Concerns about caste-based violence in India are growing after a 13-year-old girl from a lower caste was beheaded in one of the country’s southern states last week, with her alleged assailant coming from a higher, majority caste, according to police.
The complaint filed with police in the Salem district of Tamil Nadu alleges that the victim had rejected the advances of the accused, triggering a violent reaction.
“The girl was brutally murdered. The investigation is ongoing and the accused has been arrested,” said Ponkarthik Kumar, senior police official in the district.
The police have charged him under the act that criminalizes caste-based violence. The law has existed in India since 1989.
The lower castes, also known as Dalits, one of the most marginalized groups in India’s complicated caste system – a community of people once known as the untouchables, who were often denied the right to education and employment through systemic discrimination and abuse.
In spite of numerous laws and court rulings that have attempted to provide a level playing field, deep-rooted bias has repeatedly hampered progress, activists say.
“Why does the establishment not show that strength? Such incidents are constantly happening. When we are pushing for advocacy, the political will must be questioned, or the lack of political will must be questioned,” said Radhika Ganesh, a political activist who has been advocating for Dalit rights for years.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the total number of crimes against people of lower castes was more than 47,000 in 2016.
“The reason behind the violence is the high level of politicization of caste-based politics. Because of that there is extensive abuse of political power,” said Ganesh.
Protests against caste-based violence
Crimes against women under the act are underreported in official Tamil Nadu statistics, accounting for only 5% to 8% of total crimes against members of lower castes, said Jayna Kothari, executive director at the Centre of Law and Policy Research. Kothari explained that some offenses against them that should be included are instead classified as regular crime.
“This data is a source of great worry. The question becomes that … should it be registered as a gender crime or a (lower) caste crime? It should be both. We should look at violence in an intersectional way. You cannot isolate it,” said Kothari.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court in an ongoing case reversed an important provision of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The court ruled that the police could not immediately arrest a person accused of a crime against someone of a lower caste.
The act is designed to protect people belonging to lower castes from retribution or intimidation that could follow after a complaint is filed and orders immediate arrest of the accused as a counter measure.
Violent protests organized by Dalit groups broke out across the country and the Indian government was forced to pass an executive order bypassing the Supreme Court order and rolling back their changes.
On Wednesday, activists in Tamil Nadu’s capital of Chennai organized a protest called Violence of Silence that saw 300 people march through torrential rain to protest the latest in a long list of injustices.
“Caste is an open sort of practice accepted in Tamil Nadu. Everyone is silent about it and the silence is tantamount to creating the violence around it,” said Ganesh.