Prayaag Akbar in Aeon:
In October 2016, a young man walked into a flour mill in Uttarakhand, a state of northern India where the mist-wrapped mountains of the outer Himalayas begin. He was Dalit (Sanskrit for broken, scattered, downtrodden), a relatively recent collective identity claimed by communities across the nation that are considered untouchable in the caste system. Present in the mill was a Brahmin schoolteacher – Brahmins are the caste elite – who accused the Dalit man of having defiled all the flour produced there that day, merely by his entry: notions of purity and pollution are integral to caste. After the Dalit man objected to the insult, the schoolteacher took out a blade and slit the Dalit’s throat, killing him instantly.
The incident caused uproar in the national press. Dalit groups in Uttarakhand staged a series of protests. The Brahmin schoolteacher was arrested, along with his brother and father, who had threatened the murdered man’s family if they went to the police; booked for murder and criminal intimidation, the men were also charged under the ‘Prevention of Atrocities’ act – a vital part of the Indian Penal Code that prohibits a range of violent and non-violent action against members of the lowest castes and tribes.
After the initial flurry of limited upper-class angst – followed by self-congratulation (at the foresight of the lawmakers for how the state machinery kicked into gear to protect the lower-castes) – the violence was then safely imagined as belonging to a distant, retrograde realm, where things would soon change. Silence followed, then forgetting. There was no discussion of the deep-seated convictions and codes that enabled this gruesome act, or how each Indian life was linked to it: the key to living in a caste society is to distance yourself from its most horrifying manifestations.