By Karthik Shankar:
22 months before Nirbhaya jolted our collective consciousness, the tragic tale of Soumya who was raped and murdered, and thrown from a moving train, galvanised Kerala. The reaction was swift. The trial was completed in four and a half months and her killer was awarded the death penalty.
Five years later, the brutal rape and murder of Jisha, a young Dalit law student has provoked strong reactions, even in a state and country where sexual violence is widespread. Some of this no doubt has to do with the grisly acts against Jisha which were piled on to the violent crime of rape.
I don’t intend to delve into the senseless manner of Jisha’s death, which every media outlet has recounted in a game of gory one-upmanship. What I want to question is this mystifying line of thought I’ve seen through in numerous comments on news websites. Why does it matter that Jisha was Dalit?
Some of this is cloaked in faux concern by people who think we live in a post-caste society. It’s a story about every woman in India! Other times, their virulent bigotry comes out. What if she was murdered by a Dalit man? It’s time to make this clear. Jisha’s caste is absolutely imperative to her life and death. No one would argue that Jisha’s gender has nothing to do with her rape.
In the same way that understanding the definitive role that oppressive social structures such as patriarchy play in the continued subjugation of women, sexual violence in India cannot be analysed without the prism of caste.
It’s the most marginalised women in our society who face the brunt of sexual violence. Here caste is crucial. Women who are uneducated, from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, who don’t have access to toilets are likely to be from lower castes. Rape is an expression of violence and the men who exercise the same power relations of caste are likely to view lower caste women as sub human. Their dehumanisation is already a precursor to their rape.
Jisha’s life is emblematic of the way caste has shaped our trajectories. Her mother is a daily wage labourer. They occupied a tiny house in a place called Canal Purampokku (the second word literally means wasteland). Financial constraints came in the way of her education, which is why at the age of thirty she still wasn’t finished with her law degree. Earlier threats of murder by a neighbour were not even investigated by the police.
Jisha’s narrative is at odds with the progressive manner in which Kerala is painted. This is a state that even after two decades hasn’t convicted all 31 of the accused in the rape of a 16-year-old girl and had political leaders casting aspersions on her morality. Caste is an even knottier issue in Kerala, which often hides in plain sight. Maybe it’s time to stop ascribing progress for women simply based on parameters like high literacy and sex ratios.
Protests have already started across Kerala and it’s a welcome change to the indolence that normally surrounds rape cases surrounding lower caste women. It’s worth pointing out that some of this outpouring of tragedy might be because Jisha didn’t violate any of the norms we use to routinely deny women justice. She didn’t venture out of her house, meet any male friends or take rides on a bike with a man. In fact, it shatters the conservative myth of women ‘enjoying’ security within the confines of their homes.
Let’s recognise that intersectionality of Jisha being yet another woman in our misogynistic country whose control over her body and life was wrested from her and the latest victim of our country’s deeply entrenched caste system. We can’t fight one form of oppression without recognising the other.