Killed for being born
When reading and hearing about the never-ending sequence of events that have surrounded the Stephen Lawrence case over the past 18 years, one cannot help but find parallels between his murder, (which of course is not an isolated incident of where a person is killed in Britain on account of their racial background), and the routine killing of Dalits in India on account of caste. This ultimate form of violence is perpetrated due to the deeply-entrenched belief of some individuals that the ‘other’ is an utterly inferior being and constitutes some kind of a ‘blot’ on society. In both cases people are killed because they were born a certain way; Stephen was born black, Dalits were born ‘untouchable’.
Victims as perpetrators
It has become even more abundantly clear that the processes following Stephen’s murder have involved a systematic litany of failures. Dwayne Brooks, Stephen’s friend who was with him at the scene of the murder and who actually saw his killers, has explained how he himself was treated as a suspect when the police initially came to the murder scene on the night of 22nd April 1993. Subsequent accounts of some police people present at the scene have corroborated that Dwayne, far from being treated with the due care that can be expected for a victim of crime, was questioned as if he had been a perpetrator. All too often we hear from our partners and Dalit brothers and sisters in India that when a Dalit attempts to register an atrocity case, the police respond immediately by implicating the Dalit victim in the crime. In both cases, deeply-entrenched societal prejudices and the gross negative individual schemata of, for example, the police force, serve to set the context for inquiry. The consequences of this, especially in the early stages after a crime, can be critical. In the Lawrence case, in addition to the professional incompetency of the police, their internal prejudices led to the immediate failure to secure the scene of the murder; vital forensic evidence that would have constituted an outright basis for convictions to be made was lost. In the recent Dalit atrocity case in Mirchpur, police failures to collect evidence immediately after the looting of the village had taken place too had the effect of severely limiting the number of convictions that could take place. In the final verdict, the judge observed serious negligence of duties by the Haryana police, going on to say that ‘the manner in which the whole thing was handled was improper’.
Saying it how it is
It has been emphasised that in the early days of Stephen Lawrence’s murder, there was a tangible reluctance to use the ‘R’ word. Instead of labelling it as it was – extreme racial violence, immediate inquiries rested upon the premise that the murder had been the culmination of a fight between Stephen and Dwayne, and the gang of 6 white youths – not an unprovoked race hate crime. Similarly in India, time and time again are caste atrocity cases morphed into something else. The most poignant illustration of this is the fact that the Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989), which establishes criminal liability, contains compensation provisions for victims and establishes specific authorities to implement the Act, has in reality yielded convictions just once since its enactment. This was in October last year in the Mirchpur case. Although we know that caste atrocities in India continue daily and unabated, this was the first time that caste has been recognised as the fuelling factor behind the brutal killing of Dalits. In all other cases, at very best there has been a luke-warm recourse to general criminal law. If race, then, has become the taboo word in Britain, caste is surely its synonym in India. In both instances, the reluctance to call the crime what it is early on seriously hampers the course of justice. If a crime is not explicitly called what it actually is, any supposed remedial measures can never be deemed just.
Here then, perhaps one of the most instructive consequences of the ordeal of the past 18 years has come from the findings of the Macpherson Inquiry which concluded that the failings of British authorities in the Lawrence case was due to and symptomatic of a culture of institutional racism; The definition of this being:
The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.
Putting aside the much-needed conceptual clarity that the Macpherson report brought to not just the Lawrence case but cases of racial violence, Macpherson’s most significant achievement was his unapologetic willingness to say it how it is; Lawrence was murdered due to racial prejudices, and the quest for justice ensuing his murder too have been infected with these. On a brighter note, labeling these failures as emanating from institutional racism has however been a driving force for positive action. As Trevor Philips noted in a recent (2009) Parliamentary review of the Macpherson report ten years on, “the use of the term ‘institutional racism’…was absolutely critical in shaking police forces up and down the country out of their complacency. The consequence of that has been that police forces have paid a lot of attention; they have put a lot of resources in” . Uncomfortable as though it may be, being explicit about the root causes of violence in these cases is necessary. In India, we see an awareness of the government, for example, in country national plans, of the systematic disadvantages experienced by Dalits in all arenas – health, education, employment, housing, etc. What is missing, however, is a systematic inquiry into the role played by government authorities in perpetuating these biases. What then, if there could be an official finding of ‘institutional casteism’ across the board in India? I believe that this would represent a true watershed in the struggle for equality in India. In the same way that Macpherson has spurned meaningful racial sensitisation training and measures for the police force in Britain, the implications of institutional casteism would add clout to existing calls by grassroots Dalit movements and national and international NGOs for training on caste sensitisation for the police and judicial authorities in India. Of course, this would represent just the start of a new phase in the Dalit struggle, but we shouldn’t under-estimate the potential significance of such a move. After all, institutions are made up of individuals. The collective culture of an institution merely mirrors the attitudes of the individuals that comprise it. Individuals can change; so too then can institutions. As anywhere in the world, legislation whose raison d’etre is to protect oppressed people will be no use unless those that are charged with implementing the law are free from the prejudices that it seeks to mitigate.
The uncertain promise of the law
Both the Stephen Lawrence case and Dalit atrocity cases more generally show at once the promise and perils of the law. Although it is largely acknowledged that all forms of discrimination are essentially rooted in the hearts and minds of an individual, in both Britain and India the institutions of authority remain overwhelmingly dominated in Britain and in India. In the former case, one needs only to look at the demographic composition of the House of Commons, or even more so the House of Lords and the Supreme Court of Britain. In India, the same is largely true, albeit that Dalits have managed to come to power in some of the northern states. The law then, however imperfect a solution it may offer, is important in offering the oppressed minorities, or the oppressed majorities (as is the situation for Dalits in India) formal protection. Needless to say though, the mere existence of a law does not mean that it will be applied and that justice will follow. The case of Stephen Lawrence shows us the limits of law, especially when the issues at stake involve a person or a set of people’s emotive beliefs – in this case around race. The same is true in India where the law has had a dubious record in addressing caste-based atrocities against Dalits, coming up time and time again against the internalised prejudices of the upper caste authorities. What then is the promise of the law in both cases?
Making the law work
The final verdict, albeit an imperfect one, gave a clear signal that the mass mobilisation of citizens and civil society organisations can be a strong antidote to a distinct lack of political will to implement the law to confer justice. Yes, it took 18 years to get even to this stage where three of Stephen Lawrence’s killers remain free. But let us consider the counterfactual scenario. It is highly probable that without the relentless struggle of Doreen and Neville Lawrence, and mass efforts at concerted campaigning and lobbying, all five men would be walking free today. Similarly, it is fair to say that without the mobilisation of the Valmiki community in Mirchpur, the carnage that took place would have remained yet another invisible Dalit atrocity. It was through the sustained and coordinated efforts of the community itself, supported by legal experts such as the Human Rights Law Network that brought about the convictions of 15 of the perpetrators. In both cases, nonetheless, the convictions leave a bittersweet taste. Without meaning to negate the significance of the convictions in each case, and notwithstanding the true heroism involved in both campaigns for justice, I can’t help but recall the phrase that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’; the torpor experienced by victims and their families, the legal implications of delays, the prolonged human suffering and imperfect verdicts.
Waking up to uncomfortable truths
The uncomfortable truth in Britain remains that the goal of race equality is not ‘job done’. In India, too, though many of the middle-classes continue to hold dear to the myth of a casteless society, citing the revered constitution and affirmative action schemes as evidence. Caste in India has not been cast aside. In Britain, some cite the ascendency of certain migrant groups in Britain, for example, the East African Asians whose arrival in Britain had once invited Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, as proof of there being a level playing field for non-whites. This, however, tells only half of the story. It misses the bleak reality that some people in Britain are still killed due to the colour of their skin; the names Zahid Mubarek and, more recently still Anuj Bidve are but a few such cases that have caught media attention. More subtle and covert expressions of systematic racial prejudices can be seen from looking at the profiles of people that the police stop and search. It still shocks me that my male cousins say that they have become used to being stopped routinely on a night out, especially when they are in a group of predominantly Asian men. Anyhow, the facts speak for themselves. According to statistics of the Ministry of Justice (2011), the number of Black and Asian people stopped and searched by the police has increased by 70% over the last five years. In India, a 14 year-old Dalit boy is in Uttar Pradesh is murdered by an upper caste man for having the same name as his son. Research has suggested that at least 21 Dalit women in India are raped per month. The list of evidence showing that race in Britain and caste in India are alive and kicking is endless.
 The Mirchpur case refers to an incident that took place in the Hisar district of Haryana in April 2010 where a Dalit father and his disabled daughter were burnt alive and the houses of Valmikis (deemed outside of the caste system) in the village looted. It involved a sequence of police and judicial failures in the early stages of the case, including the corruption of officials by some of the accused upper castes, the falsification of evidence and false charges against the victim communities. Following a period of litigation, the Indian Supreme Court verdict on 31st October 2011 convicted 15 of the 82 accused persons under the Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989).
 See: http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/mirchpur-dalit-killings-court-likely-to-deliver-verdict-today-145273
 See: http://www.archive.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm42/4262/4262.htm
 See: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmhaff/427/427.pdf
 Upendra Baxi, 2009 – speaking about the uncertainty of judicial activism of the Supreme Court in India.
 See Jaffrelot, Christopher 2002. ‘India’s Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India’.
 Allot, Antony 1980.
 See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2010/jun/17/stop-and-search-police
 See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-15997648
 See: http://www.overcomingviolence.org/en/resources/campaigns/women-against-violence/now-we-are-fearless/dalit-fact-sheet.html