- Sanya Sethi
The Caste Conundrum: Dalit Women
Tracing back its existence to almost 3000 years, the caste system is the oldest continuous form of social stratification, which denies equal access to economic, cultural and social resources to those located at the bottom of this hierarchical ladder. But, we need to look at how one’s social position becomes a reason for economic oppression. The lines of caste and class are blurry and often converge, which means that those who belong to the lower caste would most times also belong to the lower class. Thus, the caste system is also a form of economic order. The inequality in the landholding patterns strongly correlates in the prevailing social structure; here, landlessness reinforces the social hierarchy. It has been structured in such a way that it prevents someone from a particular caste to own land or even access what constitutes the idea of basics, like access to water, healthcare and education.
Thus, in a society where land becomes a resource that defines one’s social status, there is a nexus between the landowning and caste system. Landowning patterns and being a high caste member are interlinked, thus this becomes an exclusive activity wherein only those who belong to the upper caste can engage. Lack of access to land makes lower castes and Dalits more economically vulnerable. The upper castes exploit this dependency and further increase the lower caste’s dependence on the upper caste and promote the principle of sanction they need to derive to live a fuller life. Violence is often the way out for dominant castes when they disagree with new codes and the sociality of incipient equality. Dalit people are raped and murdered for daring to aspire to land, electricity, drinking water and choosing their partner. When Dalit people organise themselves or try to assert and reclaim their access to resources, it usually results in retaliation in gory violence, looting, public humiliation and in the most extreme form, rape.
The caste system’s innate principle is the purity and pollution it attaches to various castes, but that does not have a role to play when upper-caste men rape women from the lower caste. Women within the lower caste are at the margins of even those who are marginalised. Women here are seen as agencies to control and properties to be appropriated and often are raped as a form of retaliation. Caste violence in India is one of the most long-standing instances of the routinisation of violence. Women from the lower caste and even scheduled tribes are raped as part of an effort by upper-caste leaders to suppress movements that people of lower caste organise to demand minimum wages, settle sharecropping disputes, or reclaim lost land. The organised dissent is often met by upper-caste men, landlords, and dominant caste members attacking these women. For Dalit women, physical and sexual violence cannot be separated from their caste identity. These women serve as vulnerable targets because they are largely unprotected by the state machinery and have no place to report their dissent. This, however, sends a clear message down the status quo, that actions will have consequences, and anyone trying to disturb the social status would be met with the same.
But what becomes a problem here is how these women, who are tortured as a part of their everyday routine, sometimes verbally, sometimes physically, and most times implicitly in the form of general social boycott, tend seldom to report these cases of atrocities against them. This is mainly due to the fear of punishment and further social ostracism one might face if they report these cases. What is also interesting to note here is the social demography the people in the administrative and political positions of power also enjoy. Apathy takes its worst form when local police officials routinely refuse to register cases against upper-caste Hindus. Due to their caste positions or the undue influence that the landlords and upper-caste politicians enjoy, the police not only allows upper caste to act with impunity with lower caste people but also as agents for suppressing the Dalit people who then resort to means like detaining Dalits who organised in protests against discrimination and violence and often punishe them under the garb of their suspected affiliation with militant groups. The infamous cases of Soni Sori and Bhanwari Devi are classic examples of this mindset. Soni Sori was a young tribal teacher who was arrested on charges of being a courier between Maoists and the Essar group. As she was arrested, she was subjected to brutal rape by upper-caste police officers in custody, which became more aggressive after she refused to accept the charges levied against her. Tactics to not register FIRs, lacklustre investigation process, and delays in the legal proceedings are often the processes one is met with when they try to report atrocities against them. The rise in atrocities on Dalits reflects the failure of the state in discharging its constitutional, social and moral responsibility. The intertwined nature of caste hierarchy with power dynamics of politics and administration reflects the layers of deep-rooted nexus that exists within the justice system, translating into solidarity at various levels of governance institutions, making it difficult for the victims to come out and report similar instances in an environment which is hostile even to acknowledge their trauma, putting them in precarious conditions. The justice system’s reaction to such crimes that stemmed out of pure hate and used as a tool to reiterate the social structure dynamics and keep everything favourable to the privileged groups, in turn, normalises violence against these groups and puts victims in a further vulnerable and precarious condition. The inaction on the part of the state apparatus gives the oppressor sanctions to oppress further since their actions will not have any consequence. Thus, even the number of reported cases is not even a fraction of the original number of atrocities committed against the Dalits.
When we talk about casteism and caste-based violence, urban and metropolitan cities are the last setting that comes to our minds. After all, cities are believed to be melting pots of identities, which act as a place for dissolving and obliterating all caste-based identities. When we talk about caste in urban areas, it seems to be a diminishing concept and projects a rosy picture of a society where everything is based on one’s talent, and meritocracy is the foundation of such a place, with caste having no bearing in the same. Urban societies tend to epitomise anonymity and reject the fact that caste can exist in their paradigm. The data by NCRB, however, projects a different picture of such cities otherwise. For instance, the ‘Silicon Valley of India’, Hyderabad and Bengaluru reported 139 and 207 caste-based violence incidents in 2016, respectively. These numerals are actually just the tip of the iceberg, which highlights the severity of the situation more than it conceals, especially when we consider the fact that these are the number of cases reported. Law enforcement and police establishments pose insurmountable structural challenges in front of the marginalised and those who lack the social capital to have social connections. Thus, the mythicised notion of urban cities being an arena where one can denounce their caste and live a life with equal access to all social institutions without any structural barriers is broken when one looks at the data and the statistics which reek of caste discrimination. If not as explicit, caste discrimination takes the form of residential segregation in the form of different neighbourhoods; discrimination at workplaces and educational disparities that exist are enough testimonies to prove the same. Manual scavenging, a disgusting and abominable practice, is still widespread across cities and states; a job that is dominated by those who are the lower rung of the caste system highlight the daily forms of stigmatisation of one’s caste identity subjects them through.
We start off with an instance that recently happened in Hathras, to illustrate how the state and administrative machinery acts in such cases. The victim was a woman from a lower caste and class background. On September 14, 2020, four upper-caste men raped and assaulted a 19-year-old Dalit girl from Hathras when she went to get fodder for her animals with her mother. She was allegedly gang-raped and tortured, her tongue cut and her spine broken. However, these men who belonged to the Thakur caste reportedly knew her and were involved in a 20-year-old feud with the family to which the girl belonged. She died in Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital on September 29. Her body was then hastily cremated by the police officials in Uttar Pradesh without the family’s consent. The family was practically detained and isolated from accessing any legal aid, media, civil society while their daughter was being cremated without their consent. What we should look at here is, Hathras is a Lok Sabha constituency, it is a town in Uttar Pradesh just a few hundred kilometres from the capital, Delhi, not some area located in a far off area. It is a district quarter with a considerable police force and an active DM, but you still see the police supporting and identifying with the upper caste narrative. The cremation was nothing but lacking moral and ethical grounding, and could not have been possible without the support of the administrative service, since arranging for a burial ground at such short notice and the police force coming together is not really possible independently. But if looked at from a legal perspective, there are more than enough rights of the victim and the victim’s family that have been violated here. Article 19(A) is the right to free speech and expression, Article 21 is the right to life and liberty and Article 15 guarantees equality on the basis of caste, class etc. The other fact that needs to be highlighted is how police act as chief obstacle makers in the fair and impartial investigation of such horrific events. What cannot be ignored is how the state machinery is an essential component in dispensing justice and what this investigation really highlights is how only upper caste people can access justice.
However, the Hathras case is not the first such case wherein brutal crimes against Dalit women in Uttar Pradesh are being reported, just the one media thought could be sensationalised enough for a couple of days. Such cases have been existent since time immemorial, with an intricate pattern of subjugation attached to them. On December 1, 1997, in Laxmanpur village, in Jehanabad district of Bihar, the Ranavir Sena, a militia of dominant caste landlords, shot dead 61 Dalits and raped and mutilated five teenage girls before shooting them in the chest. In December 2019, a 23-year-old Dalit woman was killed in Unnao after being set ablaze by a gang of upper-caste men while she was on her way to court for a rape trial. In December 2006, Dalit couple Tajaram and Bhawari Devi were the only Dalit couple in the village of Bhaiayana, Pokharan, Rajasthan, who owned land. In December 2006, dominant caste persons entered their home, sexually assaulted and injured Bhawari Devi and ransacked their home. All these instances have in common is how rape against Dalit women is seen as a tool or weapon to assert one’s power over another and ensure that social control is maintained within the social dynamics. Upper caste men raping lower caste is a sign of what would happen if the subjugated dissent and mobilise. Atrocities are often a tool in caste conflicts, and for a Dalit woman, it is the horrible facet of one crime embroiled in another.
The most important factor here remains the reporting of such crimes. Most instances of anti-Dalit violence, even if reported, do not make it to the headlines. Another case that comes to light is the case at Unnao, wherein two people, including a minor, allegedly murdered two girls and put the third girl in a critical condition. The accused, Vinay Kumar wanted to rape one of the girls who was Dalit, since she rejected physical intimatimacy with him before. Thus, this rejection became valid grounds for him to avenge his insult and he ended up being slapped with a murder charge, only because rape was being used as a means to control and only made it to the headlines because this was accidentally turned into a murder. However, the system backs perpetrators in such ways that it becomes impossible for victims to access justice and often make it more hostile and difficult than it already is, which is seen in the form of no FIRs being registered, and if they get registered, perpetrators are usually set free. The news related to anti-Dalit sentiments and crimes hardly makes it to mainstream news since it lacks enough spice or sensationalisation. Such events are usually considered banal within mainstream media culture, hardly worthy of even being called news. Such forms of violence are only exclusively highlighted in the mainstream media when the victim dies a tragic death. Followed by panel discussions over the same are followed on TV news channels, the government is attacked with questions to answer, with media houses sensationalising and capitalising on the victim’s family’s trauma. But why is this not addressed on a daily basis? 4 Dalit women get raped in India every day. Why do we think that the normalisation of this is okay? Why do we still ignore the caste-angle that exists in this situation? Caste in this situation becomes important when rape is used as a tool against those who are oppressed as a punitive measure. It is a horrifying combination of two ascribed identities, caste identity and gender, which overlap and strengthen the already entrenched inequalities that exist within the structure. Do these forms of violence go unchecked because of the structure’s ignorance and privilege to upper caste perpetrators or the government’s lukewarm reaction and civil society? In a society where upper caste people are constantly trying to do away with caste as a concept and how it does not exist anymore, sexual and physical abuse against lower caste women highlights and further reiterates a parallel social reality.
By Sanya Sethi
The featured image is borrowed from FII’s website.