Sikkim & casteism – Hushed but vibrantly practised

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Caste-based social discrimination is something that keeps raising its ugly head in all parts of India because the society has largely stuck to outdated traditions and beliefs, continuing to feed and tend to it instead of fixing the system. The last incident that sparked outrage in the state won’t end discriminatory behaviour, simply because Sikkimese society is lackadaisical in its approach to actively engage in a dialogue with their mistakes.

It is the constitution itself that is lynched by a derogatory publication made by the villagers against the couples whom the villagers believed to have married to an outcaste spouse. Once again just after a few months, a bewildering complexity of superstition and dogma after the witch-hunting incident of Melli, South Sikkim has shocked the conscience of a Sikkimese society and it has now given us an opportunity for a thoughtful contemplation towards the solution.

According to the NCRB data 1,06,782 incidents of crime against Scheduled Caste were recorded during 2011-2013, while the number went up to 1,19,872 in the period 2014-2016.

The conviction rate is one of the lowest in terms of crimes committed against Scheduled Castes. Which simply means that justice is delayed, or rather, not given in maximum cases.

A recap of Dalapchand’s incident

Taking the example of the recent case of caste-based discrimination meted out to the newly married couple of Divya Rai and Karan Deep Baraily by the villagers of Dalapchand, where the father of the bride signed an agreement to officiate that he had no ties with his daughter after the “derogatory” marriage. It is terrifying to know that a bond as strong as that of a parent and child could be so easily broken at the mere mention of intercaste marriage. 

In an official statement by the Akhil Kirat Sangh (AKRS), the marriage was termed “anti-social” and it was formally declared that after the cleansing rituals conducted by the Kirat community and other villagers, the couple would be socially boycotted. 

Karandeep Baraily explains why this ‘cleansing’ ritual was performed on the 27th of December at Dalapchand by the Kirat community. 

“There are 10 subcastes and once the woman gets married outside of it, what happens is that the 10 sub-castes become nine, since the woman’s sub-caste is now ‘impure’. To purify it and bring it back to the original 10, the cleansing ritual is performed. This does not matter much if it is from anybody other than Scheduled Castes”, says Baraily. “The AKRS has apologized but it is out of arrogance and not sincere. We’ve been hearing that they still plan to ostracize us indirectly, by not visiting our houses and keeping us out of social affairs”. In a state where development and progress are on the tip of everyone’s tongue, these orthodox and humiliating rituals are still practised at large. 

There is also creativity in the metaphors the community used to describe the difference between every other community/tribe and scheduled castes. In this particular case, the Dalapchand community uses the phrases ‘pani mathi ra pani muni’ which translates to “above the water and below”, meaning that those who are below the water are untouchables. 

Custom & Rituals Versus Human Dignity.

As it could be seen in an exclusive interview recorded by digital news portal Sikkim Chronicle where a gentlemen from a Rai community could be heard saying that an episode of discrimination which occurred in Dalapchand is a matter of their community and is a “riti-riwaz” that is being followed by them since time immemorial, he further adds that an entire community should take steps rather than by an individual effort.

Such an ironical gesture nurtured by society in general and by a particular person cannot in any way be justified just because their customary rituals allow it.

Such customs irrespective of their proof of their existence since time immemorial cannot be practised as a matter of customary rights and rituals if it violates the societal decency and human rights. Human rights, dignity, social equality is the basic framework that lays the true foundation in society, any attempt that is made to destruct the social fabric that is embedded in our society should not be tolerated and on the other hand Article 17 is an apt answer to strictly enforce the human dignity to prevent stigmatization and social exclusion.

Now the pertinent question that is left with us is whether the so-called agreement/social diktat dated 27.12.2019 that boycotted Divya Rai from the society and termed the marriage as Anti-social in presence of Dass Thoom Rai/village community can be termed as non-existence in view of the apology letter tendered by some of the signatories and whether the Rai & Kirat Sangh or the administrative authority has the power to quash the discriminatory agreement dated 27.12.2019 given the settlement or in view of an apology.

But the only amicable solution to bring this social dogma into a logical conclusion would be in the best interest of the general public is to withdraw the so-called agreement/social diktat dated 27.12.2019 by the Akhil Rai Kirat Sangh and send the same to all its bodies and submit a report to the Schedule caste commission clarifying on its ignorance and condemning the same.

Having seen and experienced discrimination against his community for too long, Karan Deep Baraily vows to never stop fighting against it, no matter what happens. “I am only against the system, not the people, I want social reform because we don’t value each other as humans.”

The law that pertains to Caste-based discrimination

The legislation that addresses the atrocities against the SC & ST community came into force in the year 1989 when parliament passed the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989. Although Article 17 of the Indian Constitution talks about abolition of untouchable and Article 46 of the Constitution obligates the state to promote the welfare of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and protects them from social injustice and exploitation, the special law of 1986 holds much significance in preventing the atrocities against the SC & ST Communities including the penal provision.

Social boycott, cleansing rituals, discrimination and humiliation based on custom and so-called “riti-riwaz” is a manifestation of untouchability which violates the basic structure of Article 17 of the Indian Constitution. The incorporation of Article 17 in the Indian Constitution by our framers is symbolically to do away with an umpteen number of historic horrors of superstition and dogmas. But our fervent penchant that this horrendous superstition will vanish after the insertion of this Article and despite a statutory law like SC & ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 is just an imagination.

Neither this statutory law nor any philosophy has helped the human populace to eradicate such social infirmities from its roots.

Looking deeper into the 1989 law

If any person who is not a member of an SC & ST commits an offence enumerated under Section 3 of the Act then that person is liable to be imprisoned for a minimum period of not less than six months and with a fine. 

Section 3 of the SC & ST Act defines “atrocities” which are patterns of behaviour inflicting criminal offences and breaking the self-respect and esteem of the scheduled castes and tribal community. Among other this also includes boycotting socially through any act that may lead the communities of SC & ST to be in isolation from others, to deny any customary service or to abstain from social relations that one would maintain with other person and also by denying economic opportunities like depriving the economic benefits & opportunities.

Role of Administration

A District Magistrate or any police officer not below the rank of a Deputy Superintendent of Police upon receiving an information or if they have a reason to believe that any offences against the communities are likely to happen then the administration shall declare such an area to be an area prone to atrocities and take necessary action for keeping the peace and good behaviour and maintenance of public order and tranquillity and may take preventive action.

Inquiry & immediate arrest the police officer investigating the offence committed under this act shall not require any approval to arrest any person who has committed an offence against the members of SC & ST communities. The Investigation office in its sole discretion shall immediately arrest once a complaint is filed.

The Supreme Court controversial verdict and its review.

The Supreme Court in the year 2018 in Ganesh Kashinath’s case passed guidelines to prevent misuse of the SC & ST laws wherein it held that arrest of a person committing an offence under SC & ST Act could only be made after approval of appropriate authority and Preliminary enquiry has to be conducted by Dy. S.P. level officers to find out the veracity of the allegation.

After facing a massive backlash the Supreme Court had to finally review its judgment in 2018 under an impression that if it is implemented then the members facing discrimination will be discouraged to approach the police officials and the purpose of the Act will be frustrated.

Therefore, the Supreme Court in review restored the provision of immediate arrest of an accused and held that still the SC, ST communities were meted with unequal treatment and are socially outcasted by the members of the higher community.

The casual approach to toxic mindsets

With goals to become one of the most “modern” and “progressive” societies in the Northeast, Sikkim should be worried if this is the kind of entertainment that its people seek in 2020 – the state has failed to truly educate the people. The Sikkimese society’s greatest fault is the blatant ignorance of its hypocrisy. The discrimination is as subtle as the enabling of patriarchy and racism. 

Racist, sexist, casteist jokes are swapped in offices and streets, and as horrible as it is to behold, everyone partakes in the toxicity justifying it as ‘fun’. The jokes are just….jokes! Words strung together into a sentence, having no shape or form when it is delivered via the mouth. Its intangibility seems to absurdly equate with justifiable cause. 

Which is why every thinly veiled insult or crass joke is shrugged off casually as if only verbal hate were not enough to incriminate someone. There is a certain pride when someone defends an accusation made by an offensive statement, justifying it by saying “it’s just a joke – I even have friends who are from the lower castes! (Read: ergo, I am allowed to use derogatory language)”. 

“Kami jasto beura na dekha” – a phrase that is carelessly thrown around, without thinking about the implications of what it means or the trauma that it carries. Why do the upper castes constantly pick at and collectively decide to berate a community and attack them, when the nation is currently in turmoil because of the enablement of the same caste system that has given way to widespread violence and hatred? What is the need to constantly bring down a certain section of society that has remained in the fringes because of this caste system? 

Additionally, if one is to look closely, intercaste marriage is not the only problem – people braving the odds, especially women, to marry outside of the societal norms, is. If an intercaste marriage had truly been a problem, why wasn’t the groom’s family also against marrying outside their caste? It was the girl’s family who cast the first stone, probably angered at their eldest daughter’s blatant disregard for the rules of their community. Whatever we might believe, freedom is still a myth. 

Not being able to choose, let alone marry the person one loves is a common reality. It happens too often. Many parents threaten their children that their natural inheritance would be cut off if they marry outside their caste or community. Others try to plead with their children and ask “what will people say”? Then some hold honour killing as the only solution. 

The more that society hangs onto other antiquated ideas of what an ideal family or relationship should be like, the more our future generations will hate us for it. Sikkim’s citizens have to hold each other accountable for the various instances in our history where we openly boycotted against scheduled castes and tribes or worse, stayed quiet when it happened. 

If still, the reader is not convinced that the caste system has to go, maybe the words of Dr BR Ambedkar, the greatest voice against Untouchability and casteism, could kickstart the thought. In his magnum opus, the Annihilation of Caste, he writes: 

“There is no doubt, in my opinion, that unless you change your social order you can achieve little by way of progress. You cannot mobilize the community either for defence or for offence. You cannot build anything on the foundations of caste. You cannot build up a nation, you cannot build up a morality. Anything that you will build on the foundations of caste will crack, and will never be a whole.”

By Pramit Chhetri and Shradha Rani Chhetri. The former is a lawyer practising in the Supreme Court of India.

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