Trigger warning: Mentions of gang rape, caste-based atrocities
It’s been a year since the Hathras case, and clearly, life moves on. Celebrity kids are arrested on cruises, reality television thrives, cryptocurrency blooms, social media outages happen and pollution levels skyrocket.
A year ago, in the Chandra region of the Hathras district, in western Uttar Pradesh, a 19-year-old Dalit girl was gang-raped and murdered by four upper-caste men. Now, her brother testifies at Court and is cross-examined for five hours, guarded by the CRPF while buying groceries for the family, logging his entry and exit into a meticulous register and passing metal detectors and CCTV cameras in his own home. Their family lawyer receives regular death threats.
The defence claims that this is not about caste and that there was no rape.
It was an affair that went awry and is a case of honour-killing. With one simple yet diabolical strategy, a minority woman is ‘otherised’ and a rape victim is ‘disappeared’. Never mind that while Dalit women make up 16% of Indian’s female population, 10 Dalit women are raped every day. (NCB Report 2020)
Divya Srinivasan, a women’s rights lawyer based in Delhi and the South Asia consultant for Equality Now, was behind the campaign in July that raised awareness about Dalit women’s rights online. She tells me how rape is often weaponised as a tool of caste oppression.
“In a lot of caste-based gender violence cases, we see gang rapes or gang rapes with murder where members of the dominant caste act in concert to brutalise the victim. These offenders, they commit the crime with total impunity,” she says.
Why, I ask. Why do these men think they can get away with it?
“Because they can,” she says. “The police will refuse to register the FIR; they won’t investigate the crime; if they do, they won’t see it as a caste-based issue or as clear-cut violence against women; they’ll decline from taking any action against the criminals. Even if the police actually does their job, victims are coerced into taking back complaints and the case is declared false. You have to understand the pressure these families are under to stay silent.”
What about the cases that do make it to Court?
“Well, the conviction rate is barely 32%. Justice is very rare for Dalit women. We’re talking about exceptional cases when there is a lot of media attention and public outcry. Then maybe the Court might take it seriously and actually deliver a guilty verdict.”
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I’m struggling to comprehend the epic failure of the system to protect Dalit women and I ask Divya why this system persists.
“It’s caste-hierarchy,” she explains. “It’s all about caste-based politics and power. Then there are basic barriers to accessing justice for the victims, from reporting the crime to the police, to undergoing examination by the medical officer, to getting a good lawyer- I mean we already have an SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. What is absolutely appalling is that none of these cases is actually registered under the Act.”
That seems strange.
If we have a law that was created specifically to address caste-based crimes, why are we not using it?
“Because that would mean talking about caste. People don’t want to talk about caste because then they would have to admit that they’re part of the problem. The truth is that casteism is endemic in India and it will not be abolished until we start a conversation about it,” she explains.
That conversation must clearly centre around giving Dalit women a safe space to collectively raise their voices. Divya agrees with me. “Representation of Dalit women is key to bringing forward their issues, protecting their rights and guaranteeing their safety against sexual violence,” she says.
— Youth Ki Awaaz (@YouthKiAwaaz) September 30, 2020
In July this year, right around the time that Equality Now was campaigning for Dalit women’s rights, I had the opportunity to read a report that they had published along with the Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network (DHRDN) and National Council For Women Leaders (NCWL).
The report is an eye-opener, especially for upper-class, privileged and educated women such as myself who call themselves intersectional feminists yet remain woefully ignorant about the existential struggle of marginalised, economically backward and impoverished women.
The report is a searing indictment on the current status of Dalit women in society. It makes key recommendations to the central and state governments to end caste-based sexual violence against women while laying out a plan for the conceptualisation, implementation and execution of a policy framework that will empower Dalit women. There has been no official response from the government.
I had the honour of talking to one of the writers of the report, Manjula Pradeep, a Dalit rights activist who has been doing advocacy work since the 90s and is the national convenor of the National Council of Women Leaders (NCWL). When I ask her how she became a Dalit rights activist, she tells me when one is born into a community that is discriminated against due to its social identity, one has a way of becoming a champion for its rights.
“I grew up with an acute awareness of the discrimination, oppression and violence. As a young activist when I went out into the field, I saw how Dalit women had zero visibility and the most important goal was getting them representation.
I saw cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, the lack of access to basic amenities, the exclusionary and isolationist customs and rituals.
Back in 1997, I did my first protest for the agricultural labourers in a small town in Padra, Gujarat. We helped them form a union, we informed them about their rights and we took out a rally. We were able to achieve minimum wages for agricultural labourers in 60 villages,” she says.
I am keen to analyse the report from a layman’s point of view so I ask her what is the essence of the report. She takes a deep breath and says, “We are trying to bring the issue of sexual violence against Dalit women and girls to the fore. That was the intent behind it. The recommendations list out ways to recognise Dalit women as human beings and how we can protect Dalit girls and women. There isn’t enough research done on this so there is no real data available for us.
The report urges the government to see Dalit women as a separate social group that has very distinct rights. We want them to be able to reach out to the police, to lawyers, to women’s rights commissions and to human rights commissions. We want women prosecutors to be appointed and women police officers to conduct the criminal investigation. We want one-stop rape crisis centres to function effectively.
We want atrocity-prone areas to be mapped out and special courts and fast-track courts to be set up as per the Prevention of Atrocities Act. More importantly, we are trying to provide immediate relief and rehabilitation for survivors, for example, trauma counselling.”
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I’m naïve enough to think that the government will respond to the report and I ask Manjula why it hasn’t already done so. Surely when the civil society has outlined a plan of action in minute detail, the government should have no problem whatsoever in being proactive and following through.
With practised patience, she disabuses me of this notion. “The government has never cared about Dalit women’s rights. If they’ve ever taken notice, it is because one case is highlighted and followed up diligently. Our criminal justice system is primarily patriarchal and casteist. When you look at the people at the top, in key decision-making roles, they are all men from the dominant caste so they’re basically part of the problem,” she explains.
At the UN, Manjula has been actively working for inclusion of caste within the UN agenda similar to racism. But from past experience, she tells me that when caste is raised as an issue at the international level, there is always vicious backlash at the national level.
On a more positive note, Manjula declares that she is optimistic that local activists, advocates and change-makers will continue to agitate on behalf of Dalit women, at the grassroots level, national level and the global level, whether the government is willing to accept it or not.
“In our High Courts, only 10% of all judges are women. At the Supreme Court, the number goes down to 4 out of 33. Do you know how many judges are Dalit women? Three. Representation of minority groups, marginalised women and especially Dalit women has to be our priority right now.”
There is a ray of hope.
More women journalists are bravely leading the charge on covering violence against Dalit women, going out into the field, reporting from the scene of the crime, interviewing victims’ families, putting the spotlight on the prosecution while giving the third-degree to the defence, calling out political rhetoric and highlighting the bias, prejudice and hate that runs rampant in our communities.
Nidhi Suresh from Newslaundry, for example, continues to report on the Hathras case, with frequent updates and poignant pieces that bring ground reality into stark relief for a public that is easily diverted and a mainstream media that is happy to divert it.
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If you want to celebrate the UN’s 16 days of activism this year, you could wear orange and tweet a picture of yourself with the hashtag #EndGBV. Or you could consider how we Indians like to romanticise casteism: a picture of a rural woman in Rajasthan recently went viral on Twitter.
The woman was dressed in the traditional ghagra-choli, her wrists adorned with white bangles, carrying on her head what seemed like dozens of earthen pots stacked one on top of another, slowly making her way across the desert while the shadow of a camel fell across the sand. Beautiful, no?
“Padharo Mhare Desh,” the tweet said. Come to my country. “Adbhut India. Hamari Sabhyata!,” someone said. Unique India. This is our Indian culture!
Then a young man retweeted the tweet with a polemic on the lines of: “I grew up in a Dalit community in Rajasthan. The villagers wouldn’t let us drink from the local well so my mother had to walk hundreds of miles every day to collect water. I saw her carrying water like this woman a million times. Please. This is not culture. This is poverty.”