Seven killed as India’s lowest caste Dalits lead street protests against court order
Protests came after the Supreme Court barred the immediate arrest of people accused of discriminating against Dalits, who are at the bottom of India’s ancient caste hierarchy
Low-caste Dalits fought street battles with police that left at least seven dead as protests against a Supreme Court rights ruling swept across large swathes of India.
Protesters on Monday clashed with security forces, attacked buses and government buildings, and blocked trains and major roads.
Four people were killed in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, where police also imposed a curfew, Indian television channels reported. Three others were killed in other states, local media said.
Trouble was also reported in the capital New Delhi, and Punjab and Bihar states.
The “Bharat Bandh” – or India shutdown – protest was called by groups representing the Dalits, once condemned as the “untouchables”, who make up 200 million of India’s 1.25 billion population and are at the bottom of the caste hierarchy.
They are angry at a Supreme Court ruling that banned the automatic arrest of the accused in cases under a special law to protect marginalised groups who suffer widespread discrimination.
The 1989 Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was intended to guard against the harassment of Dalits and other groups.
Dalit leaders say the ruling increases the likelihood of attacks.
Dalits are among the most marginalised groups in a country where caste discrimination is outlawed but remains widespread.
Last week a young Dalit farmer in Gujarat was beaten to death for owning a horse, which is seen as a symbol of power and wealth.
Across the affected states, groups hurled stones, bottles and burning sticks at police and set buses on fire. Some sat on railway lines to block trains. Reports said a police outpost near Meerut in Uttar Pradesh was set on fire.
Authorities in Punjab shut schools and colleges and postponed exams in some affected regions. Media reports said the government had restricted mobile internet services.
Rajnath Singh, India’s home minister, called for calm.
“The government is appealing against the court order but it is a responsibility of everyone including all political parties to ensure peace,” Singh told journalists in Delhi, where the Dalit protests caused traffic chaos.
The discrimination has become a political issue in the run-up to a national election that must be held before May 2019.
Rahul Gandhi, head of the opposition Congress party, hit out at the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“Thousands of Dalit brothers and sisters are demanding the protection of their rights from Modi government on the roads today. We salute them,” Gandhi said.
Dalit voters have apparently swayed towards the BJP in recent elections. Observers say this has helped Modi’s party take control in several Indian states.
“The opposition’s nervousness is due to the never before seen nationwide support of backward castes to the Modi government,” Arjun Ram Meghwal, a BJP lawmaker and minister in Modi’s government, said on Twitter.
Dalits have historically faced various forms of discrimination including segregation and social boycott, in addition to violence.
They have been barred from physical or social contact, and in some cases, even having their shadows touch those belonging to people from castes higher in the hierarchy.
The rigid Hindu caste system also forces some Dalit castes into occupations which are considered unclean by the so-called higher castes, such as cleaning human excreta and disposing of dead people and animals
Additional reporting by Reuters