NEW DELHI — The president of India recently received a letter from a young man in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. It included graphic details of how the writer said he had been abused by police in his village.
"The law-and-order system has failed me," Prasad, a "Dalit" from the lowest rung of India's caste hierarchy, said in the letter, dated Aug. 11 to Kovind — who is also a Dalit. "I want to look elsewhere to preserve my dignity."
India's caste system — and the violence perpetrated against those at the bottom of the rigid, hereditary social stratification — stood yet again at center stage.
Prasad lives on the banks of a deltaic stream of the Godavari, India's second longest river. The riverbed is a reservoir for rampant illegal sand mining, controlled by powerful local business and political cliques.
"There was a death in our village that day," Prasad told NBC News by telephone, referring to July 19, the day before he was beaten by the police.
"We were making funeral arrangements when a truck belonging to a local politician fetching sand from the riverbed passed by. I asked them to wait awhile while we moved the body. They wouldn't listen, and there was an altercation."
In the ensuing melee, Prasad said, blows were exchanged and, by his account he was hit first. He also admitted damaging the windshield of the truck.
"They wouldn't listen and words came to blows," he said. "The driver slapped my face and I damaged his windscreen."
"The next day, I was taken to the police station," he said. "The officers thrashed me and used the vilest expletives. They called in a barber and had him shave the top of my head and shave off my mustache. It was so humiliating. I wrote the president to grab attention."
Local police acknowledge the incident took place. In a two-page document, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, Shemushi Bajpai, the district's superintendent of police, said a departmental investigation established that Prasad had been the victim of "inhuman acts towards an accused person," and the officer involved had been arrested.
Prasad contends he was victimized for being a Dalit.
The police filed a case against the officer in question under what is commonly known as the Atrocities Act, which specifically targets crimes based on the victim's caste. It was an internal, departmental investigation.
Dalit is a word that can mean oppressed, broken or crushed and refers to those formerly known by the dehumanizing term "untouchables." Over the years, the community has chosen the term Dalit for itself, eschewing the official moniker of Scheduled Castes. There are 200 million Dalits in India out of a population of 1.3 billion.
The Hindu caste system, in which identity and status are ascribed at birth, dates to an ancient Sanskrit text called the "Manusmriti" (The laws of Manu), and uses a doctrine of purity and pollution to classify people into four varnas or castes.
At the top are the Brahmins (priests), followed by Kshatriyas (soldiers/administrators) and Vaishyas (merchants), with Shudras (servants/laborers) at the bottom. Dalits are beyond the scope of this system, which considers them "untouchables."
Untouchability was abolished legally in 1950, when India became a republic. In reality, it remains embedded in India's psyche.
‘Caste hatred at work’
Beyond prejudice, Dalit activists see a more sinister agenda, tied to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's vision for a Hindu nation.
The BJP — or the Indian people's party — leads the alliance heading the central government. In its second consecutive term in power, it's known for its robust assertion of nationalism.
A party spokesman denied the BJP's Hindu nationalism had contributed to the increasing number of attacks on Dalits.
"Ours is an inclusive nationalism," Sudesh Verma, a national spokesperson for the party, said by telephone. "We believe all Indians are Hindu by ancestry."
India, however, has a significant population of minorities, including about 194 million Muslims, which equates to 14.9 percent of the population. This is the second largest Muslim population of any country in the world after Indonesia, according to a Pew Research Center document released in 2019. There are also about 28 million Christians, and 20 million Sikhs.
Activists point to a spate of mob lynchings over beef, for instance, in which people have been attacked and often killed on mere suspicion.
Hindus venerate the cow, and its slaughter is illegal in most states.
The lynchings are carried out by vigilante groups; the victims are mostly Dalits and Muslims. Many of these events are filmed and circulated widely on social media.
The president's office said it forwarded Prasad's letter to local government officials, asking them to investigate.
While the police officers involved have been suspended and a departmental inquiry ordered, Prasad says the policemen were following orders. He hopes the president's directives will lead to action against the dominant-caste villagers — those, he said, who instigated the police brutality.
The note circulated by the police confirms Prasad's accusation, and names Kavala Krishna Murthy, a local man of the dominant Kapu – a land owning caste, — along with five unnamed persons — as the accused. The note says the complaint is under investigation. Murthy could not be reached for comment.
"This is caste hatred at work," Prasad said.
Litany of violence
Prasad's experience at the police station is just the most recent in a long list of cases in which Dalits have faced violence in India.
India has a special statute to deal with crimes against Dalits. Parliament passed the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in 1989. Its existence is an acknowledgment that Dalits suffer disproportionate violence and hatred, and the law targets crimes against the group. It also allows for speedy trials, special courts and strict punishment. Prasad's case has been registered under this act.
But less than half the cases go to court and the conviction rate has been as low as 15 percent, according to government data. A 2017 Home Ministry document said, "despite the deterrent provisions made in the act, increasing atrocities ... have been a cause of concern for government."
The National Crime Records Bureau publishes an annual "Crime in India" report. In its 2018 report, it lists 42,793 cases — meaning a Dalit was a target of crime, on average, every 15 minutes. The number of cases has increased 66 percent over the last decade.
S.R. Darapuri, who uses initials instead of a last name like many Indians, is a retired police officer, a member of the Indian Police Service. He is also a Dalit and has spent his retirement campaigning for Dalit and minority rights.
"I know the force well, and caste prejudice is rife among all ranks," he said by telephone.
Beyond police violence, inter-caste violence is also widespread. The triggers can be acts as innocuous as entering a temple or falling in love.
In September 2018, Pranay Kumar, 25, was hacked to death in broad daylight in the town of Miryalaguda in Telangana state. His wife, Amruta, accused her father of hiring hitmen to kill Pranay because he was a Dalit. The father, Maruti Rao, was charged and died by suicide while the case was still being heard.
His funeral was broadcast live on local TV and he was celebrated for his "fatherly love." Amruta was trolled as an uncaring daughter, and vilified on social media.
"We saw the casteist face of the media and the public," Kumar’s father, Balaswamy, who goes by one name, said by phone. "We don't want revenge. We want this story known so that there can be an end to such casteist and so-called 'honor killings'."
India's history as a republic is littered with even more macabre incidents. There have been massacres of Dalits in states as far apart as Tamil Nadu and Bihar, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. There has been retaliatory violence, as well.
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In 2016, in Una, a town in Gujarat state, seven members of a family were tied to an automobile and publicly flogged, stripped and marched naked in the town. They were skinning a cow, which they had bought after it was dead. They were accused of having slaughtered it.
In another incident in Jharkhand state, in 2018, a BJP minister gave flowers to six men accused of lynching to celebrate their release on bail. There has been criticism from Dalit and minority activists, the political opposition and media commentators that the ruling party has never clearly condemned these incidents.
In March 2018, the Supreme Court diluted some provisions of the Atrocities Act. It restricted police powers, and introduced "safeguards" to protect people accused under the law. The judgment even hinted that some Dalits might have been using the act as a weapon for blackmail and harassment.
India's Dalits erupted in protest.
A national strike was announced for April 2, 2018, and thousands joined across the country. They blocked railroads and highways. There were clashes with the police in several states and many incidents of violence and arson. Fourteen people died and several hundred were injured, according to Jignesh Mevani, 38, an independent legislator in the state of Gujarat, and a firebrand Dalit youth leader.
It was the first time that Dalit protesters ensured a nationwide lockdown, Mevani said. And this, without the backing of any major political party.
The protests galvanized the government. It filed a review petition and also went further. Hurriedly drafted amendments to the act, nullifying the judgment, were rushed through parliament. Eventually, the Supreme Court recalled its own judgment in October 2019.
This was no small victory for the Dalit movement.
The BJP parlayed its response to engineer an increase in its Dalit vote share in the 2019 elections.
"Educated Dalits are no longer meek," Mevani says. "They are organizing and demanding their due. This is resented by the non-Dalit castes, exposing them to more violence, but we are not giving up".
Still, the road ahead for activists like him is filled with peril, according to Darapuri, the retired police officer.
"The present dispensation operates at two levels — at the political level it uses rhetoric to woo the Dalit vote, to great success," he says. "But on the streets the vigilantes now feel emboldened and are more aggressive. They feel protected."
The caste system also dogs Indian communities as they migrate and settle abroad.
A recent survey among Dalits living in the USA claims that 25 percent of the respondents reported facing verbal or physical assault, and 60 percent experiencing caste-based derogatory jokes.
There have also been lawsuits filed in California against large IT companies alleging caste discrimination against Dalit employees, by their managers from other Hindu castes.