The 2021 report of the National Crime Records Bureau shows an increase in the number of crimes registered under laws meant to counter bigotry against the Schedule Castes and Tribes. This, however, isn't even half the reality of the current situation in India, according to experts and people from the targeted communities.

The recent murder of Indra Kumar Meghwal, a nine year old boy from a Dalit caste, by his school teacher for drinking water from a pot meant for upper caste teachers, once again started a conversation on casteism in our society. The murder in Rajasthan's Jalore District occurred on the eve of the 75th Independence Day, creating an uproar.

Political and legal experts say the increase in atrocities is not surprising.

According to political analyst and activist Kush Ambedkar, only 30 to 40 per cent cases of Upper caste violence against Dalits are reported in the media or filed by the authorities.

"The attacks happening on Dalits is nothing new, it has been happening for centuries and occur every day. However, now with the help of social media and alternative media, especially run by Dalit communities, many cases are coming forward," he told The Citizen.

He said the case registration numbers may have increased, but the on ground situation is worse.

According to the report, recorded crimes against the Schedule Castes increased by 1.2% last year with Uttar Pradesh reporting the highest number of Upper caste atrocities, followed by Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

Atrocities by caste society against the Schedule Tribes increased by 6.4% with Madhya Pradesh recording the highest number of cases followed by Rajasthan, and Odisha a distant third.

Male violence against Dalit and Indigenous women also increased. Cases of rape against women and girls from the Schedule Tribes were 15% of the total rape cases reported, for a 5% population share.

Nearly 71,000 cases of atrocities against people from Dalit castes were pending investigation at the end of last year, and over 12,000 cases of atrocities against people from Indigenous tribes.

Over 3 lakh such cases came up for trial in court last year. The conviction rate remained at 36% for SCs and 28% for STs.

By the end of the year, 96% of cases of atrocities against Dalits were pending trial, and 95% of cases of atrocities against Adivasis.

"The numbers are not surprising, they just show the reality of our society, which is usually ignored," Ambedkar added

In Uttar Pradesh's Alinagar village of Chandauli district, Shashikant is still grief stricken by the death of his father. Belonging to a Dalit family, his father Mahendra Kumar was allegedly murdered by members of the local Upper caste family on May 23.

Shashikant told The Citizen there were two key witnesses who saw the murder but have gone hostile, as they have been threatened by the members of an upper caste family. "Both witnesses belong to the Dalit community and are hence scared. The police are not listening or helping us in any way," he said over the phone.

While a few people from the Upper caste community were arrested, they were later released on bail with police claiming "lack of evidence". The Citizen tried to reach officials for comment, but they were not available.

His family say the post-mortem report reveals that Kumar was hit by a blunt object on the head, breaking his skull, but the police in the FIR only mention head injury as the cause of death.

"We are scared because people from that community are threatening us. This is injustice, my father was killed and we do not even know the reason for it. But the Thakurs in the village have issues with the Dalits here. My father died because of his identity and there is no bigger injustice than that," said Shashikant.

Ambedkar explained that the police either tries to do an "out of court settlement" by intimidating the poor families, or in many cases "refuse to even register the complaint".

"Earlier, so many atrocities used to take place on the Dalit community and nobody used to file an FIR. In many situations, the police themselves used casteist slurs and refuse to file their complaint. What about those cases? Those cases never came in the NCRB data.

"However, with the community people getting education, especially the youth, they have started raising their voice," he said.

Meanwhile, Abhisht Hela, an advocate at the Delhi High Court cited negligence on the part of political parties and investigative agencies.

"In recent years, the procedure under which the FIR used to be registered, i.e., under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 was diluted. According to the act, the accused was to be arrested as soon as the FIR was registered, while the investigative authority processed the preliminary inquiry and then filed the report. However, it was diluted and this is where the major concern lies," he said.

The Supreme Court in March 2020 passed a judgment that diluted the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The judgment was passed under the pretext of protecting innocent persons from being booked under false cases, thereby preventing the misuse of the law.

Hela, meanwhile cited the dilution as one of the reasons for an increase in the number of Upper caste atrocities against Dalits. "There was no subsequent preliminary arrest if a person committed crime under the SC/ST Act. This has only taken out the arrest from the minds of the people."

Ambedkar said there is a need for Dalits in leadership positions. "To change something, we need to bring more leaders from the Dalit community at key positions," he said.

Hela, agreeing that there is a need for more Dalit leaders and voices, major work needs to be done at the law and policy levels.

"The history of atrocities against SC and ST communities has lasted for more than 5,000 years. And this was the reason why there was a need for reservation, why there was a need for SC/ST Atrocities Act, why the SC/ST Commission was established.

"All of this was needed, so that the government and the policies could look into the possibilities of how these people can be uplifted and brought into the fight of the general public so that the past participation can increase."

"I have been personally witnessing things and, on that basis, say that casteist mindset still exists in the society," he said.

The Upper castes record themselves committing as many as five atrocities every hour against the Dalits. Despite reforms, casteism is still considered an elite practice in India.