The COVID-19 lockdown period so far has multiplied the distress of oppressed classes across the country. In Tamil Nadu, the lockdown period has seen new levels of atrocities against dalits. Ever since the nationwide lockdown had begun on March 25, there have been at least 30 major incidents of caste-based violence in the state, according to a study by a Madurai-based NGO Evidence. Activists point out that in many places, some upper-caste groups are using the lockdown as an opportunity to assault dalits.
“Tamil Nadu should be declared as an atrocity state. The caste situation here is like in no other state," said A Kathir, executive director of Evidence.
"In a lot of incidents, there are 40-50 people attacking in groups. How is this possible in a lockdown?" questioned Kathir.
"In the last four days, four dalits have been murdered. Honour killings, group attacks, murders, rape and harassment have all happened. They say domestic violence has increased in the society. Caste-based violence has also increased now, and the victims are not even able to complain properly due to the lockdown. Under SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, if the accused moves for bail, they have to intimate the victim. The High Court has now said accused don't need to appear because of the virus. Now people are using this in their favour and moving for bail. Government should take a policy decision on this," he added.
Along with this, the magnitude of crime has also escalated. "On an average, 100 cases are filed under SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act in a month," said Kathir. "Most of these cases are minor incidents while four to five could be bigger crimes. But this month, the 30 incidents that we're talking about are all big. So it's a rapid increase in brutal crimes."
Read more: COVID-19 in Rural India-XXXV: How Assam’s Atugaon Is Coping With Lockdown
On March 29, M Sudhakar in Morappanthangal village in Arani, who belonged to the Oddar caste, was murdered by relatives of his lover who belonged to the Vanniyar caste. Two accused, including the woman's father, have been arrested.
On April 21, an MBA graduate Muruganandham, a dalit from Karambakkudi in Pudukkottai district, who married his lover Bhanupriya was attacked by Bhanupriya’s relatives. Though the relatives had kidnapped her, Bhanupriya was rescued through efforts made by Evidence.
On April 24, Adi Suresh, a reporter from Velicham TV channel was attacked for reporting about a group damaging the portrait of Dr BR Ambedkar in the town.
Again on May 8, a group belonging to Devar community had murdered A Palavesam and his son-in-law R Thangaraj in Udayakulam village in Tuticorin following a dispute over loan. On the same day in Salem, Vishnupriyan, a dalit, was murdered by upper caste groups, Evidence says.
The pandemic situation has added to the general discrimination which has made life even more difficult for people to the oppressed castes. As the situation worsens, many migrant workers- most of them from lower castes, who have returned to their native villages, are also facing difficulties. Though the returnees are quarantined, their family members face the brunt of discrimination.
According to reports, in some villages in Tiruvannamalai district, upper caste people have allegedly even placed thorns outside dalit colonies to ensure they don't move out.
"In Nilakottai, there have been incidents where shops have refused supplying to dalits, because of the perception that they are not hygienic people. Sanitary workers, scavengers, maids... there is a perception that they are not clean. This discrimination, when added with the caste factor, has increased manifold. Not all have bathrooms in their houses. Government bathrooms are hardly in usable conditions, so they still use open spaces. Now they're not able to come out, and are struggling," said Kathir.
While, P Sampath, president of Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF), points out that the only way to stop discrimination is by strict enforcement of existing laws.
"Even in this pandemic, casteism has not stopped. A lot of dalits who are workers have been returning home, and they're frowned upon," he noted.
Read more: ‘Sarkar is Only for the Rich, the Poor Are Meant to Die’
“Unfortunately, there's no specific time for caste discrimination. It'll be there at all times. There is no dearth of laws against caste-based discrimination in India. There are plenty of sections under which people can be booked. Other countries do not have caste issues, but they don't have as many laws as India does to fight racism in their countries. But the government should enforce these laws. Government should act in such a way that people who indulge in such activities are not able to live peacefully in the society."
Kathir further added: "The world is in lockdown, but casteism has not been locked down. The government has not taken action. They say people attacking doctors will be booked under National Security Act. Why is that concern not there over attacks against dalits? How are they attacking in groups? It's a shame that people are fine to die of coronavirus but won't let go of their casteism. Coronavirus is scanning the society. It's bringing out the worst in some people. Caste is even more dangerous than coronavirus."