In 2004 the NHRC characterized the law enforcement machinery as the greatest violator of Dalits’ human rights.35 This problem is not a recent one. In 1979 India constituted the National Police Commission to analyze problems in police performance.36 However, the Commission’s recommendations, which include recommendations specific to police abuse of Dalits, have still not been adopted. Police continue to detain, torture, and extort money from Dalits without much fear of punishment.37 According to the NHRC, custodial torture and killing of Dalits, rape and sexual assault of Dalit women, and looting of Dalit property by the police “are condoned, or at best ignored …”38 Dalits who encounter the police are forced to listen to casteist name-calling, unfounded accusations on their character, and threats against their family and friends.39
While under-reporting of police treatment (including torture) of Dalits means that the real magnitude is unknown, the national Preventing Torture project initiated by People’s Watch, a Tamil Nadu-based NGO, asserts that Dalits suffer disproportionately at the hands of the police and are at high risk of being subjected to torture while in police custody.40 The Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989, and the Supreme Court guidelines set out in the D.K. Basu case (1997)41are available legal tools to prevent torture, illegal detention, or improper interrogation of Dalits. Jurists, human rights activists, and civil rights groups, however, claim that a lack of political will allows the problem of torture and other forms of custodial abuse to continue unchecked.
Dalits are disproportionately targeted by the police for a number of reasons. According to the NHRC, under a theory of collective punishment, the police will often subject entire Dalit communities to violent search and seizure operations in search of one individual.42 Dalit communities may also be perceived by the police as inherently criminal.43 Dalits and other poor minorities are disproportionately represented among those detained and tortured in police custody because most cannot afford to pay police bribes.44 Dalits are also likely victims of police misconduct because they are rarely informed of their rights, rarely have access to an attorney, and are not able to afford bail.45 Police officers’ deeply embedded caste bias (most officers belong to the dominant castes)46 and a general lack of familiarity with legislative protections for Dalits further compound the problem.47
State agencies have also colluded with private actors from dominant castes in committing human rights violations against Dalits.48 Through investigations conducted in 1997 in the state of Bihar, for example, Human Rights Watch found that government officials acted as agents of the Ranvir Sena (a private upper-caste militia) and turned a blind eye to their killings of Dalits.49 Soon after a massacre in Laxampur-Bathe village, Jehanabad district—in which the Ranvir Sena killed 61 Dalits, Naxalites (leftist guerrilla organizations advocating the use of violence to achieve land redistribution) retaliated by killing nine people suspected to be Ranvir Sena supporters. The police responded to the violence by harassing Dalit villagers who they accused of supporting the Naxalites.50Rather than capturing Sena members, State security forces reportedly helped train militia members; in some cases, police accompanied the militias during their attacks on Dalit villages,51 disguising killings as “encounters.”52 Upper-caste militia members, and the police who colluded with them, have rarely been prosecuted for their crimes.53
Dalits are particularly vulnerable to arrest under draconian security laws. For example, in at least two states, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh, the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2002 (POTA)54 was widely used against Dalits, who were targeted for their caste status rather than any involvement in criminal or terrorist activity.55
Dalit activists are also accused of being “terrorists,” “threats to national security,” and “habitual offenders,” and frequently charged under the National Security Act, 1980, the Indian Explosives Act, 1884, and even older counter insurgency laws such the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act 1987 (commonly known as TADA).56 Dalit activists are often subjected to specious prosecutions, falsified charges, and physical abuse and torture following arrest.57 Further, following bouts of violence in Bihar between the Ranvir Sena and Naxalites, Dalits were held in preventive detention under India’s Criminal Procedure Code Section 107 in excess of the maximum detention period of 24 hours.58 Similarly, following periods of escalated violence between upper-caste community members and Dalits in Tamil Nadu between July 1995 and June 1996, many Dalit youths were arrested under preventive detention laws like the Tamil Nadu Goondas Act and the National Security Act, 1980.59 Additionally, police also engage in what are called “encounter deaths,” whereby young activists who allegedly support any of the Naxalite or radical left movement organizations are picked up, tortured to extract confessions, and then killed under the pretense of self defense.60 Though upper-caste community members have also been picked up by the police in this manner, they are usually not subject to such harsh treatment as a result of pressure from influential people belonging to their caste.61
Dalits, including those arrested for minor offenses, are often held in custody for long periods of time, occasionally at distant and isolated locations to avoid publicity,62 where they are frequently deprived of food and water, subjected to verbal abuse and humiliation, severe beatings, sexual perversities, and demeaning acts. Often the injuries inflicted can prove fatal.63 To cover up custodial deaths, police often claim that the person was killed trying to escape or that he or she died of natural causes.64 Dalits who survive the torture often end up permanently disabled and suffer social ostracism, as well as psychological and emotional trauma.65