushottam, District Social Welfare Officer, and not the police mandated with fighting crime. The District Social Wefare Officer, on his part, had a standard bureaucratic reply, conceding that restricting the entry of Dalits into a temple or a community hall amounts to violation of laws. He remained largely noncommittal in follow up though and told The Hindu newspaper that he would “get details from the people concerned and take appropriate action.”
The second lesson is even more important. No amount of activism would bring justice to the victims of caste-based atrocities unless they get judicial redress. No amount of activism would bring caste-based atrocities to an end until the perpetrators are brought to justice too. This is where the Indian civil society, including those championing the Dalit cause, has often fallen short of what it needs to do. Atrocities on Dalits don’t merely comprise extreme cases of brutalities. One does need to fight tooth and nail against ‘upper castes’ cutting Dalits to pieces in thresher machines (as it happened in Bihar recently) or against the parading naked of Dalit women naked (as in Madhya Pradesh and various places recently). Without an equally fierce struggle against everyday instances of caste-based atrocities, which also has a focus on judicial redress, not much would change. It is in this context that the silence of the civil society in this regard, is not promising.