[Reader-list] Lynching of boy underlines how the curse of caste still blights India

Asit Das asit1917 at gmail.com
Mon Oct 20 02:13:53 CDT 2014

Lynching of boy underlines how the curse of caste still blights India
Sai Ram, burned alive because of a stray goat, was just one of 17,000
Dalits to fall victim to caste violence in the state of Bihar

   - Jason Burke <http://www.theguardian.com/profile/jasonburke> in Delhi
   and Manoj Chaurasia <http://www.theguardian.com/profile/manoj-chaurasia> in
   - The Guardian <http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian>, Sunday 19
   October 2014 18.55 BST

[image: Dalits at a ceremony honouring survivors of caste-based atrocities.
Dalits in Bihar have long faced]
 Dalits at a ceremony honouring survivors of caste-based atrocities. Dalits
in Bihar have long faced massacres and gang-rapes. Photo: Alessio

In another time, another place, Sai Ram might have escaped serious harm.
But he died in great pain last week, a casualty of a bitter, barely
reported conflict that still claims many lives every year.

Ram, 15, was a goatherd in a village in the poor eastern Indian state of
Bihar. He was a Dalit, from the lowest rung of the caste hierarchy that
still defines the lives, and sometimes the deaths, of millions of people in
the emerging economic power.

His alleged killer, currently being held by local police, is from a higher
landowning caste. He took offence when one of the teenager’s goats strayed
on to his paddy field and grazed on his crops. Ram was overpowered by the
landowner and a group of other men. He was badly beaten.

Then petrol was poured over him and lit, Ram’s father, Jiut Ram, said. “He
was crying for help, then went silent,” the 50-year-old daily wage labourer
told the Guardian.

The incident took place at Mohanpur village, about 125 miles (200km)
south-west of Bihar’s capital, Patna, in an area known for caste tensions.
It was the latest in a series of violent incidents that have once again
highlighted the problems and discrimination linked to caste, particularly
in lawless and impoverished rural areas.

Earlier this month, five Dalit women were allegedly gang-raped by
upper-caste men in central Bihar’s Bhojpur district. In September, hundreds
of Dalit families were forced from their homes in two other districts of
Bihar after a man from the community tried to contest a local election
against higher caste candidates.

Several political, social and economic factors usually lie behind such
upsurges in caste-related violence. One reason for Bihar’s recent incidents
may be the appointment in May of Jitan Ram Manjhi, a Dalit, as the chief
minister of the state.

Since taking power Manjhi has announced measures to help other Dalits in
Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, and is reported to have urged the
community to have more children to become a more powerful political force.

Dalits account for some 15% of Bihar’s population of 103.8 million.

The chief minister’s call was not well received by members of other castes,
local observers said.

Sachindra Narayan, a prominent Patna-based social scientist with the
National Human Rights Commission in Delhi, said: “The prime reason [for the
violence] is that [Dalits] feel empowered after seeing someone from their
community at the head of the state and have begun to assert their rights.
This is purely a retaliation from the dominant social groups.”

Manjhi claims a temple in northern Bihar was ritually cleaned and idols
washed with holy water after his visit to the shrine
Such ceremonies are still performed by upper castes to eradicate
“pollution” left by lower-caste visitors.

“A deep-rooted bias prevails against … those from the downtrodden sections
of society … I have myself been a victim of caste bias,” the 70-year-old

Opponents claim Manjhi was stoking caste tensions for political advantage.

In the vast neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh, caste is also a major
political issue, with power contested by two parties that broadly represent
two different caste communities. That of Mayawati explicity campaigns for
Dalits, while the ruling Samajwadi party is seen by many as representing
the Yadavcommunity, once pastoralists.

Caste became a factor in recent national elections too. The prime minister,
Narendra Modi, comes from a poor family from the lower-caste
Ghanchicommunity, which is associated with selling oil. His rise from
humble origins to leader of 1.25 billion people has inspired many – but
also provoked scorn from elite politicians
have mocked his background.

The origins of caste are contested. Some point to ancient religious texts,
others to rigid classifications of more local definitions of community and
identities by British imperial administrators. The word “caste” is of
Portuguese origin.

Regardless of its origins, the word still has the power to stir
controversy. Arundhati Roy, the Booker prize-winning author, recently
accused Mahatma Gandhi, India’s revered independence leader, of
discrimination and called for institutions bearing his name to be renamed
because of his attitude to caste.

She said: “It is time to unveil a few truths about a person whose doctrine
of nonviolence was based on the acceptance of the most brutal social
hierarchy ever known, the caste system … Do we really need to name our
universities after him?”

Sociologists say the rapid urbanisation of India has weakened the caste
system as the realities of living in overcrowded Indian cities make
reinforcing social separation and discrimination through rituals or
violence much harder.

But if change is coming to places like rural Bihar, it is often accompanied
by violence.

Last October a roadside bomb killed Sunil Pandey, a landowner who was
alleged to be a senior figure in a militia formed in 1994 to enforce the
interests of higher castes in the state, but which has been largely dormant

The Ranvir Sena militia, formed by men of the Bhumihar caste of landlords,
is held responsible for a series of massacres of Dalits in the 1990s
<http://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/india/India994-06.htm>. These murders, in
effect reprisals against local Maoist guerrillas, who have also killed
many, reached a bloody climax with the deaths of 58 men, women and children
with no connection to extremism in the village of Lakshman Bathe in 1998.
Ranvir Sena and Pandey were blamed.

Last year 24 men had their convictions for that massacre overturned by
Bihar’s high court
prompting renewed clashes.

The authorities have pledged rapid justice for Ram, the 15-year-old burned
to death last week. But of nearly 17,000 pending trials in Bihar involving
charges of violence against Dalits only a 10th were dealt with last year.

“We are going to … start speedy trial of the case,” Chandan Kumar Kushwaha,
the local superintendent of police, said, while the chief minister told
reporters he was taking a personal interest in the case.

“I have talked to the state’s director general of police and district
superintendent of police concerned, and ordered them to … deliver instant
justice to the victim [sic] family,” Manjhi said.

For the teenager’s father, nothing can compensate for the death of his son.
“My entire world is lost now,” he said.

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