The Better Angels of Their Natures? The Declining Rate of Homicides against India’s Dalits

Published date01 December 2017
Date01 December 2017
Subject MatterArticles
The Better Angels of Their Natures?
The Declining Rate of Homicides
against India’s Dalits
Peter Mayer1
There is a common perception—made the more acute by the growing focus on rapes since the
horrific gang rape incident in Delhi in 2012—that India is an increasingly violent society. One can even
see aspects of this perspective in official documents. Crime in India, 2009 for example observed that
‘The quantum of total violent crimes [increased] continuously ... from 2005 to 2009’.
This article focuses on serious, violent crimes against India’s Dalits (Scheduled Castes), especially
homicides, as they appear in official statistics. It suggests that contrary to popular understanding,
murder, rape and arson directed against Dalits have declined significantly since a peak in the early 1990s.
The article argues that, in part, the declines are due to the social mobilization of Dalits, the emergence
of lower caste and Dalit political parties in north India and specific aspects of political competition.
But another, broader and important influence, perhaps related to what Steven Pinker has called ‘the
better angels of our nature’, is an unnoticed but significant decline in overall rates of interpersonal
violence in India.
Dalits, homicide, violence, social change
The suicide death of Dalit PhD scholar Rohit Vemula in January 2016 served to bring to the fore the
question of on-going discrimination experienced by India’s Dalits.2 In a speech to students at Hyderabad
University, where Vemula had been a student, P. Sainath reminded listeners that only 3 per cent of rural
families had a graduate among their number, and for Dalit and Adivasi families, the percentage was
even lower (DNA Web Team, 2016). Christophe Jaffrelot, commenting on Vemula’s death in the Indian
1 Politics Department, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia.
2 In this article, I have chosen to use the term ‘Dalit’. It is important to recognize that the official data on which the article is based
refer only to those defined as belonging to the Scheduled Castes (i.e., Hindus, Sikhs or Buddhists) and does not include Christian
or Muslim Dalits. Equally, not all castes included in the list of Scheduled Castes were traditionally considered to be polluting.
Studies in Indian Politics
5(2) 159–180
© 2017 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2321023017727956
Corresponding author:
Peter Mayer, Politics Department, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, 5005 Australia.
160 Studies in Indian Politics 5(2)
Express, noted that the Census of India 2011 highlighted the continuing depressed status of India’s
Dalits who remain overwhelmingly disadvantaged, land-poor and inadequately housed (Jaffrelot, 2016).
Policies of reservation, he noted, have enabled the emergence of a class of Dalit entrepreneurs and an
increasingly well-educated middle-class in secure government employment—‘but in spite of this, or
because of this, anti-Dalit attitudes have been on the rise’ (Jaffrelot, 2016).
In this article, I wish to present evidence which, while not in any way dissenting from the view that
Dalits face continuing discrimination against them in contemporary India, suggests that in a longer-term
perspective, the very worst forms of violence against those at the bottom of Indian society have signifi-
cantly diminished in a way that is not generally acknowledged.
One way of framing those extreme acts of repression is to recollect the all-too-common events which
accompanied the early years of India’s Green Revolution.3 In the early 1970s, social science critics of the
Green Revolution were increasingly of the opinion that because the Green Revolution fostered mecha-
nization, the overall impact was that agricultural labour was being displaced and that, as a consequence,
class divisions in rural India were intensifying and would lead to an agrarian revolution in India.
While predictions that India was on the precipice of an agrarian revolution were clearly unfounded,
the question remains whether the organized, mass atrocities against Dalits which were frequent in the
1980s still occur on a like scale. To answer, it requires examining the data we have on the long-term
trends of atrocities against Dalits.
There Are Crimes … and There Are Crimes
Tracing the longer-term trend is, however, not simple. In 1988, The Commissioner for Scheduled Castes
and Scheduled Tribes noted:
The term ‘atrocity’ has not been dened in any law, and therefore, the Government have been using the expres-
sion ‘crimes against the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes’. However, since 1974 the Ministry of Home
Affairs started collecting statistics of such crimes and indicated that ‘atrocities’ on SCs and STs might be classi-
ed into four categories, viz., murder, grievous hurt, arson and rape. (Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and
Scheduled Tribes, 1988, p. 228)
These four crimes are ones which fall under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Other acts fall under the
Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 (PCR). These include refusal of entry into public institutions such as
hospitals and schools, refusal to sell goods or services, demanding performance of traditional untouch-
able work such as scavenging or the removal of animal carcasses (National Commission for Scheduled
Castes & Scheduled Tribes, 1990, p. 1).
To increase the scope and effectiveness of these and other laws, in 1989, parliament passed The
Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (PAA). Under that Act, penalties
were prescribed for atrocities, defined as including such things: forcing someone to eat noxious sub-
stances, dumping of waste matter on someone’s land, denudation, wrongful occupation of land, dispos-
session, bonded labour, intimidation during voting, vexatious litigation, public humiliation, ‘outrage of
modesty’, sexual exploitation, obstruction of entry to a place of public resort, eviction from one’s home,
3 For an overall survey of the question of Dalit atrocities, see Mendelsohn and Vicziany (1998a). Some detailed investigations of
specific incidents from the 1970s to the 1990s include (Indian Social Institute, 2002; Peoples Union for Democratic Rights, 1986a,
1986b; Prasad, 1982). The Human Rights Watch Report ‘Broken People’ (Narula, 1999) and National Commission for Scheduled
Castes and Scheduled Tribes Sixth Report (2001) summarize a number of major incidents in the late 1990s.

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