Caste is insidious and often invisible in its machinations. But it can also be made into a spectacle. This is why when Dalit people transgress the bounds that social dogma has drawn for them, the response is swift and brutal — a warning to other people to respect caste orthodoxy. Punishments meted out in cases involving caste are especially cruel and unusual because they need to be such for some sections of society to hold on to caste prejudices and prevent rationality from dispelling their bias. So, whether it be a Dalit student who dies after being allegedly harassed by teachers over caste, a Dalit teen beaten to death by a mob enraged that his sister filed a sexual harassment complaint, or four Dalit men hung upside down from a tree and beaten with sticks over suspicion they stole a goat or some pigeons, the trigger (or the allegation) is almost immaterial. What matters is the caste of the victims, and the overwhelming need to show them their place.
The Constitution abolished untouchability, dealing a severe blow to the foundation of caste structure. Yet, discrimination found new ways to germinate in India’s cities and villages, prompting the government to bring in new legislation outlawing a multitude of actions that were keeping vulnerable communities out of public life, schools and offices. The 1990s brought still newer forms of bias and separation, forcing authorities to pass the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act — among the strongest anti-discrimination statutes in the world — and define precise offences for better prosecution. Yet, as the rash of caste-based crimes in recent years shows, a tough law is not a firm enough deterrent. What is needed is more proactive police action, stringent judicial monitoring and political will that doesn’t stop at exploiting wounds for electoral gains. Those trying to make a spectacle of caste-based harassment must be thwarted at any cost.