India metes stiff justice to attackers of untouchables

In a court verdict hailed as a milestone for India's 100 million Hindu untouchables, 50 landowners who took part in a murderous midnight raid on an untouchable village have been sentenced to life imprisonment.

The severity of the sentences, the number convicted, and the speed with which the cases were heard and decided are all notable in a country where attacks on untouchables, or harijans, by castle Hindus number in the thousands each year.

The 50 raiders convicted for the attack on the village of Pipra included elected officials of nearby settlements, students leaders, and four elders in their 70s. They were part of a mob of 400 who set 28 harijan house ablaze and shot or burned to death 14 harijans in reported retaliation for the villagers' demanding the state's minimum wage for their work on the landowners' farms.

Analysts here say the stiff sentences, handed down this month by a district judge in Patna, capital of Bihar state, were meant to have a deterrent effect -- both nationally and specifically in the state known for the frequency and ferocity of its castle clashes.

The sentence, which drew headlines and editorial praise in national newspapers, came at a time of intense national focus on the treatment and status of India's untouchables. The attention has been sparked by mass conversions of untouchables to the Islamic faith in scattered south Indian villages.

Numbering at most a few thousand, the conversions have been seen by some politicians as the product of unspecified international conspiracies to destabilize India and upset its sensitive Hindu-Muslim balance. The converts have said, and government investigators have verified, that they became Muslims to escape the social and economic discrimination and physical abuse that is often the lot of untouchables in conservative rural India.

Untouchables, so called because their touch is considered "polluting" by orthodox Hindus, are outcasts occupying the lowest social rung at the bottom of the network of castes and subcastles that stratifies Hindu society. Hindus make up 83 percent of the population of India, a secular state that guarantees freedom of religion in its Constitution.

Untouchability is outlawed, and the Indian government reserves jobs, college admissions, and legislatives seats for harijans in what one analyst calls "the world's largest affirmative action program." But it persists in tradition-bound rural areas in forms such as denial of the use of wells, water taps, temples, eating places, and other public facilities.

Another key indicator is the frequency of attacks on harijans, who are called "scheduled castes" by the government.

Distinguishing such attacks from ordinary crimes and recording them officially as "atrocities on scheduled castes," the government last year reported "a perceptible rise giving cause for great concern."

It cited figures for 1976 to 1979, the latest years for which statistics were available. The number of atrocities rose from 6,197 in 1976 to 15,053 in 1978. An incomplete tally of 13,426 for 1979 would match or exceed the previous year's , when all data was in, according to the report of the commissioner for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.

Commissioner Shisher Kumar said an inefficient law-and-order apparatus and inadequate legal protections were in large part responsible for the rising number of atrocities.

In a study of atrocities against untouchables published this year, scholar N. D. Kamble said that reported cases were only a small fraction of the total, with the rest "hushed up" locally. Among the reported cases, Kable said, few are investigated by police and even fewer are tried.

It was not surprising, therefore, that the life sentences for 50 caste Hindus in the Pipra massacre drew national attention. The verdict, said the Calcutta daily newspaper Amrita Bazar Patrika, "may very well claim to be a watershed in our caste relations."

Noting that many "outrages" against harijans are not reported, the Sunday Sttesman newspaper said that "even those that are brought to the notice of the authorities seldom result in convictions, largely because witnesses are far too frightened to give evidence. The recent judgment in the Pipra massacre case is a commendable exception."

The Pipra attack in late February 1980 followed by less than three weeks a similar massacre of untouchables in the village of Parasbigha, also in Bihar state. There, 12 harijans, including four women and six young boys, were killed by a mob of caste Hinhus who reportedly blamed the villagers for the earlier murder of a local landlord.

The Pipra judgment was speedy by Indian standards because the central government, alarmed by the back-to-back violent incidents, ordered the establishment of a special court to try Pipra cases. After the court vonvicted and sentenced 50 for murder, arson, and rioting -- and acquitted 11 other persons accused -- India's Home Minister Zail Singh sent congratulations to the Bihar administration for its successful prosecution.

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