In a society so entrenched in caste, can we really address crimes against disadvantaged persons without taking into account the structures that enable them?

Burning funeral pyre of the Hathras rape victim in UP Screenshot. Anuja Jaiswal/Twitter
news Caste Wednesday, September 30, 2020 - 17:55

It almost feels like history repeating itself – a story that happens way too often. India has once again found itself shocked and outraged at the gangrape, torture and murder of a woman – a 19-year-old Dalit who was targeted because of her caste allegedly by four dominant caste Thakur men in her village in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh. The young woman died in Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi on Tuesday morning.

Amidst the outrage, anger and grief around the crime, there have also been some people who have been arguing against highlighting the fact that the victim was Dalit; and that this should simply be seen as a crime against a woman. 

However, in a society so entrenched in caste, can we really address crimes against disadvantaged persons without taking into account the structures that enable them?

Structural violence

Kiruba Munusamy, an advocate practising in the Supreme Court, questions why we should not identify the Hathras victim’s caste when it was a caste-based crime. “If we don’t talk about the root cause, there is no point discussing the issue. There is a lot of noise about saying no to sexual violence against women, but often, they fail to look at the reason why it happens.” 

Caste-based sexual violence is not simply a crime involving a man and a woman. “These offences are committed to prove caste supremacy, to teach a lesson, to reinforce that we [Dalits] do not have a place in the mainstream society,” Kiruba says.

Gender dynamics cannot be looked at in isolation from caste, says Priyadharsini, director of The Blue Club, a grassroots media organisation that brings Dalit women’s voices to the fore. Priyadharsini had worked on the documentary #dalitwomenfight which was shot in 2017, and she found that due to their caste, sexual violence against Dalit women in the villages of Rajasthan and Haryana by dominant caste men enjoys social sanction, and is even ordered sometimes by local kangaroo courts or khap panchayats.

In 2015 for instance, an all-male village council in Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh, ordered that two Dalit sisters (23 and 15 years old respectively) be raped, and paraded nude with their faces blackened as punishment for their brother eloping with a married woman from the dominant Jat caste. Amnesty International took up the issue, and global attention was brought to the petition started by the human rights organisation. They were also granted protection by the Supreme Court, to which they had appealed after fleeing their homes.  

“In such cases, sexual violence is firstly a result of savarna men thinking that Dalit women’s bodies are their property. This has happened historically, and also continues to happen in many villages wherein Dalit women working in dominant caste families’ fields are not just labourers but also assumed to be the male employer’s sexual slaves. And secondly, these crimes happen because perpetrators enjoy a sense of impunity, that they can run free after committing the crime because of their caste privilege. When people say 'no need to mention caste', they don’t understand that it affects gender dynamics. All of these factors make Dalit women more vulnerable to sexual violence,” Priyadharsini adds.

A network of impunity

The Hathras rape and torture happened on September 14, which is also when the victim’s brother filed a complaint and a case was registered for attempt to murder and the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. After the victim died on Tuesday, the police allegedly cremated her body at night without the family’s consent. The family wanted to see her one last time, and wanted to take back her body to their home.

“Had it been a dominant caste woman, would the police have done something like this?” asks Kiruba. “These actions of the police are a pattern, and are specific to vulnerable castes. In the case of Rohith Vemula too, the scholar’s body was secretly cremated.” Rohith, a Hyderabad University scholar, died by suicide in 2017, alleging caste discrimination against him by the university. After informing the student community earlier that the body would be laid to rest at a certain crematorium, the Hyderabad police cremated his body at a crematorium in Amberpet instead.

“Perhaps it is a way to destroy evidence, to show us our place in the society, to exert dominance. Police too is negligent in cases of sexual violence against Dalit women, because it's likely that a majority of them too are from dominant castes, and want to protect others from their community,” says Kiruba. “How many will be able to be like a Bhanwari Devi and go all the way up to the court at this rate?”

Bhanwari Devi is an oppressed caste woman who was gangraped by dominant caste men as punishment for stopping the wedding of a nine-month-old infant in 1992. Bhanwari’s husband was beaten up at the field he worked in. She too faced insensitivity and hurdles from the police as well as medical examination stages. When the Rajasthan High Court acquitted the accused men in 1995, one of the reasons given was that “upper” caste men wouldn’t rape a “lower” caste woman because she would be “impure” for them. Another reason was that men 60-70 years in age cannot commit rape. Despite the acquittal, Bhanwari Devi’s case was taken up by feminist groups, and that is where the country’s law against workplace sexual harassment stems from, even as she still awaits legal justice.

Incidentally, in the Baghpat case too, another brother of the sisters, Sumit Kumar, had said that the police did not listen to them: “The police said anyone can be murdered now.” And there are several other such examples that people TNM spoke to pointed out.

Statistically, the proportion of rapes under the SC/SC Act doesn’t appear to be large. According to the National Crime Records Bureau 2019 data, rapes account for 7.6% of all crimes and atrocities against Scheduled Caste persons, and 13.4% against Scheduled Tribes persons.

“But how accessible is reporting and justice to a Dalit woman? Not only does sexual violence against them have social sanction, often they cannot even get protection from the police,” points out Kiruba. “We also cannot rule out politicians here. There are many layers of power structures, which include caste as a factor. In the past, political outfits have taken out rallies in favour of savarna perpetrators,” she adds. This has indeed happened in the Kathua rape case where the victim was from a marginalised community.

“This is why the problem is structural. Most of the police, bureaucrats and judges also tend to be dominant caste men. There is a network of impunity which allows perpetrators to get away,” Priyadharsini says.

Hold brahminical patriarchy accountable

Just as it is important to mention the caste of the victims when we talk of such crimes, one should also mention the caste of the perpetrators, says Sudipto Mondal, a journalist. “When you don’t talk about caste, it’s another way of covering up the violence, which is part of a larger narrative and structure perpetrated by a certain community. There are women and then there are marginalised women, and that marginalisation needs to be articulated. It is one thing to say it is patriarchy that is responsible, but it is important to recognise that it is brahminical patriarchy which is at play in caste crimes.”

Kiruba also points out that many people who may have been provoked to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement, stay silent when caste crimes happen in their own country, not questioning the caste hegemony and dominant caste masculinity.

“I have been seeing so many debates on TV with only savarna women on the panel. Not one of them could say that this is not her story to tell and that the TV channel should get a Dalit woman to talk about this? People needed a brutalised Dalit woman’s body to feel pity and sympathy for the sexual violence they face. But we are not going to be silenced. We shouldn’t have to die for their performative wokeness," says Kiruba.

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