There is a long history of caste hierarchies and discrimination in India and surrounding South Asian countries. A new article in Al Jazeera reports “Concerns over ‘illegal’ detention of Indian Dalits.” This detention occurred after the mass protests of the Dalit community to a January 1 attack on Dalits during the 200th-anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Bhima-Koregaon. The Battle of Bhima-Koregaeon was in 1818 and involved lower-castes Dalits “siding with British colonial forces to defeat upper-caste rulers.” In my understanding, these sorts of social divisions amongst Indians often benefited British colonial forces. They would use divisions amongst Indians to their advantage. They also would align with particular Indian tribal leaders and pit them against neighboring leaders to advance their interests.
However, to Dalits past and present, this alignment was favorable because it worked in their interests to protect them from oppressive upper-caste rulers. During their protests of the attack at their anniversary celebrations, Indian media reports claim that police in Maharashtra state arrested 43 people, including three minors, on Wednesday, January 10. However, the leaders of Dalit organizations reported otherwise. They told Al Jazeera that the figure of those who had been arrested actually exceeded 100, “with 16 children among those detained.” This sort of inconsistency in the narrative is unsurprising from my understanding of caste politics in India. The state does not properly bolster Dalit interests in the country, with there being numerous testaments to this neglectful trend.
Prakash Ambedkar, a Dalit icon, activist, and architect of the Indian constitution, vocalized his fear that Dalits are being “illegally detained” in Maharashtra. He told Al Jazeera that this “combing operation” by the state police is not allowed under the law. It could be said that Ambedkar got his political activism partially from his father, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who inspired the Dalit Buddhist movement that engaged discrimination against Dalits. (As an aside, B.R. Ambedkar also once wrote a letter to prominent Black intellectual and activist W.E.B. Du Bois commenting on the similarity that he observed between the position of Dalits, or Untouchables, in India and Black people in the U.S. Du Bois actually responded to his letter stating that he held every sympathy toward Dalits in India).
Ambedkar’s stand with the Dalits who were illegally detained was a stand against their detention, but also their attack by right-wing groups during their celebrations. Police have claimed that two right-wing leaders were responsible for the attacks: Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide. According to Al Jazeera, Bhide is “close to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a former member of the Hindu supremacist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.” Following the attack and the ensuing protests, a number of Dalits are in hiding in fear that the police might arrest them.
Although caste-based discrimination was outlawed by parliament in 1955, many Dalits still claim social discrimination in India and elsewhere. Dalit lawyers are doing what they can to counter the injustice done by the police and state. Kishor Walunje, a Dalit lawyer at Bombay High Court, argues to Al Jazeera that “this is a planned attack by RSS and Brahmanical [upper-caste] forces.” Ashok Kamble, chief of the Maharashtra unit of the Dalit outfit claim that the “right-wing leaders who instigated the violence have got police protection.” Caste-based discrimination, while de jure outlawed, continues on de facto in the state and in less explicit ways in policy as well.