Speaking at an seminar titled “Caste and the law” many years ago, Balagopal began his talk by saying, in India, caste is the law! This inescapable reality of caste that dictates where one lives, what work one is hereditarily obligated to perform, what and how one eats, who and how one marries, where and how one sits, stands and walks, is performed and reinforced in these minute regulation of subjugated masses in the country. This system of social stratification thus results in social inequality, marginalization, and the denial of basic rights and opportunities for subjugated caste individuals and communities. Any attempt to alter this status quo is met with immediate reprisals, most often violence and social boycotts, against the whole community. As such Dalits, every day, face systematic humiliations, degradations and violence solely on the basis of the caste they are born into. “Whether caste clashes are social, economic, or political in nature, they are premised on the same basic principle: any attempt to alter village customs or to demand land, increased wages, or political rights leads to violence and economic retaliation on the part of those most threatened by changes in the status quo.”
The constitutional promises of equality, justice, liberty and fraternity remain an illusion and the constitutional abolishment of untouchability, still remain unattained. The lack of political and bureaucratic will has rendered toothless the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The caste blindness and sometimes sheer caste prejudices of the Courts have reduced the hope for justice from the judiciary.
As a consequence of this, there is a sharp increase in violent crimes against Dalits in this “mother of democracy”. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) documents the recorded crimes across the country including the offences against members against Dalits. These include crimes such as murder, assault on women, sexual harassment, stalking, kidnapping, and assault of children among others. In its 'Crime in India' report for the year 2022. It is seen that Uttar Pradesh (15,368), Rajasthan (8,752), Madhya Pradesh (7,733), and Bihar (6,509) reported the highest number of crimes against Dalits. Coming to South India it is seen that Andhra Pradesh (2315) tops the list in cases against Dalits followed by Telangana (1787), Tamil Nadu (1761), Karnataka (1977) and Kerala (1,050).
Looking at the crime figures from 2018 to 2022 it is seen that the crimes against Dalits and Adivasis have risen steadily. Further analysis reveals that even as cases of atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis increased, the conviction and charge-sheeting rates remained abysmally low.
As pointed above, Karnataka too has witnessed high number of crimes against Dalits, and these are only the reported cases. Dalits who form 17.5% of the State’s population have seen 1977 cases of caste atrocities in Karnataka. These include the shocking incident in November 2022 in Heggotara Village of Chamarajanagar District, where ‘upper caste’ persons drained all the water from a tank, from which a Dalit woman drank water and ‘purified’ it with gomutra. The feudal mentality prevalent among “upper castes” was seen in the brutal trashing of two Dalit minors in two separate incidents in September 2022. In the first case, a 14-year-old Dalit boy was tied to a streetlight pole and beaten up at Kempadenahalli village in Chikkaballapur district, by “upper-caste” Reddys, who also trashed his mother when she intervened to save her son. In the second incident, in Ullerahalli in Kolar district, boy was slapped after he picked a fallen pole of a palanquin and entered the temple during a procession. The procession was cancelled and the panchayat asks the boy’s mother to pay Rs.60,000 so that the deity defiled by his touch can be purified. In both these incidents cases were registered only after the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti (DSS) intervened. These increased caste atrocities in Karnataka were a dominant feature of the BJP rule in the state.
In this context of increased caste atrocities and low conviction rate, comes of the judgment of the Karnataka High Court in the case of a caste violence against Dalits in the village Dunda, Tumkur district, in August 2008. This judgment is the result of the dogged struggle by the Dalit victims for the past 15 years.
The fundamental pillar of a democracy is equal justice for all. Any action of the government that denies justice to the oppressed undermines the democratic system itself. A glaring example of this is the failure of the then BJP government to deliver justice to Dalit families subjected to brutal caste violence in Dunda village of Tumkur district in August, 2008. All talk of social justice flies out the window when the State fails to protect Dalits from caste atrocities, fails to prosecute the case and then fails to file an appeal when the Trial Court acquits the accused on untenable grounds.
On 14.08.2008, a heinous caste atrocity took place in Dunda village, Turuvekere taluk, Tumkur district. On that day two Dalit youth, Shivamurthy and Dilip, went to work in the farm of an ‘upper-caste’ person Gopal Krishna. When they were working there, Sudeep, another ‘upper caste’ person, who had a land dispute with Gopal Krishna, assaulted Shivamurthy and Dilip on the ground that they were working on his land.
Shivamurthy and Dileep proceeded to file a complaint against Sudeep at the jurisdictional police station in Dandinashivira, who refused to register an FIR. Angered that the Dalits had the “audacity” to file a complaint against them, Sudeep and a group of ‘upper caste’ people, armed with deadly weapons in their hands, barged into the keri (area) where the Dalit community resided while hurling abusive casteist abuses. In particular they said: “How dare Madigas dare to lodge a complaint againt upper caste persons”. They then assaulted all the Dalits they came across, causing grievous injuries to about a dozen persons. Of those injured, was a young Dalit man named Govindaraju, the most highly educated person in his Dalit community, who suffered grievous injuries, as also his mother, Lakshmamma and others.
Govindaraju's mother Lakshmamma filed a complaint against the dominant caste persons at the Dandinashivara police station. The police registered an FIR against the accused under Sections 143, 147, 148, 323, 324 of the Indian Penal Code and Section 3(10), (11) of the Scheduled Caste and Schedule Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. After completion of investigation, the police filed charge sheet against the accused on 04.12.2008 before the 3rd Additional Sessions Court, Tumkur, which proceeded to conduct the trial. However, despite there being sufficient evidence, the Trial Court acquitted all the accused on 23.06.2011 citing lack of evidence.
The verdict was a shock and disappointment to the victims and all the Dalits of the State for whom, the injustice of Kambalapalli had been repeated. On 11th March 2000, 7 Dalits were gruesomely murdered in village Kambalapalli in Chikkaballapur district (then Kolar district). They were assaulted, locked up in two houses, which were then set on fire, and the fire was fuelled till it was ensured that the Dalits were burnt to death. Such was this ghastly act that it shook the entire nation, not only Karnataka. Still the accused walked free, having been acquitted by the Trial Court and the High Court as well.
Govindaraju and his mother Lakshmamma, however, refused to give up, and joined hands with Dalit organizations to ensure justice for his community. They brought to the attention of the government several times that the order of the Trial Court was erroneous, and ought to be appealed against. However, the then BJP government failed to file an appeal against the same. It is needless to emphasize here that the reason for this is the complete apathy and neglect that the BJP government had towards the Dalit community.
However, the victims did not give up, and filed an appeal in the Karnataka High Court on 23.08.2011.
15 years after the heinous incident, the Karnataka High Court after hearing the arguments and thoroughly examining the evidence, passed its judgment on 31.10.2023 holding all 11 persons guilty of the said offences. The High Court held that the statement of eyewitnesses was not appropritely considered by the trial court, and that there was clear evidence that showed that all the accused were guilty of the offences. On 16.11.2023, the High Court sentenced the accused to undergo imprisonment for two months each for the offence punishable under Section 143 r/w/s 149 I.P.C, six months and pay fine of Rs.500/- for the offence punishable under Section 147 r/w/s 149 I.P.C, six months and pay fine of Rs.500/- for the offence punishable under Section 148 r/w/s 149 I.P.C, four months and pay fine of Rs.500/- for the offence punishable under Section 323 r/w/s 149 I.P.C. and one year, pay fine of Rs.1,000/- for the offence punishable under Section 324 r/w/s 149 I.P.C., one year and pay fine of Rs. 3,000/- for the offence punishable under Section 3 (1) (x) SC/ST (POA) Act r/w/s 149 I.P.C. and one year and pay fine of Rs.3,000 for the offence punishable under Section 3 (1) (xi) (POA) Act r/w/s 149 I.P.C. Importantly the High Court while passing the sentence on punishment rejected the pleas of the convicts for leniency since they chose: “… to assault complainant and others for the simple reason that though they belong to Schedule Caste, they had the courage or audacity of complaining against person belonging to forward community…”.
The High Court finally after 15 years, rectified the errors of the trial court and ensured justice to the Dalit community.
In the face of the High Court’s reversal of the trial court acquittal, the fact that the then Government failed to file an appeal against the trial court judgment requires close examination. In fact the then BJP government's failure to appeal to the Karnataka High Court against the acquittal order passed by the Tumkur District Court reflects a systemic failure that allows perpetrators of serious caste atrocities to escape legal consequences. Although the High Court's verdict has brought relief to the families of the affected Dalits, the fact that the government did not appeal against the trial court's order of acquittal raises serious questions among Dalits about the effectiveness and commitment of the BJP government to ensure justice. This case exposes the stark truth that the then BJP government had denied justice to the Dalits and had chosed to ignore the caste atrocities that occurred in Dunda village.
This apathy of the government was a direct assault of the core values of the Constitution that assures to all the promise of fraternity, equality and justice. The Supreme Court has held in several cases that unless the government is diligent in implementing the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 to ensure its original intent, the dream and ideal of a casteless society will remain just a dream and a mirage, and legal action should be taken against the investigating officer and the accused in cases of caste atrocity that are acquitted.
Although the victim's families would be relieved by the High Court's verdict, the questions remains whether those who have been convicted will repent their actions and emerge as reformed persons after their imprisonment.