“Our struggle does not end so long as there is a single human being considered untouchable on account of his birth.” – Mahatma Gandhi
India has been well acquainted with multiple cases of sexual violence against its women. Despite the numerous laws in place for the protection of women, the invisibilisation of such crimes points to the neglect, lax methods and political affiliations of authorities influencing the reportage of crimes against women. The prevalent machismo coupled with caste-based discrimination has placed Dalit women at a greater risk of being silenced, often permanently.
It has been almost 8 years since the fateful Nirbhaya rape case garnered opprobrium and forced citizens to take to streets in protest. Although the harshest possible punishment was awarded to the rapists, one of a similar barbaric nature has struck Indians again. The horrendous gang-rape of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh, a northern state of India has left the country wondering whether the curse of untouchability and violence against Dalit women will ever cease to exist.
Sexual violence as a Weapon
Dalits in Hindi roughly translates to “broken people”. They form the lowest rung of the highly hierarchical caste structure that has been practiced in India for thousands of years. Brahmins (priests) form the topmost rung followed by Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaisyas (farmers), Shudras (artisans) and Dalits who were (and unfortunately still are) considered untouchables. The condition is India is such that notwithstanding taking several steps forward in upliftment of women, they remain oppressed in many rural parts of India. In comparison to other women, Dalit women find themselves more economically and socially vulnerable facilitating infliction of violence. Being a Dalit woman only aggravates the plight of such individuals forcing them to be crushed under the feet of the upper castes. Violence against Dalit women is used as a tool to ensure that the Dalits are kept subjugated to enable the widely prevalent caste structure to thrive.
When it comes to caste in India, the cases of brutality and inhumanity meted out to persons of “lower” castes like that of Dalits has been blatantly silenced and brushed aside in several cases.
Violence is often used as a method of retaliation and revenge by the upper castes, the brunt of which is more often than not, borne by women. The upper caste’s mentality remains unaltered with wielding of power and holding Dalits in servitude.
One of the landmark cases regarding sexual exploitation of women is that of Bhanwari Devi. She was a social activist and advocated for prevention of female infanticide, importance of educating daughters and prevention of child marriages. In 1992, she reported a case of child marriage in her village and in return was “punished” by being gang-raped in front of her husband by upper caste Gujjar men of the child’s family. The recourse she opted for through the police was met with insults in relation to her appearance and the “untouchable” nature of her caste and disregarded that a Gujjar man would rape a person belonging to the Dalit community. Despite her rapists walking free, her case prompted the Supreme Court to formulate guidelines on sexual harassment in the workplace now termed as the Vishaka Guidelines against sexual harassment at the workplace.
The failure of the judicial system was highlighted again in 2014 with the kidnapping, gang-raped and murder of two minor girls in Uttar Pradesh. This case highlighted the power of police officials and role of politics in the cover-up of cases against Dalits. With the involvement of police personnel in the case, the family of the accused was forced to seek redressal from central authorities to ensure justice is served. The rapists roam free with the case closed as a suicide despite having solid evidence of it being post-mortem hanging after being raped.
In 2015, two Dalit sisters were “ordered to be raped” and be paraded naked around the village in Bagphat, Uttar Pradesh. Their mistake? Their brother had “dared” to elope with a woman from an upper caste. Such violence originates from the practice of endogamy, where one is permitted to marry only within one’s community and disallows marriage with one of a another (upper-caste) community i.e., exogamy. This practice coupled with objectification of Dalit women subjects them to torture and more often than not, they are at the receiving end of such social “deviation”. The torture inflicted on Dalit women goes to show the wielding of power by dominant castes who perceive these women as oppressed and vulnerable. The multiple cases of sexual violence reported in relation to Dalit women are perpetrated by men of higher castes to reinforce their dominance and existing caste and social differentiations.
According to a report by the Human Rights Watch, sexual violence is often used as a tool by police and persons with political influence to “teach them lessons” and crush dissent.
An upper caste landed organisation by the name Ranbir Sena have been responsible for violating rights of the poor in villages of Bihar. They were responsible for multiple rapes and went on to carry out a massacre in 1997. The wives of Dalit men who went in hiding were arrested and raped in police custody.
As a means of “teaching a lesson” to the men of Dalit families, the women are subjected to brutal sexual assaults and rapes and snatch away their honour to ensure that they do not cross caste boundaries in the future. A pertinent case in this regard is the 2006 Khairlanji massacre where members of the Bhotmange (Dalit) family were assaulted, raped and murdered at the hands of the upper caste Kalar and Kunbi caste. Although the details behind the case are murky, it was reported that this violence was the result of this wealthy Dalit family helping another Dalit person escape from violence being inflicted by the upper caste men. The women of the house were paraded naked, gang-raped and beaten to death with their private parts mutilated. The men were not spared either and were killed when they refused to indulge in sexual assault against their family members. Such cases are a few among the reported with potentially hundreds and thousands going unnoticed as Dalit women are triply oppressed owing to caste, gender and economic standing.
In 2018, a 13-year-old girl lower caste girl was brutally beheaded allegedly by a man belonging to an upper caste. The victim had allegedly rejected advances made by the assailant leading to the horrifying incident. The profound sense of entitlement and dominance over Dalit women is highlighted with such cases where it is unimaginable that a Dalit woman would go against the wishes of an upper-caste man.
The recent Hathras rape case took place on 14th September, 2020 where a 19-year-old Dalit woman was out in the fields cutting grass along with her mother. She was attacked and dragged with her shawl, sexually assaulted and was almost strangulated to death. When she was found by her family, she was bleeding with her eyes bulging and tongue slit. She was taken to the police station by her family but the police dismissed her case saying the family was “doing drama”. She was admitted at a hospital but after fighting a long and painstaking battle succumbed to her injuries two weeks after. It reportedly took over ten days for the police to file an official complaint. All fingers pointed to the fact that the four accused rapists belonged to the upper caste Thakur community and therefore there was hesitation in taking action.
Media reports claiming that the woman’s body was cremated by the Uttar Pradesh police in the dark of the night after locking up the family has only fuelled the anger and shaken the conscience of people. This has only magnified the seriousness of the case as the victim’s dignity could not be safeguarded in life nor in death making this case graver than that of Nirbhaya with the differentiating factor being caste. Media reportage has suggested that the Uttar Pradesh government is in denial of even the existence of the rape and refused to accept the forensic reports. With the revelation of more details emerging, multiple questions have been raised regarding the caste and political influence in the case. With the victim’s body being hurriedly cremated and denial of a second post-mortem of the body, the Police has evidently taken law and order into their own dubious hands. It can also be well assumed that either the police may have received orders from the upper caste men to silence the family or they maybe a political angle favouring the deliberate botch up (or plain negligence) of the investigation in the case. The slitting of the woman’s tongue is indicative of figuratively and literally gagging the voices of Dalit women who have faced the wrath of sexual violence with their muffled screams going unheard.
According to reports of the National Crime Branch Bureau, Dalit women are among the most sexually abused and form over 23% of all cases of rape, molestation and harassment. Further, it reported that almost 10 rapes of Dalit women occur every day in Uttar Pradesh. This only accounts for the cases that have managed to get reported leaving behind possible cases which may have been painted with political colour or families left threatened by upper castes.
Violence by Vilification
Apart from facing sexual violence, Dalit women have been subject to verbal abuse and hurled insults relating to their caste status. According to a three-year study conducted by International Dalit Solidarity Network, among a study conducted on 500 Dalit women, 62.4% women have faced some form of verbal abuse. It included use of derogatory language and caste epithets categorised as hate speech and even included sexual and gender-based insults and threats.
Although the inhuman treatment and assault on Dalit women are concentrated in rural areas of India, it is presented and clothed in a more polished manner in urban areas. It is only recently that women have been given the long overdue importance they deserve in the public domain. Despite the Constitution of India making available provisions for reservation for backward classes, Dalits and women in specific have not been spared from verbal abuses and hate speech regarding their caste. One such case is where two Dalit sisters assaulted activists of Communist Party of India due to being hurled with persistent lewd and casteist statements. The sisters reportedly felt vulnerable for belonging to the Dalit community and had previously filed cases regarding the same but to no avail. They were showered with abuses for standing up for themselves but like every other story of oppression, they were assaulted and their property vandalised.
Failure of Justice System
One of the leading causes of increase in violence against Dalit women is the under reporting of cases. This issue stems from the failure in reportage of rape cases and widespread cover-ups owing to political or societal pressure on part of the family. The victim in most cases is shamed and warned against reporting rape cases due to the social stigma attached to it. Moreover, Dalit women belonging to a lower caste are further looked down upon. With police refusing to file First Information Reports, to the harassment faced by the victims by the police, the obstacles that Dalit women have to cross to get a case reported is daunting. The process of filing of the case along with threats hurled at the victim and their family for “daring” to file a complaint usually against a person from a higher caste is almost always met with violence which acts as a deterrent to go forward with the case. Police personnel involve in discouraging the victim from filing cases as majority of the rape and sexual violence acts are committed by persons from upper castes who use Dalit women to reinforce their sense of entitlement.
The abysmally low conviction rates of persons perpetrating violence against Dalit women is a glaring reflection of caste-based discrimination in public law enforcement agencies as well as the judicial system. Along with this, there have been an increasing number of acquittals in cases relating to violence against Dalit women. With such astoundingly low rate of convictions, a message is sent out to upper castes that they still hold the power to silence the voices of the abused, validating and encouraging crimes against Dalit women.
The dismissal of the Bhanwari Devi case highlighted the misogynistic and highly casteist thinking of the judiciary, a body which is supposed to safeguard the rights of any vulnerable party. Even the courts at the time supported the argument that it would have been impossible for a man of an upper-caste would even touch a woman of a lower caste therefore nullifying the seriousness of the case thus highlighting the failure of the Judiciary. Police personnel in many cases refuse to file cases under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (PoA) further enabling crimes. Due to the lack of implementation of PoA, Dalit women have been at the receiving end of the failure of the judicial system.
As the Hathras rape case unfolds, it shows the ugly side of the caste-based discrimination faced by Dalit women on the regular. It cannot be denied that there may exist an unholy nexus between the upper caste men, police personnel and political actors facilitating the silencing of voices of the oppressed Dalit community. When cases of involvement of the police arise in violation of rights of Dalit women, there would be an imminent doubt in the minds of many if they are indeed the supposed “torchbearers of justice” in our country. Until the laws in place for the protection of Dalits are upheld and adopted strictly, this nexus will continue to exist, destroying the very social fabric of our nation.
The perversity of caste discrimination is so deep-rooted that the mere touching of hands while making payment in a store leads to Dalit families being brutally beaten up. Dalits are disallowed from owning dogs as there is an eminent “risk” that the male dog owned by Dalits may mate with a female dog of another caste. When such practices are blindly followed by the uneducated masses, it feeds the domineering hierarchical structure giving a sense of entitlement and dispensation to inflict violence on Dalits.
India has made available constitutional safeguards like the SC/ST PoA Act, 1989 however with state machinery failing to implement the Act, it has periodically failed to ensure the safety of Dalit women. The blockade in the delivery of justice originates from the lack of access to the justice system and failure to educate masses in remote regions of the country.
Despite the echoing chants of many permeating through casteist psyche in a bid to disassociate caste from these horrific sexual crimes, the glaring correlation of such crimes with deep-rooted oppression of the Dalit community cannot be ignored. Such targeted crimes cannot be viewed in isolation and must be analysed in consonance with the deeply misogynistic and hierarchical social structure enabling the commission of systemic crime. Dalit women are forced to remain in this barbaric and oppressive structure as any dissent from them implies a direct and violent attack on their very existence.
In order to uplift Dalit women, it becomes crucial to address the structural biases and patriarchal hierarchical nature of the prevalent caste system and strive to implement untouchability to help eliminate targeted sexual violence against the persecuted Dalit women.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aroonima Anup is a fourth-year B.A. LLB. student studying at St. Joseph’s College of Law, Bangalore. She is an ardent legal writer and placed 6th in a national essay writing competition based on the Vizag Gas Tragedy.