The death of George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man, at the hands of a white police officer has sparked large-scale protests across the world. Floyd’s death has served as the catalyst for international protests not only in solidarity with the African-American community but also against police brutality and state-sanctioned discrimination of other marginalized communities.

In India as in the US, public authorities have used their power to discriminate against the most socially vulnerable communities, particularly Dalits. Human Rights Watch refers to the widespread custodial torture and police brutality against Dalits as ‘hidden apartheid’. It also points out that in cases where private actors committed atrocities against Dalits, the police and other relevant authorities were unwilling to act.

The similarities in the treatment of black people in the US and Dalits in India are not surprising, given that both communities ‘share similar histories of discrimination’  characterized by segregation and exploitation by members of dominant communities. While the deeply-entrenched caste system in India ensured that Dalits were subject to wide-spread social discrimination, black people were further marginalized by the passage of discriminatory legislation such as the Jim Crow laws in the southern USA.

Ambedkar was particularly influenced by equality legislation in the US. Clause 2 and Clause 3 of Article II of his submission States and Minorities to the Constituent Assembly’s Sub-Committee on Fundamental Rights directed the state to ensure representation in the executive and government services for the Scheduled Castes. Ambedkar stated that the provisions of Clause 2 were ‘borrowed from the [American]  Civil Rights Protection Acts, 1866’ , while Clause 3 was similarly based on an unnamed anti-discrimination Bill introduced in the US Congress. Although these provisions were not included in the Constitution of India 1950, their spirit was incorporated in Article 141516 and 17.

In letters to W.E.B du Bois, one of the most prominent African-American writers of the era, Ambedkar wrote that the We Charge Genocide petition to the United Nations, which attempted to hold the US accountable for genocide against black people, had encouraged Dalits in India to follow suit. This indicates that certain strands of the caste equality movement in India drew inspiration from the American civil rights movement. Another example of this is the  Dalit Panthers, whose activities and ideologies were directly inspired by the Black Panthers in the US.

The recent reports of police brutality against Dalits, migrants, and other vulnerable communities during the lockdown has attracted some attention but not resulted in mass mobilization. Will the increased attention on police brutality across the world have an impact on the movements to protect marginalized communities in India?

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