On 2 April, thousands of Dalits across the country took to the streets to protest a Supreme Court judgment that diluted the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Violence ensued, as protestors were attacked by the police and Hindutva goons, leading to the death of at least nine people. “Since the protest on 2 April, against the dilution of the SC/ST Act, the condition has become so hostile for Dalits that if we go to lodge a complaint with police, they rather start looking into our background,” Mahesh Kumar Mandeliya, a 30-year-old labourer from Gwalior, told me.
Mandeliya is a Jatav resident of Galla Kothar, which is one of several Dalit colonies around Chauhan Pyau—a Rajput stronghold in Gwalior. According to the residents of these colonies, the Chauhans and Tomars of Chauhan Pyau—both Rajput communities—are some of Gwalior’s most influential families, all of whom enjoy political patronage. The residents said that on 2 April, Rajput men from Chauhan Pyau fired pistols and rifles indiscriminately at the protest rally in the area and stormed nearby Dalit colonies, such as Galla Kothar and Bhim Nagar. Two Dalit men died in the violence—one from each colony—and over a dozen others sustained bullet injuries.
Following the violence, the state police registered multiple first information reports on complaints filed by both Dalit and Rajput residents of the area. In Chauhan Pyau, I spoke to two Rajput men—Raja Chauhan and Mahendra Chauhan—who were accused of firing at protestors. Raja was granted anticipatory bail before he was arrested, and claimed he fired his weapon “to protect their women,” while Mahendra, who was accused of killing two Dalit residents, was released on bail within three months of his arrest, and claimed he fired in “self-defence.” But there were no casualties among the Rajputs, and neither was any weapon seized from the Dalits.
According to data collated by the National Crime Records Bureau, or NCRB, Madhya Pradesh has seen over 1,700 cases registered under the Atrocities Act, each year since 2014. The Bureau data also shows that crimes against Dalits across India have increased since 2014, and Madhya Pradesh witnessed the highest proportion of crimes against Dalits among all the states. The state’s Chambal-Gwalior division has the largest consolidation of Dalits in the state, comprising 20 to 25 percent of the division’s population. The division comprises six districts and constitutes 34 of the 230 seats in the state assembly. Despite this demographic, the Chambal-Gwalior division has also witnessed some of the most vociferous opposition to the Atrocities Act, and seven Dalit residents of the region were killed during the 2 April protest.
This October, I travelled through Gwalior and Morena—both important cities in the Chambal-Gwalior division—and spoke to residents from different communities, including Dalits, Rajputs, Brahmins and Other Backward Classes. Across communities, the silence of political parties on the Atrocities Act appeared to be one of the most important issues for the upcoming state elections, scheduled to take place on 28 November. The upper-caste residents believed the act was a tool that could be used against them. They said they expected the Bharatiya Janta Party to come out with a clear denouncement of the law at a national level, and criticised the central government for displaying a double standard on the issue. “Suppose a Dalit is passing by and I spit in that moment, he will slap SC/ST case against me, and I go behind bars for six months,” Raja Chauhan said.