A frantic series of emails and phone calls impolitely disturbed what had till then been an uneventful May morning at the Video Volunteers office. At a human rights and media organisation like ours there are many days that shake the very foundations of one’s belief systems; this had turned into one of those days. A Community Correspondent was covering the story of the murder of a Dalit rights activist and she would be sending over footage in the next few days. The details were brutal—Sanjay Khobragade had been set on fire as he slept. His wife and neighbour were in custody being accused for a crime they had played no role in. The murder had been a way to silence Sanjay who had infuriated the ‘upper caste’ community in his village of Kavalewada by trying to build a community centre for the Dalits of the area. As he fought for his life, he identified those who had doused him with kerosene on video.
The police ignored this dying declaration. Community Correspondent Alka Mate, also a veteran Dalit rights activist, began the process of collecting video evidences and testimonies detailing a gross breakdown of law and order. Alka insisted that the community’s perspectives, including the Khobragade family’s, on the burning must be brought into the narrative. She hoped that this version would rectify the damage done by the police’s version of the events, implicating Devkabai, Sanjay’s wife. The ultimate goal was to put enough pressure on the administration to carry out a proper investigation and trial, as the named suspects seemed to have ties with the police.
The media world too started to report the story. Few papers and TV channels took the news up to a national level; fewer still reported the story as the caste-based atrocity that it was and instead reported it as the result of an extra-marital affair gone wrong. One of the first reports to be published on Sanjay’s case in a leading Indian paper relished in the salacious details of this theory. “Dalit man was set afire by wife, paramour,” read the headline. Over the next few days the same author published three more pieces, time and again implicating Devakabai and her ‘lover’ Raju in the crime.
Another headline read: “Now, Police say wife set Dalit man ablaze”. The article goes on to clarify that the Khobragade family and Dalit rights groups have contested the claim. But the other perspective on the story, the Dalit rights one, came through disproportionately and dismissively.
This wasn’t the first caste-based atrocity that I had heard of or worked to highlight through a campaign but as we delved further into the issue, I felt an overwhelming sense of indifference from the rest of the world. Why was the police not enquiring into this properly? Why were innocent people being dragged into this? And why the hell was the media not reporting this story properly? Apart from a few local protests organised by Dalit rights activists and online ‘clicktivists’ few cared. Half a year later,it’s a feeling I can’t seem to get rid off.
Since November there’s been a steady, if scant, stream of reports of caste based crimes from the entire country from Bihar to Maharashtra. This was the month that saw the release of ‘the biggest caste-survey’ in India and the ‘Ahmednagar triple murders’. The latter stands out as a particularly horrific instance—an entire family found butchered, their bodies crammed into bore-wells in a village field in Jhavkheda, Maharashtra.
It comes with a sense of déjà vu—for 45 days after the crime the only arrest was from the deceased’s family despite ‘upper-caste’ suspects being named; the media has once again highlighted an angle that involves an extra marital relationship and downplayed the caste angle. A fact-finding report finds that the named suspects have connections with those in the administration. And once again, the murders have had no lasting affect on the public conscience of the country.
The caste-system is not the stuff of history textbooks but a reality for 20.4 crore people in India. A crime is committed against a Dalit every 18 minutes in India. A majority of the citizens of a nation that positions itself as one of the fastest growing economies of the world look the other way each and every time an instance of untouchability takes place.
Politicians, guardians of the law and journalists, do the same. None among these three groups have bothered to highlight the issue in a way that has captured the country’s imagination enough to fight the discrimination in both, its violent and insidious avatars.
The state’s disinterest is evident in the fact that neither the Central nor State governments have ever carried out a fact-finding enquiry into various continuing practices of Untouchability. The few reports available have been carried out by Civil Society Organisations. Instead of using these as means to address the issue governments scuttle the effort by denying the existence of untouchability. For instance, as the Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi time and again refused to recognise the various studies, detailing the discrimination that Dalits of the region faced. The National Commission for Scheduled Castes took two years to just acknowledge the masses of evidence caught on camera that Video Volunteers sent as a part of its campaign called ‘Article 17: End Untouchabilty’.
But with the given state of affairs can we ever end it? I can’t help but wonder if changing how these stories are reported could change the way the country reacts to caste-based crimes. The media, both alternative and mainstream, must work together to catapult the issue back onto the center stage. The reportage of these crimes can no longer afford to be episodic. It can no longer afford to report just the murders and rapes while ignoring the more subtle practices of untouchability, which play out as segregation in schools; the prevalence of manual scavenging; caste-based matrimonial ads etc.
And we, we can’t sit and passively consume this news as somebody else’s problems. it’s time to shout out from the rooftops and take to the streets. Just like we did for Nirbhaya and just like we did to halt corruption, we need a collective feeling of outrage against caste-based discrimination. What is by law a crime can only persist on such a large scale when supported by a conspiracy of silence. It’s time to break the silence.