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A Woman Lawyer Is Taking On the Worst Kind of Casteist Impunity

This International Women's Day, we are inviting Dalit feminist and lawyer Savita Ali as one of India's most important Dalit voices. Savita heads a growing legal movement that fights cases of caste atrocities, mob lynching, witch hunting, and manual scavenging.

Savita Ali, in a lawyer's attire, holding a file.
Savita Ali in her lawyers' attire holding a file. The background has colourful geometrical shapes.

Counter cases against victims when they report rape or caste atrocities, mob lynching, witch hunting, and custodial deaths: these are just some of the toughtest legal cases fought in Indian courts where upper caste judges dominate. Dalit feminist and lawyer Savita Ali takes such cases on fearlessly. She heads the Bihar Legal Network, a growing movement with hundred and fifty lawyers who tackle these cases and also try arrange for victims’ mental health care, rehabilitation, and compensation.

Here is Savita Ali talking about the major challenges she and her network face in Bihar:

Watch Savita Ali describe how she takes on caste impunity 

"My name is Savita Ali and I’m a lawyer by profession. I practice at the Patna Session Court and High Court. I’m the director of Bihar Legal Network.

Bihar legal network is a movement, a movement of lawyers which functions in five- six zilas (districts) of Bihar—Sitamarhi, Gaya, Bihar Sharif, Muzaffarpur, Aurangabad, Patna, and now we have started to work in Saran as well. Basically, this network works for the poor, those who have been denied justice, and who cannot afford to fight their case. We give such people free legal help in the form of advice or after legal battles when their mental health is in turmoil, we arrange mental health counselling for them from time to time.

If we say today that untouchability is no longer practiced today, I don’t think so, the practices may have changed but the system persists. They are discriminated against on the basis of poverty, caste and with Dalit women on the basis of gender as well. Hence Dalit women's suffering is three-fold. So, in such situations a lot of cases against Dalit women have been observed, whether it is rape, gang rape, kidnapping or witch hunts where they are perceived as witches (dayans); the Dayan Pratha Act which is a law in Bihar. Dalit women face violence a lot of heinous crimes are committed against them.

Recently, in a POCSO case, a Dalit girl was gang raped. While the case was still running in the court, there were three attempts of gang rape against her, there have been attempts against her sisters as well. So as you can see whenever there are cases of rape or gang rape against Dalit women, even while the cases are running in court they are not safe in their homes. They experience attacks again and there are counter cases slapped on them by their perpetrators under Arms Act and SC/ST Act. Here in Bihar, there have been acid attacks on Dalit women in their homes, they are not safe at all in their house or outside. No protection is provided to them.

Two women and two men in lawyer attire standing on the road. Savita is explaining something to her colleagues
Savita and her colleaugues standing in front of the Patna High Court


And now since the banning of alcohol you can see that most people in jail, around 80-90% belong to Dalit community, Dalit and minority communities. So when you see from this perspective whether it is jails or alcohol, i.e do only people from Dalit communities consume alcohol? And for consuming alcohol how the police beat them brutally to an extent that they die in a custodial death. Custodial deaths are increasing in Bihar. If I speak of data, for instance  we had enquired for data from 2006 to 2011 through RTI and according to this five hundred and eighty six cases were of custodial deaths and this data has emerged from Bihar. Recently our network has been receiving cases of custodial deaths. We have handled seven-eight cases of custodial deaths recently, in 2021 and 2022. Most cases of custodial deaths are against Dalit people and forget custodial deaths, these cases are even being correctly registered but registered as UD FIRs


UD FIRs are counted as unnatural death, the cause of death is unnatural. For instance being struck by lightning, while handling wires or any such case is called an unnatural death. Here, in Bihar’s police stations the pattern is of custodial deaths, the individual dies in custody because they have been tortured, beaten brutally by the police and they are half-dead. In a day or two they die. This is a custodial death, there is a lump sum compensation, there is a different follow up and proceeding in the court, when we talk about justice. However, instead of registering a custodial death, to protect themselves, the police registers it as UD FIR or unnatural death and presented in the court as such.


The Bihar government has submitted an affidavit stating that there are no manual scavengers, that nobody indulges in manual scavenging work. However, we still witness manual scavenging in some places, moreover according to the Manual Scavenging Act in case of death due to work there is 10 lakh rupees compensation to be provided. However, they do not register any case as a sewage death. In the Namami Gange Project here, in Patna near the Beur police station where the L&T Company was handling work, two workers have died as a result of going inside the sewage. Due to this UD FIR the 10 lakh rupees compensation which the victim’s family deserves is denied to them. So when we talk about justice, access to justice, the police which is established for our justice, our protection makes us feel unsafe and presents our case in a certain way, what can you expect from such a police or government.

Bihar has officially recorded this in low numbers of manual scavengers. Only 132 manual scavenger have been reported and only their rehabilitation is in focus. The government claims that their rehabilitation has been completed but we do not have data to affirm this rehabilitation has taken place. When we meet survivors and activists at the grassroot level they are only compensated for twenty or thirty thousand rupees in the beginning. The terms and conditions have not been followed like providing education, loans, helping in setting up business, nothing of such sorts has happened because if you emancipate someone from their livelihood and provide them with an alternative job their rehabilitation will not take place. So the Bihar government has failed in the rehabilitation.

Savita Ali in lawyer's clothes wearing helmet and riding a deep red scooter
Savita Ali heading to court on her scooter


According to the RTI data from 2006 to 2011 we have received, 568 cases of custodial deaths have been registered, there is no follow up on these cases. We had filed a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) also regarding these cases but no hearing was scheduled. Moreover, in the recent cases in 2021 and 2022, we have handled 4-5 cases and I always say that if we are handling 4-5 cases, there may be many cases where people are not able to access us and we are not able to reach them. So custodial death is a major issue in Bihar. The Manji community sells and consumes alcohol and for this they are tortured, brutally beaten up, police enters their homes in the day or very late at night, they pick up men and women. When they are taken into custody, chances of their custodial death are 100 percent and are converted into a UD FIR. The challenge then is how do we change what is registered as unnatural death into an FIR.. The victim is not really educated and well off, they are insulted by caste slurs and harassed.

So the biggest challenge here then becomes when we go through commissions but since the last five years commissions are not active. The second challenge is that the survivor is always under threat, if they are persistent with their statement they are intimated. We should at least be providing protection to such a survivor. Another challenge we face repeatedly is that when a custodial death is registered compensation must also be given. When the police deliberately registers a sewage death or custodial death as a UD FIR, the strictest action must be taken against them. If the police function function as they please, justice would be difficult.


I think this is a myth, I have affirmed this before that mindset matters here. When the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe PO Act came into place in 1989 and people believed that it is misused, but I say it is not used at all. This act is for the SC and ST communities but they themselves are unaware of such provisions. People who are not aware of this act cannot misuse such an act. In the case of SC and ST PO Act, till date there has been no appropriate registration of offence and law. Even today victims are not compensated according to the act, if you don’t apply the law appropriately, how does one get compensation? In Bihar especially there are special SC and ST courts. There are special courts in 38 districts (zilas) for cases under SC and ST Act for speedy trial. Even in these courts the lawyer nominate by the government belongs to an upper caste community. As you can see, even in SC and ST courts Dalit lawyers are not given priority. Those who belong to other communities don’t know the SC/ST act and the proceedings do not go correctly and convictions rates are not good. There is a special court, there is special act. If there were a speedy trial every victim would get compensation and conviction rates would be better. The reason why this doesn’t happen is because the appointed lawyer is not from the Dalit community. If the government appoints Dalit lawyer on priority basis, we can say that to a certain limit they will understand the case better. Most importantly a Dalit can understand the caste system. As we say, those whose fight it is should lead.

Some cases that I want to draw attention towards:

Gang rape and harassment:
Naina (name changed) is a woman belonging to a scheduled caste. This is her account: She was abducted and raped by three men who are her neighbors. The police refused to lodge an FIR for two days and asked her to forgive the perpetrators and return only if they repeated the act. The village mukhiya tried to convince her not to report the crime, but Naina insisted on filing an FIR. The accused were arrested but immediately released on bail. Later, they attacked her sister and mother with rods and hammers and injured them so they had to be hospitalised. They intimidated Naina at work. The perpetrators still live in the neighborhood and continue to harass the family. Naina has received just Rs. 25,000 as compensation, which is not enough for her family to survive.

A silhouette of a young woman sitting indoors in front of an open door
Naina (name changed) whose neighbours gang raped her and continue to harass her

Police brutality and custodial death registered as "unnatural death":

Rajni Devi whose husband Ashok Manjhi was arrested by the police who entered their home unlawfully at 3.30am. Since the alcohol prohibition in Bihar in 2016, many of the Manjhi community complain of harassment, extortion, and torture by the police. Ashok Manjhi was kept at the Dhanarua police station for two days before being sent to Beur jail. Rajni and her neighbours say he was beaten brutally. The family was not allowed to meet him. The policemen reportedly took some money and promised that he would be released but Manjhi died in custody. The case was registered as “unnatural death.” The family protested with his dead body and blocked a road. There is no post mortem report. Rajni is illiterate and left with two children who no longer go to school. The family finds it difficult to feed themselves and Rajni often expresses suicidal ideation. She cannot receive compensation because the FIR says he died an unnatural death."

A woman sitting with a child on her lap in a visibly impoverished house
Rajni Devi and her child. Her husband Ashok Manjhi died in custody after facing police brutality

If you wish to extend monetary help to any of the victims or to the Bihar Legal Network, please send email to