Activists in India say hundreds of Dalits have been “illegally detained” and many others are in hiding, as police in Maharashtra state moved to arrest members of the community who took part in mass protests.
Last week, Dalits from across the state took to the streets to protest against a January 1 attack on the community, during the 200th-anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Bhima-Koregaon.
In that battle, in 1818, lower-caste Dalits sided with British colonial forces to defeat upper-caste rulers.
On Wednesday, Indian media reports quoted police as saying they had arrested 43 people, including three minors, in connection with the violence in Bhima-Koregaon in Pune district and ensuing protests across the state.
But Dalit organisations and activists told Al Jazeera the number of those who had been arrested exceeded 100, with 16 children among those detained.
Prakash Ambedkar, an activist and grand-son of Bhimrao Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution and a Dalit icon, said he fears thousands of Dalits are being “illegally detained” in Maharashtra.
“The combing operation that is being done now by the state police is not allowed under the law. A combing operation of this kind can only be done when you have declared the region as a ‘disturbed area’. That’s not the case in Mumbai. So this is an illegal act,” Ambedkar told Al Jazeera.
“The masses will have to decide whether they want this kind of lawlessness in the country or they want rule of law,” he added.
On January 3 and 4, police said members of the Dalit community stopped buses, blocked rail lines and shut shops in Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra state during protests against the Bhima-Koregaon attack by right-wing groups.
Police have filed a case against two right-wing leaders, Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide, for their role in the violence. Bhide is close to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a former member of the Hindu supremacist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Many Dalits, members of other less-privileged castes and Buddhists gather at the war memorial in the Bhima-Koregaon village to celebrate the defeat of the Hindu upper caste Peshwas, in an annual event.
A 28-year-old man was killed during the violence, according to the state government.
Santosh Gaikwad and his family – including his sisters and their children – are in hiding. They say the police are after them, following a complaint by leaders of the RSS, the ideological parent body of the BJP.
“We are forced to flee our homes and stay with relatives. If we return home, the police might arrest us,” Gaikwad, a businessman in Mumbai’s Vikhroli area, told Al Jazeera.
“My nieces [aged 20 and 22] have also been charged, along with the rest of my family, under Section 307 of the Indian penal code [which deals with] ‘attempt to murder’.
“We are unable to get to work; our lives are disrupted. We are filing for anticipatory bail now,” he said, while still in hiding.
Al Jazeera reached out to the Joint Commissioner (Law & Order) of Mumbai Police Deven Bharti, to confirm the numbers of those arrested. He asked us to send a written query instead, there had been no response by time of publication.
India is home to about 200 million Dalits, many of whom complain about continued social discrimination despite the outlawing of caste-based discrimination by parliament in 1955. Despite the protective measures, lower-caste groups, including Dalits, remain among the most marginalised communities.
This week, many lawyers from the Dalit community have stepped in to offer pro-bono legal aid to Dalits who were arrested during the protests.
“Around 125 people, including many kids, have been arrested. We are trying our best to ensure bail and to counter this injustice,” Kishor Walunje, a lawyer at Bombay High Court, told Al Jazeera.
“The main problem is the state: the police and the government have failed to protect vulnerable Dalits. Why have [they] arrested the peaceful protesters? This is a planned attack by RSS and Brahminical [upper-caste] forces,” he added.
Prashant Manohar Chandanay, another Dalit lawyer in the city of Pune, said he would “fight for those innocent Dalits wrongly incarcerated. It’s the least I can do as a lawyer and a Dalit”.
Right-wing leaders Ekbote and Bhide are yet to be arrested, despite cases filed against them for the January 1 attack on Dalits – under the Prevention of Atrocities Act, legislation which is specifically about crimes against Dalits.
Ashok Kamble, chief of the Maharashtra unit of the Dalit outfit, Bhim Army, says the state government is sending a message by not arresting these upper-caste men.
“These right-wing leaders who instigated the violence have got police protection. Even the state chief minister [Devendra Fadnavis] is a disciple of these people. How can you expect them to be punished?” Kamble, who was present at the Bhima-Koregaon event on January 1, told Al Jazeera.
“On that day at Bhima-Koregaon, I was injured when the police used batons and sticks to beat us mercilessly. Even women and children were not spared. Later, the police arrested Dalits under false charges, but not the perpetrators of the violence. I was also arrested on January 7,” Kamble, who is now out on bail, said.
The Maharashtra state Chief Minister Fadnavis has ordered a judicial probe into the violence.
Data from India’s National Crime Records Bureau shows that the rate of crime against Dalits has risen in recent years. At least 40,801 atrocities against Dalits were reported in 2016, up from 38,670 in 2015.
In 2016, the state of Gujarat and other parts of India were rocked by protests after four Dalit men in the city of Una were tied to a car, stripped and flogged by Hindu vigilantes, who accused them of skinning a cow, a revered animal for Hindus.
Many Dalits, previously branded “untouchables”, are still forced to do menial jobs such as “manual scavenging” – clearing faeces from dry toilets and open drains by hand, rag picking and the disposal of animal carcasses.