“I can’t breathe”, the words said by George Floyd have perturbed people all over the world including in India and made them realise the disturbing injustice of racial discrimination. And soon the #BlackLivesMatter #AllLivesMatter flooded the social media accounts of the celebrities, CEOs including the common people. However, this cacophony of the rising support in India reeks of the performative wokeness and hypocrisy of the Indian upper-caste dominated society. Why didn’t it remind us of the migrant workers who were mowed down by the train when they fell asleep on railway tracks due to exhaustion? Why didn’t it remind us of the choking and consequent death of the manual scavengers when they went inside the sewage tanks to clean? Why didn't we recall that Dalits too can’t breathe in the pervasive, unquestioned and un-investigated discrimination against them?
While the protest against the racial discrimination of George Floyd has become a trend, the Dalits in India are raped, murdered and forced to commit suicide due to the caste-based discrimination in silence. Simultaneously, the migrant workers, who are mainly of lower castes, have been left to walk a hundred kilometers, including pregnant women and are forced to starve for days and die of poverty and lack of support. The major reason why the stranded workers are facing injustice because a large part of them are Dalits and Adivasis.
We must ask why such huge social media trends and support by Indian elites are missing for these discriminated groups?
The NCRB report of 2016 stated that the cases of caste-based crime against Dalits have increased by about 25 percent since 2010 with around 5.5 percent rise every year. It further pointed out that the most vulnerable and victimised group are Dalit women. Four Dalit women are raped every day in India based on caste and gender discrimination issues.
In fact, as the country went under the lockdown, there was a significant increase in the caste-based violence against the Dalits. In the month of May and April, Tamil Nadu recorded an increase in the reported cases of atrocities committed by the upper caste men against the Dalit communities with 30 major reported cases in a month.
Why didn't we recall that Dalits too can’t breathe in the pervasive, unquestioned and un-investigated discrimination against them?
These cases of caste-based crime rarely made to the headlines of mainstream media, 95 percent of which is occupied by upper caste people. While the migrant crisis received significant support from countable empathetic elites and even the government's support was improper or inadequate.
And so when in the same month and time of the pandemic George Floyd was allegedly murdered by the atrocities of the White policemen, a large-scale protest against the racial discrimination and injustice thundered America which also roped in the support of "silent" Indian privileged people. In that humdrum, how many of us focused on the murder of Dalits for mundane reasons like wearing shoes, entering into temples or daring to love an upper-caste person? How many of us were reminded of Rohit Vermula’s institutional murder or Payal Tadvi’s suicide due to caste-discrimination?
Is the caste-discrimination ravaging our homeland less a serious and disturbing issue than racial discrimination in America?
The Dalit and caste-based discrimination in India is nothing different from the racial discrimination that the woke upper-caste Indians are actively condemning. In fact in history, B.R Ambedkar joined WEB Du Bois, a prominent spokesperson of the African American rights, in the freedom struggle against caste and race discrimination as both are done on the basis of the birth or origin of a person and are equally unfair and dehumanizing. The nation-wide activism in America against one instance of atrocity due to racial discrimination should have made each one of us think about the stronghold of caste-based discrimination in our country that has taken uncountable lives, opportunities and has caused a life-time scar in some people’s bodies and lives.
It is really disheartening how the caste-discrimination and the on-going migrant crisis in India rarely see such huge support from its own citizens, let alone the world.
When the constitution of India came into effect in 1950, the government had lawfully abolished all the Dalit and caste or class-based discrimination in India. Besides, there are many laws like the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act that addresses any issues of caste-based violence. Moreover, the menial job of manual scavenging that claimed many Dalit lives was also abolished twice by the government. But, unfortunately, due to the lack of Dalit representation in powerful positions, discrimination against them remains a shameful reality in India. Manual Scavenging and sanitation work is still the only means of employment for many lower caste people. Dalit women are still burdened with the caste and gender violence in the society while Dalit students face discrimination at educational institutions against their upper-caste classmates. It is because of the similar ignorance and lack of representation, that the country is currently witnessing the historical migrant workers crisis.
It is really disheartening how the caste-discrimination and the on-going migrant crisis in India rarely see such huge support from its own citizens, let alone the world. It has been conveniently trivialised and overshadowed by #AllLivesMatter. Moreover, when other countries question India on the prevalence of caste-based crime, it is swept away as “internal matter” by our government. The upper-caste educated Indians get too comfortable in the power positions and the privilege they embody that they often fail to recognize the atrocities against Dalits. The caste-based discrimination and violence has been internalised and normalized to such extent that it rarely seems an injustice when compared to the similar racial discrimination that killed George Floyd and the fierce opposition.
The kind of support that #BlackLivesMatter has garnered from Indian powerful voices is what lacked when exceptional people from across the social hierarchy came forward to demand justice for Payal Tadvi, Rohit Vemula among many others who succumbed to the caste-based discrimination. If we had that, perhaps this quietude and hypocrisy wouldn’t have overshadowed the injustice being meted out to the Dalits today. Even if the supporters are guilty of just emulating the western trend, they should be able to imbibe the same spirit of wide-spread western activism to oppose caste-violence that has been strangling the idea of equality and democracy in India since history.
It is not wrong to extend support to the western issues and especially those which are similar to what our country has been struggling with. But if we understand that it is inhumane to discriminate people based on their birth, what stops us from resisting the same discrimination in our homeland?
Image Credit: Open The Magazine
The views expressed are the author's own.