Broken Promises: A critical examination of the Indian State’s approach to Caste Violence since Independence

The paper attempts to critically evaluate the Indian State’s Approach to caste violence against specific communities in a caste-ridden society which condones such violence through its inaction and ambivalence. Through a review of the existing literature, an attempt has been made to investigate the structural nature of the violence which is densely woven into the statecraft of the ‘rogue state’. Kalpana Kannabiran’s concept of the ‘rogue state’ has been utilized to reflect on the nuances of the state sponsored nature of caste violence which perpetuates atrocities through police complicity, deficiency of legal redressal mechanisms, a sensationalist media, and entrenched inequality in the protest by the public. A paucity of research specifically linking caste violence to the Indian State necessitates a detailed investigation of distinct cases of caste violence which have led to an annihilation by caste with impunity subjugating entire communities and systematically reinforcing power in different states at different times.

Keywords: Rogue State, caste violence, police complicity, legal redressal mechanisms, entrenched inequality


Caste violence or caste-based violence is deeply entrenched in India’s social fabric and has persisted as a grave societal challenge despite the nation’s progress since gaining independence in 1947. India’s democratic experiment promised to dismantle centuries-old hierarchies and uplift marginalized communities through affirmative action policies and constitutional safeguards. However, the stark reality is a continued legacy of discrimination, violence, and injustice. This research attempts to explore the disheartening gap between promise and reality.

Since its inception, the Indian State has vowed to eradicate the deeply rooted caste system and the atrocities it perpetuates. Yet, it has been a truism in the normative framework on caste and in the legal regime’s space regarding caste violencethat legal principles frequently do not provide the anticipated consequences as stated in their vision statements and as envisioned within the philosophy that inspired the creation of such principles (Garimella 2016).The discrepancy in policy and practice has kept the promises unfulfilled, revealing a profound discord between the state’s aspirations and its actions. Caste violence, marked by brutality and impunity, has continued to plague the nation, raising vital questions about the Indian State’s role in perpetuating or ameliorating this crisis (Jeffrey 2001).

To comprehend the complexities of caste violence, it is imperative to delve into its historical origins. Caste-based discrimination and violence have their roots deeply intertwined with India’s societal fabric for centuries. The social institution of ‘caste’ in the Indian setting with its relational and hierarchical systems grade social groups along a continuum, with those at the higher levels of such structures enjoying the most privileges at the expense of those born into the lower levels of the social hierarchy (Pal 2020). Nonetheless, like other social institutions, traditional caste systems have undergone positive transformation in the form of protective legislation, affirmative action, and group-specific development policy efforts. However, regardless of legal and institutional procedures, the caste structure remains robust, perpetuating the discriminatory social interaction process in modern society. This is reflexive of an “annihilation by caste and structural violence that is constitutive of the rogue state – not an exceptional state, but the rogue state as the norm in a caste-ridden society” (Kannabiran 2014: 13).

This paper thereby critically examines the Indian State’s approach to caste violence since Independence, dissecting the structural underpinnings of violence within the ‘rogue state’ framework, as proposed by Kalpana Kannabiran (2014). The ‘rogue state’ concept unveils the state’s complicity in violence against specific communities, often through its institutions and agents. It encapsulates the state’s role as both protector and perpetrator in the context of caste-based violence, shedding light on the paradoxical nature of state action and inaction.


The paper attempts to develop a robust understanding of caste violence as a constitutive element of the Rogue State. Therefore, it tries to develop a thorough analysis of the existing literature on caste violence and address the gap within the literature directly linking caste violence to the State. The existing literature thus identify the structural nature of caste-based atrocities (Mosse 2018, Gorringe et al. 2017), tracing the fallacies within the legal framework (Pal 2020) or the society at large (Krishnan 2009, Modi 2015), however it fails to locate the Indian state looming at large playing the dual role of perpetrator and protector, keeping the caste system alive and breathing through acts of violence subjugating entire communities through this violence. Therefore, using Kalpana Kannabiran’s framework of the ‘rogue state, the state sponsored nature of caste violence which perpetuates atrocities through police complicity, deficiency of legal redressal mechanisms, a sensationalist media, and entrenched inequality in the protest by the public is highlighted through 4 case studies sprawling across the past 76 years of Independence.


The ‘Rogue State’ is the norm in a caste-ridden society whereby certain communities are subjected to routine heightened violence and torture because of their caste position in a society that is constituted by caste and thereby condones caste violence and in some sense tacitly accepts the necessity of such violence to perpetuate the existent hierarchical caste order. This is reflected in the inaction and equivocation written into every level of state action by the multiplicity of state actors (Kannabiran 2014).

By employing the ‘rogue state’ framework, it becomes evident that the state’s inaction and complicity in caste violence perpetuates atrocities against marginalized communities. The structural nature of caste violence, with police complicity, deficient legal mechanisms, media sensationalism, and social inequality, demands immediate attention and systemic reform.

State Complicity and Police Brutality

Central to the understanding of caste violence is the complicity of state institutions, particularly the police. Numerous instances have shown that the police often fail to protect marginalized communities and, in some cases, actively participate in violence against them (Omvedt1991). Impunity is guaranteed to the perpetrators of targeted assaults through police complicity or calculated inaction (Kannabiran 2014). The state’s inaction in prosecuting police officers for custodial torture and holding them accountable has further perpetuated a culture of impunity (Arora 1999, Pal and Lal 2010).

Legal Framework and Redressal Mechanisms

Legislation such as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 was enacted to provide protection and redressal for victims of caste violence. However, research has revealed numerous challenges in the legislation and the implementation of these legal provisions, including delayed justice and inadequate enforcement, highlighting the deficiencies in the legal redressal mechanisms (Garimella 2016). There are inherent weaknesses in the legislation which embeds indeterminacy within the normative structure. These circulate mainly around the definition of “atrocity” and restricts the classification of caste-based violence to those communities enlisted as Scheduled Castes, thereby rendering all other types of targeted Caste violence as a lesser crime due to the technicality of classification (Kannabiran 2014).

Media Sensationalism and Stereotyping

The role of media in perpetuating caste violence has come under scrutiny. Sensationalist reporting can either amplify or downplay caste violence, shaping public perceptions and influencing state action. The media’s portrayal of caste violence and its impact on public perception are critical aspects of understanding the broader context in which violence occurs (Kannabiran and Kannabiran 1991). Sensationalist reporting, which often prioritizes dramatic or emotionally charged narratives, can amplify the visibility of such incidents. This can draw attention to the issue and potentially lead to public outrage, increased activism, and pressure on authorities to respond. However, media might also downplay caste violence, particularly if the victims are from marginalized communities. Downplaying can occur through biased reporting, insufficient coverage, or framing incidents as isolated rather than systemic. Moreover, sensationalised reporting too can stray away from the preserving the dignity of the one being reported as the unspeakable torture experienced by groups gets reduced to a “spectacle for consumption and speculation” (Kannabiran 2014).

Inequality of Protest

The political mobilisation against atrocities based on caste are met with varying degrees of outrage. As is highlighted by Kannabiran(2014), all are not equal in public perception and the inequality of protest shapes cases of structured caste violence whereby as Yadav (2017) mentions violence against Dalits is unlikely to impact the country’s collective consciousness. Ironically violence against Dalits becomes more visible in the public sphere as part of daily life, and the Indian public sphere begins to form around the “principles of forgetfulness” (Nandy 2006: 7). The issue of entrenched social inequality and its relation to caste violence has been explored in sociological studies (Newman and Thorat 2007). Research has illuminated how social hierarchies continue to shape power dynamics, impacting the state’s response to violence. Additionally, studies have examined the dynamics of public response, including protests and movements against caste violence (Jodhka2006).


Several case studies have delved into these specific instances of caste violence, offering nuanced insights into the patterns, actors involved, and outcomes of violence in different regions and contexts. These case studies illustrate the complexities of caste violence and its devastating impact on marginalized communities. The cases need to be analysed in order to understand caste violence within the rogue state framework. Four such case studies based on the four sub themes of State Complicity and Police Brutality, Legal Framework and Redressal Mechanisms, Media Sensationalism and Stereotyping, and the Inequality of Protest would be highlighted in the paper

Case Study 1: The Kilvemani Massacre (1968)

The Kilvenmani incident took place on December 25, 1968, in the village of Kilvenmani, Tanjore district, Tamil Nadu (India). The landlords set fire to agricultural laborers’ huts in response to their strikes and demands for higher wages and better working conditions, resulting in the death of 44 Dalits, including women and children. It is widely regarded as one of the first and most heinous crimes committed against Dalits in post-independence India (Teltumbde, 2008).  The incident reminds us of how oppressed people are treated when they demand for what is rightfully theirs. It also reflects the Structural nature of violence perpetuated by the State through the nexus of politics, gender, and caste issues, making it more than just a class conflict (Kanagasabai, 2014). The state’s response to the Kilvenmani massacre was marred by inaction and a lack of justice. Despite clear evidence, only a few perpetrators were arrested and convicted. The survivors and their families continued to face social ostracization and economic hardships.

Case Study 2: The Bhagalpur Blindings (1980)

The Bhagalpur blindings were a series of horrific incidents in Bhagalpur, Bihar, in the early 1980s. Over 30 undertrial Dalit and lower-caste prisoners were blinded by acid attacks while in police custody (Amnesty International 1993). The victims were subjected to brutal torture, including acid attacks, by the police during interrogation. This inhumane treatment led to the permanent loss of vision for many of the victims. The state’s response was characterized by a lack of accountability. Despite clear evidence of police involvement, convictions were scarce, and justice was delayed for the victims. This case highlights the state’s failure to protect the rights and dignity of marginalized communities. Ironically, the police as an agent of the State acted as the perpetrator as opposed to the safe guarder of their rights. This shows how entrenched the caste system is within the police machinery (Arora 1999).

Case Study 3: The Khairlanji Massacre (2006)

The Khairlanji massacre occurred in Khairlanji village, Maharashtra, in 2006. The victims were a Dalit family that faced discrimination from upper-caste villagers. The Bhotmange family, consisting of four members, was brutally attacked by upper-caste villagers. The family members were subjected to sexual assault, torture, and finally, murder. The brutality of the crime sent shockwaves across the nation. The Bhotmange family met with this ending because they demonstrated their resistance against the local caste structure. Despite this struggle and suffering, their targeted caste violence was not included within the new definition of sexual assault (Kannabiran 2014). The state’s response initially downplayed the caste angle of the crime. It was only after public outcry and media pressure that the case was properly investigated, and the perpetrators were convicted. Yet the sole survivor still awaits justice. The Khairlanji massacre underscored the deep-seated prejudice and discrimination that Dalits continue to face.

Case Study 4: The Una Dalit Atrocity Case (2016)

The Una Dalit atrocity case occurred in Una, Gujarat, in 2016. Four Dalit men were brutally beaten and publicly humiliated by self-proclaimed cow vigilantes for skinning a dead cow. The victims were tied to a vehicle and beaten mercilessly. The incident was recorded on video and widely circulated on social media. This incident sparked nationwide protests against caste-based violence. While the state government did respond to public outrage, it highlighted the widespread issue of cow vigilantism and caste-based violence. The victims received compensation, and some arrests were made. However, this case highlighted the need for comprehensive measures to address such incidents and prevent their recurrence (Shah 2017).

These case studies illustrate the recurring theme of state apathy, delayed justice, and the perpetuation of caste violence against marginalized communities in India. They underscore the urgent need for systematic reforms and a more proactive approach by the Indian State to address and prevent caste-based violence. To break this cycle of broken promises and systemic violence, it is imperative that the Indian State takes comprehensive and decisive action to address caste violence at its core because for historically marginalised classes, Constitutionalism continues to hold the promise of change (Kannabiran 2012).


The paper attempts an in-depth exploration of the Indian State’s approach to caste violence since Independence. It highlights the critical role that historical legacies, state complicity, legal mechanisms, media, social inequality, and public response play in perpetuating or mitigating caste violence. Kalpana Kannabiran’s concept of the ‘rogue state’ provides a crucial lens for understanding state-sponsored violence, including caste violence. This framework is able to portray the complicity of state institutions and agents in perpetuating violence against marginalized communities, unveiling the structural nature of caste violence deeply embedded within the statecraft of India. It therefore, offers a unique perspective on the state’s complex role in this pervasive issue.

The historical review through the case studies illuminates how caste divisions have persisted over time and contributed to the perpetuation of violence against marginalized communities. The cases highlight how caste violence leads to impunity, further reinforcing power dynamics that have persisted for generations.While existing literature has offered valuable insights into various aspects of caste violence, there is a paucity of research specifically linking caste violence to the Indian State’s role and responsibilities. Therefore, the detailed investigation of distinct cases of caste violence, in the paper, is essential for filling this gap and providing a comprehensive understanding of the state’s approach to caste violence. Ultimately, this research is able to contribute to the ongoing discourse surrounding caste violence and the urgent need for systemic reform to fulfil the promises of justice and equality made at India’s independence.


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Atrayee Set is a Sociology graduate from St. Xavier's College, Kolkata, who is currently pursuing her M.A. in Development Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.