Fragile Hope
Seeking Justice for Hate Crimes in India
Sandhya Fuchs




Aunty-jī1 put down her stitching needles and scrutinized her finished pattern before focusing her eyes on me. “Look at this, Sandhya,” she demanded forcefully. I obeyed and inspected her stitching work, which portrayed a delicate, yellow flower. It was beautiful. “I have not made anything so pretty and bright, in a long time,” Aunty-jī reflected, tucking a strand of her grey hair under her dupatta (headscarf). “I had lost all hope. But I have hope again now. Ragu’s case is difficult because the system is corrupt, but we have a way to fight now. I can imagine a world where people like Ragu can live and love happily.” I was unsure how to respond. The pain of losing her youngest son Ragu was still raw for Aunty-jī and her hope in legal victory so fragile. One year earlier, in January 2016, Ragu, a promising young doctor, had committed suicide after being kidnapped and brutally tortured by five men of the Brahmin caste.

Aunty-jī and her family were Dalits, India’s former untouchables, who occupy the lowest rank in the traditional Hindu caste hierarchy. They belonged to the Meghwal community, one of the most numerically strong and politically influential Dalit subcastes (jāti) in the North Indian state of Rajasthan. The family was upwardly mobile, educated, and financially secure. Aunty-jī and her husband lived a comfortable urban life in Rajasthan’s capital of Jaipur and had considered untouchability or caste-based violence a matter which would not affect middle-class families like theirs. However, Ragu’s tragic fate had taught them that their low caste status still mattered much more than they had previously believed.

At university Ragu had fallen in love with a young girl called Karishma. Karishma was a Brahmin. In India Brahmins are widely considered to occupy the apex of the traditional Hindu caste hierarchy. In the eyes of those who still believed in notions of ritual impurity and bought into the idea of a “proper” caste order, Karishma thus represented the highest possible social status, while Ragu occupied the lowest. The couple had known they would face difficulties, but they had been deeply in love and determined to spend their lives together. And so they had married in secret. But their happiness was short-lived: upon finding out about the union, Karishma’s family banished her. Her father announced that he “would have accepted anyone as a son-in-law but not a “damn dirty Dalit (gandā Chamar, sāla),”2 and he disowned his daughter. Karishma had come to live with Aunty-jī and her new husband in Jaipur, grieving the loss of those she once held dearest. However, a year after the wedding, when Karishma was pregnant, things seemed to take a fortuitous turn. Her family contacted the couple and requested they visit them in Delhi. Everyone, including Aunty-jī, had rejoiced, considering the invitation a peace offering. Ragu and Karishma promptly traveled to Delhi to pay their respects. But they walked directly into a trap.

As soon as the couple got out of the car in front of Karishma’s parents’ home, her four brothers and father overwhelmed Ragu. They beat him violently; they cursed and insulted him and subsequently tied him up and tossed him in a sewage canal in the city of Gurugram (formerly Gurgaon) in the neighboring state of Haryana. Ragu somehow managed to cut the rope tied around his wrists on a rock. He pulled himself out of the canal and found a shop with a telephone landline. There, he called his father, Uncle-jī, who rushed up from Jaipur to help him. However, when Ragu called Karishma, she didn’t pick up. The following day, the family received a text message from her. The message broke Ragu’s heart. Karishma wanted a divorce. She wrote that marrying Ragu was the biggest regret of her life.

When Uncle-jī arrived in Gurugram, he found a weak and injured Ragu propped up against the wall of a news stall. With the help of his father, Ragu made it safely home to Jaipur and received the necessary medical attention. But he seemed broken. Though he never believed that Karishma had voluntarily forsaken him, he was faced with the reality that he would not get his wife back. Uncle-jī often said that he no longer recognized Ragu after the attack. His charismatic youngest son, the joker and entertainer, had become withdrawn, weeping for his lost love and child. Three days after his return home, Ragu walked out of his family home early in the morning and headed towards the railway tracks south of his neighborhood. There he threw himself in front of an approaching train. At noon, his father received a call from the police, asking him to identify a body. Uncle-jī understood immediately that Ragu was gone. “In my bones, I knew that he left this earth,” he told me when we spoke a year later. Ragu left behind a letter for his brother explaining that, abandoned by his wife and humiliated for his status as a Dalit, he no longer wanted to live.

Aunty-jī and her family did not consider Ragu’s death suicide: for them it was murder, a death forced on their son by the irreparable trauma of discrimination, hate, and social rejection. And so, Aunty-jī and Uncle-jī decided to call on the only ally they could think of: The 1989 Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of) Atrocities Act. Aunty-jī and her husband knew that the Atrocities Act had been introduced to prosecute violence and discrimination by socially dominant, upper castes against two of India’s most historically marginalized groups: Dalits (legally referred to as Scheduled Castes) and Adivasi tribal groups (Scheduled Tribes).3 And so, they went to their local police station in Jaipur to register a complaint under the Atrocities Act and the Indian Penal Code (IPC), accusing Karishma’s family of casteist hate speech, grievous hurt, and of “abetting” Ragu’s suicide. Victory in court would be difficult. But Aunty-jī always hoped, her eyes firmly fixed on a horizon of formal, public justice.

As I sat in Aunty-jī’s living room that morning in January 2017 and wracked my brain to find an appropriate response to her unforeseen declaration of hope in a legal case that was unlikely to end in conviction for Ragu’s tormentors, I was relieved by Sonali. Sonali, an energetic Meghwal woman in her forties, had been resting on a woven bed (cārapāii). But now she walked over. “I know it’s difficult, Aunty-jī,” she said, kneeling down beside the older woman, “but you are doing the right thing. You have hope because you have understood that this law is about the future of our Dalit movement (åndolana). We must use this law the right way to change how things work in our society (samāja), to change politics and the legal system (kānūnī system), so that there are fewer Ragus.”

Aunty-jī shook her head: “For you it’s about the future of Dalits, and law, and the movement,” she said, gently pushing Sonali’s hand aside, “for me it’s still about real justice for my son! The right way to use this law is to restore his honor, to lessen the pain of our family.” Sonali sighed. This was not the response she had wanted.

I was struck by a sense of déjà vu. This was not the first time I had heard this speech from Sonali. It was also not the first time it had been met with resistance. Sonali was a seasoned legal aid activist and the Rajasthan state convenor of the All India Dalit Women’s Forum (All India Dalit Mahila Manch, or AIDMAM), an organization that fought for the rights of Dalit women. A central part of her work was to comfort and advise families like Aunty-jī’s, who had lived through horrific experiences of discrimination or had lost loved ones to caste atrocities. Sonali helped them file complaints under the Atrocities Act, which accused upper-caste parties of violence and discrimination against Dalits.

Like many activists I had met during my eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in Rajasthan, Sonali saw the Atrocities Act as a weapon to eradicate structural casteism from the ground up and as road map to a more equal Indian society. However, her vision often clashed with the hopes of survivors like Aunty-jī, who were seeking justice for deeply personal traumatic experiences and had to reorient themselves to a social world that had violently marked them as outsiders: often by literally etching caste prejudice onto their bodies and property. Though most survivors were grateful for Sonali’s advice, they were often hesitant to register formal complaints under the Atrocities Act. When they did, they rarely pursued their cases according to the parameters Sonali laid out as the “right way.” The perceptions of legal success that survivors like Aunty-jī articulated differed drastically from those of activists like Sonali.


“From the moment the SC/ST (Prevention of) Atrocities Act was ratified as a law someone has always been trying to abolish it! . . . Many people feared this act. They knew it would change privilege and impunity and they did not like it. And look what is happening: dilutions and noncompliance with its rules. This act was seen as a battleground of social power, and we have been battling ever since!”

With those words the retired civil service officer reached for the glass of water on the side table. After a short pause, he continued: “I am proud that we made the issue of caste violence into a matter of law . . . although the law is still not implemented properly by police and courts and people get bullied into out-of-court compromises. This must change if we want more convictions and make this act successful.”

I was sitting in the living room of P. S. Krishnan, a former member of the Indian Administrative Service and previously Secretary to the Government of India, and one of the original authors of the Atrocities Act. When I met Mr. Krishnan in January of 2018, I had come to the end of my fieldwork in Rajasthan, during which I had explored ethnographically how the Atrocities Act was mobilized by Dalit communities in the state. As the end of my fieldwork loomed, I had pursued an interview with Mr. Krishnan with an investigative zeal that had left me slightly guilt-ridden considering his age.4 Admittedly, it was also difficult not to feel pleased, as I looked around his sitting room, clasping my teacup: I had made it to the source.

Yet, I was almost grateful that it had taken me this long to secure the interview. Now, after months of fieldwork, I arrived at Mr. Krishnan’s doorstep equipped with a depth of knowledge about the social dynamics around the Atrocities Act that allowed me to situate his bureaucratic, authorial vision against the backdrop of a much wider, political, experiential, and socioeconomic landscape. I knew now that the success or failure of the Atrocities Act could neither be assured through a linear focus on police and courts nor be measured against procedural markers like conviction rates. In Rajasthan the battle for success that atrocity survivors were fighting was more radical: they were fighting to redefine the truth regimes and procedures of a criminal legal system, which was deeply steeped in upper-caste power.


The above scenes offer a first glimpse into the contested political, normative, and affective landscapes that have emerged around the 1989 Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act (henceforth Atrocities Act) since it burst onto India’s legal terrain three decades ago. The Atrocities Act, which is currently the only law in the country that bears the contours of hate crime legislation, represents the final instance in a series of legal measures that were introduced in independent India with the goal of weakening the system of caste: a structure of social hierarchy (Srinivas 1962) and status ranking (Weber 1978) whose ritual rules, economic modes of exclusion, and oppressive practices have systematically and violently relegated Dalit (former untouchable) communities to the social margins (Ambedkar 1989b [1936]).

In January 1950, almost three years after India gained independence from the British Empire, the country adopted its new constitution. The chairman of the constitutional drafting committee, legal scholar Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, belonged to the Mahar caste and was himself a member of India’s Dalit community. Ambedkar made sure to enshrine the value of nondiscrimination in the foundational legal framework of the postcolonial Indian state and to position the principles of equality, justice, liberty, and fraternity at the center of the constitutional social agenda.5 Ambitiously, India’s constitution banned discrimination based on caste, religion, gender, sex, or birthplace, and it outlawed the practice of untouchability, whereby Dalits were socially ostracized due to notions of ritual impurity.6 To the authors of the constitution, India was not just meant to be a country that discouraged discrimination. It was designed as a democracy, which encouraged active resistance to hegemonic power structures amongst its citizens through a mission of transformative constitutionalism (Kannabiran 2012; Bhatia 2019). B. R. Ambedkar was convinced that India’s full democratic potential would only unfold if social inequalities were systematically eradicated (Ambedkar 1989a [1917]; see also Linkenbach 2021).

Therefore, India’s constitution laid the foundation for a new set of special legal protection mechanisms to compensate members of historically marginalized groups, like Dalits, for the historical injustices they had had to endure (Mosse 2018, 423). The term “Dalit,” which translates to “broken” or “downtrodden” in Maharati7, is a self-designation, adopted by a socially and economically heterogeneous group of low-caste communities across India (Fuller 1996). These communities are unified by a systematic history of exclusion from social and political life: Dalits have been denied access to common water sources and sites of worship, refused ownership of land and other economic resources (Deliege 1999), and forced into demeaning forms of labor like manual scavenging (Omvedt 1995). Above all, they have been subjected to brutal acts of humiliation and violence (Guru 2011). It was this landscape of oppression which the Indian constitution aimed to eradicate by combining two approaches to equality: equality for all on the basis of citizenship, also termed “equality as a right,” and special provisions for some on basis of caste or community, often described as “equality as a policy” (Béteille 1998, 224).

In independent India, “equality as a policy” was primarily enacted through state-led affirmative action programs for specially categorized disadvantaged groups (Galanter 1984). When the government introduced proportional reservations for so-called Backward Classes (BCs), 15% and 7% of all government sector jobs and higher education seats were respectively set aside for Scheduled Castes (Dalits) and Scheduled Tribes (Adivasi indigenous groups).8 Following a report submitted to the government in December 1980, which found that over half of India’s population was economically and socially “backward,” reservations were also extended to so-called Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in 1990.9 Affirmative action policies provided an important anchor for the upliftment of Dalit communities and facilitated their access to political institutions (Pande 2003). However, they neither resulted in wide-scale economic advancement nor did they fundamentally undermine caste prejudice (Corbridge 2000; Guru and Chakravarty 2005; Jaffrelot 2006).10, 11 Hence, Indian lawmakers introduced additional legislation to eliminate practices of untouchability and economic marginalization (chap. 1). Still these laws failed to address the one method of oppression that continuously nourished the framework of caste from within: violence.

Caste-based aggression against Dalits in India has always been a consistent and troublingly varied feature of sociopolitical life. A twice-sharpened blade, violence on the basis of caste has been defined by two simultaneous processes: First, by a mundanity of injury, which weaves various forms of verbal and physical humiliation, discrimination, and symbolic harm into the everyday fabric of Indian social and economic interactions and renders them normal and invisible (Loomba 2016; Muthukkaruppan 2017). Second, by brutal, public outbreaks of mass aggression, whereby upper castes physically etch their perceptions of Dalit inferiority, feelings of disgust, and fear of status loss onto Dalit bodies through physical torture (Sarukkai 2009). Together, these strands of violence have woven a grid of “structural oppression” (Muthukkaruppan 2017, 40), which has been able to rejuvenate the hierarchy of caste whenever it has been under siege.

Eventually, legislators realized that they had to cut off caste aggression at its roots. In 1989 the Atrocities Act arrived on India’s social and legal stage, a watershed moment in Indian anticaste legislation. Often referred to as a special criminal law in India—a law that creates a specific category of offences for a certain group or subject (Ambasta 2020)—the Atrocities Act is difficult to categorize within a global legislative context. As a statute, which enhances punishments for crimes that are committed against individuals because of their membership in a historically marginalized or oppressed group (Sharma 2015, 206) the Atrocities Act is typically referred to as a hate crime law in the international scholarly literature (Myers and Radhakrishna 2018; Hota 2019). Yet the socially transformative agenda of the act is profoundly reflective of India’s unique landscape of caste and civil liberties. Hence, this book highlights the Atrocities Act as a postcolonial example of culturally embedded hate crime legislation.

The Atrocities Act was the first law in India to explicitly criminalize all forms of verbal, physical, and “symbolic violence” (Rao 2009, 174) against Dalits and Adivasi indigenous groups as so-called atrocities. It did so by creating new types of offences not included in the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The current version of the act, which is the result of several amendments in 2015, 2018, and 2020, specifies over twenty discriminatory actions that must be penalized as criminal infractions when they are committed against Dalits and Adivasis by someone not belonging to these groups. Additionally, the law outlines enhanced punishments for certain offences under the Indian Penal Code when they are committed against the aforementioned communities.

Over the past decade the Atrocities Act has gradually emerged as an inspiration for Indian scholars and civil society groups who are advocating for a comprehensive legal framework against identity-based violence for all of India’s historically marginalized groups (Bhat 2020b; Perry 2020). Incidents of hate speech and mob violence against Dalits and religious minorities, and Muslims specifically, have risen steeply as India’s government has embarked on a policy of majoritarian Hindu nationalism rooted in traditional caste hierarchies (Hansen 2001; Jaiswal, Sreenivasan, and Singh 2018; Chatterji, Hansen, and Jaffrelot 2019). Thus, advocacy groups are increasingly pointing to the Atrocities Act as India’s only determined effort to systematically punish bias crimes and are demanding an expansion of the judicial ambition it represents (Citizens against Hate 2018).

However, despite, or perhaps because of, its punitive rigor and socially transformative ambition, the Atrocities Act has always been a deeply polarizing law in India, and even a disappointment to many who have fought for caste equality. Today, thirty years after its implementation, scholars have questioned the ability of the act to generate fundamental social change (Baxi 2014; Berg 2020), as most cases registered under the law never make it to court and a negligible number lead to conviction (Carswell and de Neve 2015, 1116; Rameshnathan 2018). Many feel that the Atrocities Act has failed Dalits and Adivasis by allowing their realities of violence to be systematically ignored by police (Khora 2014) and to go unacknowledged in courts (Wire Staff 2018). Cumulatively, these studies suggest that, in the eyes of most, the Atrocities Act is an unsuccessful law.

And yet, most of these critiques have neglected to ask some crucial questions: What would it really mean for the Atrocities Act to be successful? To whose vision of success are hate crime laws accountable? And how are survivors of caste atrocities, their families, and their communities trying to find success within a legal landscape that is fundamentally stacked against them?

This book is an attempt to step into this gap. Peeking behind the curtain of official crime statistics and conviction rates, Fragile Hope lays bare the social life of India’s Prevention of Atrocities Act. It analyzes how the aims, substantive rules, and evidentiary procedures of the act are (re-)interpreted, gendered, and contested by Dalit communities in Rajasthan—a North Indian state which has consistently seen one of the highest rates of caste atrocities in India in the past decade (Press Trust of India 2016; Shakil 2020).

Fragile Hope argues that the Atrocities Act is gradually and invisibly rewriting systems of caste hierarchy and sociopolitical power in Rajasthan, even as the explicit and implicit caste biases of legal actors often undermine individual atrocity complaints. Therefore, the book proposes that previous analyses, which have highlighted the toothless nature or failure of the act, paint an incomplete picture. Fragile Hope shows that in Rajasthan, which has never witnessed the large-scale mobilizations that have marked Dalit resistance in other parts of India (Bhatia 2006), the Atrocities Act has emerged as a site for a project of legal meliorism: the gradual improvement of oppressive societal conditions (Dewey 1958), which relies on the construction of new strategic legal communities as well as new epistemologies of justice and habits of hope.

As these new practices and modes of sociality have symbiotically grown around the bureaucratic trunk of the Atrocities Act, the law has inspired different stakeholders to question the fundamental assumptions and temporal frameworks underlying criminal truth regimes in India. In microscopic and sometimes controversial ways, survivors, activists, and legal aid NGOs have begun to unlace and rearrange what they consider the structural allegiance of India’s criminal legal system to upper-caste worldviews: a system that holds the potential of the Atrocities Act captive.

However, this agenda of institutional transformation is not uniformly conceptualized, experienced, or enacted. The Atrocities Act and the search for justice after violent incidents of discrimination and hate come to bear on individuals and groups in heterogenous and discordant ways. When the Atrocities Act is pulled into the everyday life of families, communities, politics, and activist missions, it becomes gendered, fractured along socioeconomic lines, and can generate new forms of intracommunity hierarchy and even violence. As individuals, and sometimes entire neighborhoods, file complaints, the Atrocities Act embeds itself in intimate ties of kinship, weaves itself into political agendas, and encounters different modes and scales of violence. In the process it gives rise to a mosaic of visions of legal success and to competing sociolegal imaginaries of justice. These visions can be deeply at odds with one another, even within the boundaries of individual family homes.

This book is an ethnographic voyage alongside the Atrocities Act as it springs off the page of bureaucratic imagination and is drawn into the social life of individuals, families, villages, and towns. In the autumn of 2016, inspired by my previous work with human rights organizations in Delhi, I journeyed to Rajasthan with a clear objective: as an anthropologist, rather than as a lawyer, I wanted to explore the everyday discourses around, and approaches to, the Atrocities Act. Over eighteen months I traveled across the state alongside atrocity complainants, activists, and advocates to trace how individual incidents of caste-based violence become legal cases under the act.

In the process I learned that the Atrocities Act is a law that radically challenges juridical and political assumptions about the type of transformation that hate crime laws can and should create. On the one hand, the act exposes familiar, lived dilemmas and evidentiary contradictions that haunt legal attempts to legislate against prejudice and hate at a global level. On the other hand, its social life reveals that in the interstices of daily life (Das 2019), hate crime laws are not the sum of their procedural, juridical obstacles, conviction rates, or individual case outcomes.

Instead, they become open battlefields, on which different stakeholders fight for the right to imprint their vision of equality, justice, and truth onto the epistemologies, temporalities, and procedures of official law. In Rajasthan, the Atrocities Act has become a canvas on which Dalit families and communities paint their own ideas of agency and restitution. In doing so, they actively try to reduce the historical footprint of dominant castes—not just on the Atrocities Act—but on the structure of general criminal law to replace it with their own. Hence, the Atrocities Act raises new, important questions about the way hate crime law generates expectations of institutional transformation and accountability.


Challenges of a Postcolonial Hate Crime Law

The theoretical and practical challenges facing hate crime law have been extensively discussed in sociolegal scholarship. “Hate crime,” a term deeply steeped in the legacy of the US civil rights movement, has entered common parlance to describe acts of physical and verbal violence directed at (historically) oppressed groups because of certain racial, religious, or gender-based markers. “Hate crime” is a conceptually fuzzy phrase that has no consistent definition across jurisdictions (Hall 2013). Yet scholars fundamentally agree that hate crimes are symbolic acts of harm fueled by the perpetrator’s aim to uphold hegemonic power structures (Perry 2001).

While the empirical usefulness of the word “hate” to describe diffuse, cumulative processes of social prejudice is contested (Bowling 1993), the proactively, hostile attitudes the expression evokes are analytically potent in capturing the effects bias generates in everyday social life. Encapsulating a diverse, yet related, set of emotions like paranoia, anxiety, fear, anger, and envy (Ngai 2005) which people in unequal economic and political systems experience, “hate” is not a passive feeling but an active, affective method of social boundary-making (Ahmed 2004). These affective boundaries are often consciously (Chatterjee 2023) or unintentionally (Shoshan 2016) (re)produced by state institutions. In societies defined by increasing diversity and nontransparent economic and political relations, the strategic projection of hate becomes an emotional tool for members of historically powerful groups to differentiate themselves from other communities in a way that allows for a positive perception of their own social group (Ahmed 2004). This projection, which is deeply entwined with fears around status loss (Kimmel 2018), can escalate into targeted acts of violence against minorities, who are perceived as the source of this fear. When groups that have been marginalized demand a type of social change that requires sacrifices from those who have historically had a monopoly on sociopolitical influence, the latter often react violently. This violence is exacerbated when historically powerful communities encounter new financial limitations that give rise to unconscious narratives of perceived loss (Gadd and Dixon 2011).

To govern these practices of violent boundary-making, legislation that targets so-called hate crimes—also variously termed “bias crimes” or “identity-based offences”—has increasingly sprung up in different national contexts (Walters 2022). Proponents of hate crime laws stress their symbolic value. As legal instruments they communicate state opposition to (violent) prejudice and promote social tolerance (Perry and Alvi 2012). Supporters have further suggested that hate crime laws offer a strategic shorthand for historically subjugated communities to translate their unique grievances into a recognized, global language of crime and punishment (Perry 2020).

Meanwhile, critics of hate crime legislation have not only been skeptical of its ability to remedy discrimination (Björgo 1994) but have also expressed concerns that such laws could further entrench identity-based antagonisms (Alongi 2017). Some have doubted the procedural validity of hate crime legislation, as its institutional success hinges on the ability of survivors and legal practitioners to prove perpetrators’ hateful motives—the reason why someone developed an intent (mens rea) to commit a crime (Brax and Munthe 2015; Brax 2016)—in court. Others have proposed that hate crime legislation may silence real experiences of discrimination by denying some narratives legal credibility as hateful offences (Walters, Owusu-Bempah, and Wiedlitzka 2018). Finally, some scholars have been skeptical towards the idea that legal officials could function as neutral arbitrators in disputes involving questions of prejudice (Swiffen 2018).

However, India and crimes against Dalits rarely feature in these debates, despite the historical parallels between caste exclusion in India and structural racism in countries like the United States (Thorat and Umakant 2004, xxxix; Myers and Radhakrishna 2018; Wilkerson 2020) and the frequency and brutality of caste atrocities. Additionally, conceptual and empirical analyses of hate crime law have largely been concentrated in the fields of criminology and legal studies and have only sparingly relied on extensive ethnographic research.12

This knowledge gap is not simply unfortunate from a methodological or political standpoint. It has hindered scholarly insight into the social and political ramifications of hate crimes, as well as hate crime laws, and slowed down global initiatives for social justice. Legal institutions, policing practices, and evidence regimes in many postcolonial nations remain shaped by colonial hierarchies of power and identity, which have contributed to the political stigmatization of (particular) racial, religious, or ethnic groups (Baxi 2012; Jauregui 2016; Bhat 2020a). Colonial governments not only introduced new, often antagonistic, categories of social identity (Dirks 2001) but also molded legal and political institutions in line with these categories (Comaroff 2001; Mbembe 2001; Mamdani 2003; Chatterjee 2004; Berti and Bordia 2015). Hate crime laws like the Atrocities Act are embedded in a legal system which is steeped in colonial codes, assumptions, and procedures that aimed to control indigenous populations, who were considered disorderly and inferior (Kolsky 2010).

Therefore, the inner lives of atrocity complaints in India—a postcolonial nation marked by exceptional social diversity and equipped with one of the most comprehensive affirmative action programs in the world—offer promising insights into the unexpected challenges, possibilities, and questions that grow out of legal attempts to prevent and prosecute hate crimes.

In India, the Atrocities Act has been met with similar apprehension as hate crime laws in the global North. Introduced to counteract, punish, and, ultimately, end caste discrimination, the expectations placed on this law have always been high and the disappointments in its shortcomings bitter. Dynamics of caste and casteism are extremely difficult to capture in legal categories of evidence (Waughray 2022). Moreover, legal attempts to punish caste-based violence are themselves enacted within a social and political system which is built on structures of caste hierarchy (Rao 2009; Teltumbde 2018b). Hence, some critics have concluded that the Atrocities Act is paralyzed by the same web of power that it seeks to dismantle (Baxi 2014).

Indeed, evidence suggests that in everyday legal practice the Atrocities Act has often been made to operate in line with upper-caste interests. As India’s judiciary remains dominated by the country’s highest-ranking castes, and police investigations are subtly influenced by economically and politically dominant caste groups, the sharp arrow of the Atrocities Act is redirected to point at its intended beneficiaries. Through strategic judicial interpretations, or even openly compromised police investigations, the Atrocities Act has frequently seen itself “converted” into a law that unsees caste discrimination in practice and invalidates Dalit experiences in favor of upper-caste narratives (Berg 2020, 153).

Therefore, the Atrocities Act has faced a crisis of purpose: scholars have proposed that it has achieved little more than to permanently mark Dalits and Adivasis as injured identities, whose specific protection under criminal law has produced more hostility and further polarized Indian society (Rao 2009).

Beyond Legal Paralysis

In Fragile Hope I do not reject these analyses. Instead I show that they fail to highlight a different dynamic, which India—a country whose constitutional framework encourages active resistance to discrimination—can illustrate better than any other national context: for historically marginalized communities, hate crime laws can become sites for the creation of new social resources and foundational legal epistemologies which aim to eradicate the institutional biases and bureaucratic inequities that make hate crime legislation necessary in the first place.

Many of the stories I encountered during eighteen months of fieldwork in Rajasthan illustrate that the “conversion” of the Atrocities Act (Berg 2020) into an instrument of upper-caste power is indeed a frequent reality. Dalit survivors of caste atrocities regularly struggled to access, and be taken seriously by, the institutions that produce legal evidence, such as hospitals, forensic labs, or police stations. This struggle was compounded as powerful, horizontal upper-caste networks made strategic interventions in investigations that aimed to neutralize the punitive power of the act. These simultaneous processes resulted in a public discourse that painted Dalits as inauthentic or “unreliable” legal narrators (comp. Affolter 2021), and habitually ripped the Atrocities Act from the hands of survivors, leaving them without a sense of justice.

And yet, the window my fieldwork granted me into the social and political life of the Atrocities Act in Rajasthan also shows that analyses, which foreground the reappropriation of the act by higher-caste perpetrators and legal actors, don’t tell the whole story. Previous studies of the Atrocities Act, which have focused less systematically and longitudinally on the lived legal negotiations in which atrocity complainants engage, have underemphasized that survivors actively and tactically resist the usurpation of “their law” by upper castes. Through a multilayered, multifaceted agenda of legal engagement, survivors, human rights activists, and Dalit political leaders in Rajasthan labored to overcome the networks of power that paralyzed the act. Carefully and gradually, they tried to rewrite the allegiances of legal institutions as well as the epistemological assumptions, temporal frameworks, and procedures of general criminal law in line with the unique subaltern truths of past and present oppression.

Hence, Fragile Hope shows that the social life and the transformative potential of the Atrocities Act in Rajasthan do not end at neutralization or “conversion.” Instead, they begin there. As Dalit communities try to reduce the upper-caste footprint on formal law, they explore and engage varied legal strategies which aim to incrementally shift ingrained structures of caste power loyalty and institutional bias. Since these strategies can often contradict one another, survivors and their supporters are united neither in hope nor in resignation. However, what they do share is a meliorist outlook: a sense that at least their engagement with the Atrocities Act can make social and legal conditions for Dalits comparatively better (Fiala 2019).13

The Dalit communities I worked with in Rajasthan—most of whom belonged to the upwardly mobile and numerically robust Meghwal jāti (subcaste)—were very aware of the institutional obstacles and dynamics that held the transformative potential of the Atrocities Act hostage. But many were not ready to accept those limits. Through diverse moments of counter-practice, which began long before atrocity complaints went to court, activists, NGO advocates, community leaders, and survivors themselves defiantly moved into legal spaces. Cultivating their own legal personas (chap. 3), out-of-court compromises (chaps. 2, 5), hermeneutic habits (chaps. 4, 7), temporalities and regimes of truth (chap. 4), understandings of restitution (chap. 6), and narrative expressions (chap. 3), different stakeholders in atrocity cases engaged in a concerted effort to turn their own social, economic, and political imaginaries of caste equality into “embodied expressions” of legal resistance (Larsson 2017, 71; also Csordas 1994).

The same way that political elites and upper castes had historically impressed their worldview and hierarchies onto the foundations of the criminal legal system, stakeholders in atrocity cases worked to impress their own concepts of truth and evidence as well as the temporal frameworks that define discriminatory experience onto legal cases (chap. 4). In doing so, they attempted to “deconstruct” the existing relationship between hate crime law and official justice, which they considered to be rooted in mechanisms of power and domination (Derrida 1992), and to reprogram the legal truth-finding procedures.

However, this was a tricky process with complex consequences. To free the Atrocities Act from the state of institutional paralysis it finds itself in, and to make it deliver on its promise of caste equality, survivors, Meghwal politicians, and independent Dalit advocates used the act in creative ways. These engagements were radical attempts to shine the spotlight on the unique truths, historicity, and economic conditions that define caste violence. Survivors proposed that a legal system, which wanted special protection laws like the Atrocities Act to help marginalized groups, must account for the unique features of lived discrimination. However, legal actors from upper-caste backgrounds often (mis-)interpreted these efforts as examples of lawfare—the illegitimate use of legal instruments (Merry 1994; Pinos and Hau 2022).

In Rajasthan, which can only claim a splintered Dalit movement (Rawat 2017), the Atrocities Act has emerged as a new, constitutionally embedded, and bureaucratically sanctioned anchor in the fight for caste equality. As a special criminal law for the empowerment of historically disadvantaged communities (chap. 1), it signals the accountability of the Indian legal system to the narratives, memories, and truths of those who have suffered most at the hands of a caste order, which has long been challenged by the country’s foundational legislative structure: the Indian constitution (Director, Centre for Dalit Rights, Jaipur, pers. comm., January 2017).

In Tools of Justice Kalpana Kannabiran claims that “the Indian constitution gives voice to counter-hegemonic imaginations of justice” through its insurgent imperative to erode social inequalities in the name of democracy. According to Kannabiran, the Indian constitution positions the right to nondiscrimination so centrally that it creates a space for historically oppressed groups to resist policies and laws which are at odds with this constitutional value (Kannabiran 2012, 10, 1).

Similarly, the Atrocities Act has produced imaginations and strategies among Rajasthan’s Meghwals which aim to subvert legal processes that facilitate the conversion of the Atrocities Act into an instrument of upper-caste power. These insurgent activities have also created a polarized discourse around the Atrocities Act on the national political and juridical stage.


1. is a gender-neutral honorific used in Hindi.

2. Chamar, which is an official designation for a specific Dalit community (jati), is now also often used as an derogatory term to insult Dalits.

3. Dalits and Adivasis are referred to as Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), respectively, under Articles 341 and 342 of the Indian Constitution. A complete list of SCs and STs was compiled via two orders: the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, and the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950. The lists have been amended several times.

4. P. S. Krishnan passed away in November 2019 at the age of eighty-seven.

5. These commitments are laid out in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution.

6. The central issue of social equality is enshrined in a trifecta of constitutional articles in part 3 of the Indian constitution (Fundamental Rights of Citizens): Article 14 guarantees the right to equality, Article 15 outlaws discrimination on the basis of caste, religion, gender, sex, or place of birth, and Article 17 abolishes untouchability.

7. Maharati is a language spoken in the Indian state of Maharashtra.

8. Seats for SCs and STs were also proportionally reserved in all state legislative assemblies and in the lower house of parliament (Lok Sabha). The 1990s saw the implementation of SC/ST quotas in public sector promotions (Desai and Kulkarni 2008). In 1992 the 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts of the Indian Constitution reserved one-third of all seats in panchayats (village assemblies) and local urban governing bodies for women.

9. The report was issued by the Mandal Commission, which was set up in 1979 by the Janata Party government. Its mandate was to identify India’s educationally and socially backward classes.

10. India’s reservation policies have contended with a wide range of problems. Kriti Kapila argues that “the criteria for SC/ST and OBC status [rely] on contentious colonial classifications” (Kapila 2008, 6; also Cohn 1987). Others claim that reservations only benefit already upwardly mobile sections within SC/ST or OBC communities (Nayyar 2011), Some fear that the positive quota system will keep caste distinctions alive (Béteille 1992, 225).

11. Affirmative action policies only represent one aspect of a constantly evolving arena of Dalit politics and assertion (Thorat 2002; Guru and Sarukkai 2012; Thorat and Sabharwal 2014; Jodhka 2015; Teltumbde 2018b; Waghmore 2018). Wide-scale mobilization (Juergensmeyer 1982; Gooptu 1993; Omvedt 1994, 1995; Rodrigues 2002) has continued alongside the creation of a particular arena of Dalit party politics (Pai 2002; Jaffrelot 2003; Gorringe 2005) and new economic pathways through social welfare programs (Hasan 2011; Carswell & de Neve 2014). Alternative religious discourses are also sometimes used by Dalits as a tool for upward mobility, claiming rights, and the generation of self-worth (Kapadia 1995; Beltz 2005; Mosse 2012; M. Fuchs 2019).

12. One notable exception is the work of Gadd et al. (2011), which relied on in-depth interviews with perpetrators of hate crime in the United Kingdom.

13. Meliorism as a concept finds its roots in pragmatist philosophy, which was one of the major theoretical strands that shaped the thought and writings of B. R. Ambedkar. John Dewey, perhaps the most towering figure in pragmatism theory, was a professor at Columbia University where Ambedkar studied and was the teacher who impressed Ambedkar the most (M. Fuchs 2019, 369). As I am submitting this book, a new historical treatise has just been published by philosopher Scott Stroud, which explores Ambedkar’s time studying at Columbia and pragmatist themes of reconstruction and meliorism in his writings (2023).