On the morning of 14 September 2020, a teenage Dalit girl and her mother entered the fields of a landowning, upper-caste family in the district of Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, to gather fodder for their cattle. The woman heard her daughter scream and rushed over to find her injured and covered in blood. In a video shared on social media, the girl, slipping in and out of consciousness, says: ‘They strangled me, because I did not let them force me.’ According to her family, the police delayed filing a First Information Report for the crime. The assault was a clear case of caste atrocity, under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, but the police did not record it as such. A close look at the legal system reveals that the police and courts routinely erase the question of caste from criminal proceedings.
Two young women, Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, have been held in judicial custody at a maximum security prison in Delhi for more than a hundred days. They are founding members of the feminist student activist collective Pinjra Tod (‘break the cage’). At the start of the year, Narwal and Kalita led peaceful protests against India’s new citizenship laws, which discriminate against Muslims and Dalits. The Delhi police are looking to place blame for the deadly riots that tore through the city in February. The charges that Narwal and Kalita are being held on include property damage, assaulting state officials, armed rioting, murder, and the manufacture and sale of arms. They have also been booked under two sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, on counts of fundraising for terrorism and inciting criminal conspiracy. Anyone accused of such crimes is automatically denied bail.
Tomorrow will mark one year since the Indian government abrogated Articles 370 and 35A of the constitution, which had provided a loose form of legal autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir. Democratically elected Kashmiri leaders were arrested, 30,000 additional troops deployed, and a total communications shutdown imposed, cutting residents of the valley off from one another and the outside world. Jammu and Kashmir were divided into separate union territories. Months passed without any internet or telephone access. A weak 2G connection has now been made available, but it is unstable and often suspended.
On 20 May, Super-Cyclone Amphan hit West Bengal and Bangladesh with wind speeds of over 200 kilometres per hour. It tore through embankments in the Sundarbans Delta, flooding riverine villages and choking vegetable and paddy fields with seawater. Salt water also got into wells and freshwater ponds, depriving thousands of people of their access to drinking water. Storm water surges – more than five metres high – carried away livestock, houses and entire islands. The winds blew salt water into the trees: guava and palm, but especially mangrove. Now, a month after the storm struck, they look burned by the brackish water, their leaves yellow and red.
Social distancing is impossible for most Indians. More than 500 million people live in densely populated slums, urban villages or makeshift housing; large families share small spaces; many don’t have direct access to running water or basic sanitation. Most had not heard of hand sanitiser until three weeks ago. The Indian government’s response to Covid-19 has not, so far, accounted for the lives of the majority of India’s population, or the informal nature of much of the economy. Attempts to control the virus have instead exacerbated a vicious form of social distancing that has marginalised this same population for centuries: the caste system.
On 20 December 2019 – ten days into protests across India against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens – Chandrashekhar Azad tweeted that he would be at a rally at the Jama Masjid (the biggest mosque in Delhi). Azad is the leader of the Bhim Army, a Dalit resistance movement. The police arrested him ahead of the demonstration but he escaped, slipping away into the winding lanes of the old city. The police withdrew permission for the gathering and invoked Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which prohibits the ‘unlawful assembly’ of four or more people. But thousands were already on their way to the mosque, many travelling from the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. The evening prayers began, as people gathered at the mosque steps. Police and media surrounded them. After prayer, the crowd turned to face the cameras, slowly unfurling their signs and flags. From somewhere in their midst, Azad emerged, holding up a copy of the Indian constitution.