Caste in India is an enduring reality, a festering problem that refuses to go away. Many people, especially those opposed to job reservations, seem to argue otherwise, but caste cannot be wished away, even in modern, educated, middle class and affluent sections of the society. An NCAER survey had revealed that a quarter of Indian population still practises untouchability at home. Against this backdrop, Parliament is justified in passing the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill to strengthen mechanisms against caste oppression. The offences listed in the Bill speak volumes about caste-based vulnerabilities and include victimising SC or ST persons in matters relating to voting, wrongfully occupying their lands, and assault and sexual exploitation of women. Dedicating SC and ST women to temples as Devadasis appears to be still prevalent, even years after social reform movements.
Some new offences listed in the Bill appear to have been the result of recurring media reportage about denying SC and ST persons entry into temples, and even education and health institutions, and forcing them to carry human or animal carcasses. In many villages, SC and ST people are still not allowed to access common property resources. Affirmative action — namely, job reservations and a clutch of welfare schemes for SC and ST persons — have been effective, but only in a limited way. Economic upliftment will not automatically lead to the end of untouchability and caste discrimination and violence. Similarly, though laws to prevent atrocities are necessary, they will prove effective only when victims are empowered to pursue legal action.
Beyond State intervention, there is an urgent need for mobilisation of Dalits with the objective of empowerment and collective assertion of rights — starting with temple entry, unrestricted access to public spaces and resistance to feudalism, violence and sexual assault. Similarly, besides social reformers, progressive religious leaders should strive towards creating an atmosphere conducive to social inclusion. Social movements and civil society campaigns for social inclusion on the one hand, and economic development on the other, should go hand in hand with legal and State protection.