Racism and casteism are two of the most insidious institutions that still impact the times we live in. They occur across the globe, with differing forms and intensity. Societal brutality and criminal violence against those at the margins, Dalits, Madhesis, people of colour, indigenous people, transgenders, and many others are very real across the globe. The recent stories that have caught the public’s imagination (of the murder of George Floyd by the police, which has led to uprisings in the US; of the murder of a Dalit boy, Nawaraj BK, in Rukum, for his wanting to marry an upper caste girl; of the Dalit girl, Angira Pasi, beign forced to marry her rapist, which ultimately led to her murder, in Rupendehi) represent cases that are neither new nor outliers. However, these incidents have definitely brought us to a critical juncture for rethinking our social and political order. The incidents speak volumes about how racial and caste-based discrimination are not only pervasive but also very much entrenched in our social, political, and economic structures.
In the present global era, the politics of the deaths of individual bodies, social groups, or entire populations has become increasingly normalised. It has become evident that embedded in both discernible and hidden relations of power are societies’ impulses to not just let die but to kill. Therefore, we need to draw our attention to aspects beyond the everyday practices of discrimination that are deeply inculcated in our ways of life. The questions that emerge are: What is it that allows such a way of life to thrive? What is it that endows one with the ability to kill? To answer these questions, we need to take a closer look at the functions of the state and the nature of justice.
Permanent death zones
Dalits are considered ‘untouchable’—people deemed impure by birth, less than human. Many of them are relegated to jobs that are traditionally considered ‘unclean’ or menial. Many Dalits work as scavengers, cleaning latrines and sewers by hand and clearing away dead animals, and they are compelled to live in constant fear of public humiliation. Dalit women are particularly vulnerable to rape, murder, and verbal and physical abuse.
Their plight keeps getting worse because most of them are trapped in a vicious cycle of abject poverty, debt bondage, illiteracy, and oppression. This is what essentially constitutes the systemic character of racial injustice, which prospers by reducing certain lives to bodies only or to forms of non-human life that are always under attack. Dalit bodies are constantly pushed into the death zone. Such practices are what Achille Mbembe in his seminal work Necropolitics defines as the politics of creating conditions of life that confer upon certain populations the status of the living-dead or of the making of spaces and subjectivities owing to which their existences are forever caught between life and death. Dalit lives thus are conditions akin to being “expelled from humanity altogether”, which result from the loss of home, loss of rights over one’s body, and loss of political status.
Justice is not for all
While such practices undoubtedly emerge from religiously informed social practices, it is the state that provides the sanctions for such heinous practices, and that is where such evils derive legitimacy from. The racial state’s involvement in the anti-democratic project of sustaining casteist and racist structures becomes apparent when necropolitics is sanctified with the moral justification of maintaining order. This becomes evident when the state deliberately denies justice to marginalized groups, which is a standard feature, or ritual, of popular violence.
“we perhaps need an answer to the question of whether the society we live in is a democratic one or a more polished, systematised, death camp”
These issues are apparent in the witnessed cases of the rape and murder of the Dalit girl in Rupandehi and and of the Dalit boy in Rukum, wherein the police have refused to acknowledge their rape and murder. They amount to classic cases of collusion between the police and the upper caste. The cases also make evident how the police and the government prop up the caste system: the state does not just conceal the truths about such cases and set the perpetrators scot free, but also plays a crucial role in allowing the persistence of violence. Laws designed to protect Dalits have failed miserably at the enforcement level. For the most part, these laws are either very weakly enforced or are not enforced at all. This is how the state becomes a direct agent of necropolitics. The state’s complicity in the project of not only letting die, but also in actively disposing of what it has demarcated as the value-less portions of the population shows how the government’s power is embedded in necropower.
The state formalises and institutionalises discrimination, and its fundamental functions of control are resurrected through the division of people. Power that operates on the basis of division defines itself in relation to a biological field, which it takes control of and vests itself in. This biological field of control is premised on the division of human bodies into groups and subgroups and the establishment of a line between those that must live and those that must die. The racism and casteism we witness today are informed by these underlying conditions, on which the racist state thrives. Michel Foucualt sees biopower as a politics of race that is ultimately linked to the politics of death. He further adds that, in the biopower economy, the function of racism is to regulate the distribution of deaths and to make possible the murderous functions of the state. “Racism,” Foucault says, “is the condition for the acceptability of putting to death.”
Examining the current political, social, and symbolic forms of violence that are deployed worldwide should lead us to rethink our own existences. Given how systemic and structured executions are embedded in racist and casteist stereotypes, we perhaps need an answer to the question of whether the society we live in is a democratic one or a more polished, systematised, death camp.