Let’s Not Forget: Violence Against A Dalit Woman Is As Much About Her Caste As Gender

Posted on September 6, 2015 in Society, Staff Picks

By Kanika Sori

Recently, The Logical Indian featured a story on its Facebook page titled “Dalit Woman Stripped Naked And Force Fed With Urine In Madhya Pradesh“. It reported that a 45-year old Dalit woman in Mudwara village was allotted a “patta” of a land that was previously owned by a certain Vijay Yadav. He was angered at this perceived injustice and started harassing her. The victim alleged that on 24th of August Yadav let his cattle into her field with an intent to cause damage to her crops. When she went to his home to complain to his wife, the wife beat her up with lathis. A little later Vijay Yadav joined his wife to strip the Dalit woman naked and forcefully urinated in her mouth. The victim was then threatened with worse consequences if she dared to go to the police. Nevertheless, she went ahead and lodged an FIR against the upper caste couple under IPC section 394, 323, 506 and 34 and relevant sections of SC/ST Act.

For representation only. Image source: Wikimedia commons

Expectedly, there was public condemnation against the atrocity. But there was a large section among them that viewed it as a simple crime against women; they refused to see the role of caste at all in the episode. One such comment went like this:

Dalit or Not, the crime against every women should be stopped.

Another one which is the most ‘liked’ comment (590 approvers to be exact) on the post read:

Casteism ?? Dont u think We are doing the same The headline shld be ,” A women striped to naked “” instead of dalit woman.. U people give rise to hate…” (sic)

It is clear that a major section of society doesn’t only deny the hideous designs of caste system, but they will also turn caste-blind when confronted with such reports, even though the charges filed clearly include sections from SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. For them, it is the same as any sexual assault case, and that is the only way they will accept it, condemn it. They say there is no casteism inherent here and the victim’s identity is inconsequential- she could be a Brahmin, Kshatriya or Vaishya.

Except she could not.

Some crimes such as this one, like some jobs, have enjoyed a 100% percent uncodified reservation for Dalits since millennia. These reservations are never really challenged since they do not directly affect the upper caste groups who have the loudest voices and who usually shape our public discourse. Worse, it is denied that caste has anything to do with it at all. Only, when a share of their inherited privileges like education, jobs and wealth go to few Dalits by State policy action that caste system suddenly gets visibility and condemnation. Naturally, this attitude is widespread amongst the state administration including the judiciary and the police, since the people from this same population group occupy most of these posts and exhibit the same ideology in their official actions. It is, thus, not difficult to understand why caste atrocities are hard to officially report to police and to get justice for the victims even harder.

It is utterly foolish and potentially malicious to see this piece of news as a feminist issue. There are various axes of oppression that operate in a society apart from gender. This includes race, caste, creed, religion, class amongst others. Which of these are more prominent in a particular society depends on the historical cultural practices, value systems, beliefs, social hierarchies and economic organization of the place. So while gender operates consistently in all cultures across the world, caste is more functional in Indian society than any other. Like, race is relatively more operational in the Western societies. It is important to understand that while the subservient groups of any axis are generally oppressed, the oppression multiplies when somebody falls in the subservient group along more than one axis. So, while crimes against women are very real problems, it gets worse when you’re both a woman and a Dalit. And its worst form is played out when you’re a woman, you’re a Dalit and you’re also economically poor. This explains why the people of Madhya Pradesh reportedly said such brutal crimes are commonplace in the village. In fact it was only highlighted this time.

It is ironic if feminists, who are actively fighting their oppression take the position of an oppressor towards a Dalit. If their fight against gender discrimination takes up the anti-Dalit position only because their position in the caste system is convenient, they are reinforcing caste and patriarchy. After all, their own caste and class privileges are the outcomes of the same patriarchal social structures since there is no clear demarcation between caste and patriarchy. Ambedkar and Phule have critically explored the relationship between gender and caste wherein it has been established that the control of upper caste women is intricately linked to the ideology of caste purity. So, while veiled upper caste women were private properties of their upper caste husbands, fathers and brothers; the lower caste women were a public property to serve them all by not being allowed to cover their upper bodies. This has been established by various researchers by now. Therefore, if feminists have not rejected caste and its oppression, they have not rejected patriarchy. By not fighting patriarchy holistically, some feminists are making a choice of convenience which is incomplete and unjust to other oppressed social groups.