(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
ATROCITIES AGAINST DALITS often don’t make headlines unless they are extremely brutal as the one that was reported of the 19-year-old girl from Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, who was treated first at a hospital in Aligarh and then in Delhi where she died from her injuries 14 days after her gangrape by a group of upper-caste youth. While the class and caste bias of the country’s English-speaking newsrooms is notorious in reporting such incidents, there is unanimity among all sections of people that Dalits bear the brunt of feudal crimes and amongst them, Dalit women, compared with other women and even men of their social category, find themselves economically, socially and culturally far more vulnerable. Literature holds the mirror to atrocities committed on Dalit women who were invariably mute spectators to the oppression and brutalities unleashed on them. On the contrary, they were depicted as women forever ready and blessed to bear a child from their upper-caste perpetrators. This falsehood stretches far back to our epics.
Centuries later, the silence of violated Dalit women persists because of the same reason it did in the ancient past: due to the impunity of their aggressors or the system where women, even preteens, are considered fair game for sexual and physical harassment of all kind. Modern laws are in place to combat this scourge, but, as academics Jayshree Singh and Gargi Vashistha note in a 2018 paper: ‘The collective forces and the effect of feudalism, casteism, and patriarchy have made their [Dalit women’s] lives a living hell. An overwhelming majority of them live under the most precarious conditions…. They are still living in the dark age of savagery. Caste has played an instrumental role in raising issues related to the more marginalized among women. In a highly hierarchical society, women belonging to the lower castes have lesser access to public attention, which is compounded by their gender.’
Although any concrete data on caste-related sexual violence is not available in India, the latest reported figures are along expected lines: Crime against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Dalits) saw an increase of over 7 per cent and 26 per cent respectively, in the year 2019 compared to 2018, according to the 2019 annual report by the National Crime Records Bureau. It adds that with 11,829 cases, Uttar Pradesh recorded the highest number of crimes against SCs.
The young lady from the Valmiki caste from Hathras who died on September 28th wasn’t even given a decent cremation that her family would have wanted. According to several interviews with her parents, police locked up the family members in their house and burnt her body against the family’s will in a post-midnight funeral in a field in the presence of officials. Police have justified the act, saying it was an administrative priority to contain any untoward incident. The family and several Dalit scholars that Open spoke to claim it is tough to buy that argument because attacks against Dalit women follow a pattern—the age-old notion that their body is not theirs and that they belong to those among the upper castes who want to enjoy them—and therefore, what was done to the her dead body follows codes of entrenched Brahminical patriarchy.
BR Ambedkar, the father of the Indian Constitution, understood the need to measure the progress of a society by the progress its women achieved. He has been critical of Manu’s low assessment of women, Ram’s own treatment of his wife and even Buddha’s views on women. He also spoke about women’s equal rights in opting for a marriage and livelihood. For a man influenced by the civil liberties movements in the West and yet mindful of the bestial nature of caste-related sexual harassment of Dalit women, he worked towards legal recognition of women as equal citizens with a right to divorce and inheritance. The forces that were against his efforts back then, through the Hindu Code Bill that he introduced in Parliament, had equated his endeavour to the draconian Rowlatt Act.
Ambedkar knew only too well how the feudal Indian male used the flawed reasoning of women being ‘impure’ in order to subjugate them, control their right over their own bodies, and to strip them of individual freedom and agency. This propaganda allowed males to justify their crimes on the female of the species.
As mentioned earlier, this deeply entrenched patriarchy and casteist supremacy that dominate today is as old as the scriptures. Historian Nayanjot Lahiri dwells on what PV Kane had penned in his History of Dharmasastra, drawing attention to Chapter 25 of the book in which talks about punishment of ‘adultery and unlawful intercourse’ in ancient India. Punishment for the rape of a woman from the same caste is confiscation of the perpetrator’s property; besides, his sexual organs would be chopped off. If the victim is from an upper caste, the rapist would be executed. But if the woman is from a lower caste, the rapist will be given ‘half of the punishment’, but nothing is clearly spelled out, suggesting that the punishment would be flexible. All this goes on to prove how punishments for rape varied from caste to caste in those ‘glorious’ days of India.
The Indian Penal Code has put in place just laws, and an assault on Dalits attracts stringent action, but enforcement of these laws is far from satisfactory, as testified by the rapes of Dalit women, and the insensitivity with which upper-caste men continue in their old ways. While it is true that women of all castes end up being victims of toxic masculinity that is prevalent all over the world, in India, though, the worst victims are the Dalits because of their marginalised existence
The Indian Penal Code has put in place just laws, and an assault on Dalits attracts stringent action, but enforcement of these new laws is far from satisfactory, as testified by the rapes of Dalit women, and the insensitivity with which upper-caste men continue in their old ways. While it is true that women of all castes end up being victims of toxic masculinity that is prevalent all over the world, in India, though, the worst victims are the Dalits because of their marginalised existence. Besides, as Sharmila Rege, scholar and sociologist, points out, the Dalit movement itself has become ‘masculinised’ while people championing women’s rights view women as a homogenous group. This trend, academics note, has led to both movements refusing to address caste and gender intersectionality in general, notwithstanding stark evidence.
Syed Gulrez Hoda, former IAS officer who has set up two high schools in Bihar’s West Champaran district to address the menace of girl children dropping out when they enter high school, tells Open: “There is a very strong sense of caste superiority in Indian villages, especially in states like Bihar and UP. Caste is the big elephant in the room. Democracy has given the lower castes rights, but that has made old power elites angry. There is reaction to upper-class hegemony and there is also counter-reaction from the savarnas,” he avers, emphasising that the reason why girl children drop out of high schools is that they are located far from their homes and they fear being raped on the way and back. “Which is why we [Hikmat Foundation] have started high schools for them closer home,” adds Hoda. He agrees with most sociologists and economists who say that the upper castes resent the equalising tendencies of democracy and that is the root of all these problems. He talks about the concept of varchasva (referring to power and social domination) among the elites of yore.
Like old habits, that sense of superiority refuses to go away. Denied or delayed justice makes matters worse.