While many have been euphoric that our great nation has moved beyond caste, frequent cases of caste violence prove otherwise. Dalits who were made to bear the brunt of untouchability are placed at the lowest rung of the social ladder and are often victims of the worst kind of atrocities. While formal laws banning untouchability and prevention of atrocities have been passed to stop such acts, they continue to be pervasive pointing to deep rooted casteism. After so many decades, India continues to fail Babasaheb Ambedkar so far as the caste question goes.
Keeping in mind the multiple facets of violence that Dalits face on an everyday basis, Dalit women being unequal both by caste and gender are the victims of the worst kind of violence. While women across the board face the constant threat of sexual violence, Khairlanji, Gujarat, Kandhamal, Chattisgarh and recently Kerala works as a painful reminder that a large number of women face such violence on an everyday basis without a recourse to redressal or even acknowledgement of being wronged because they were dalit, minority or adivasi.
There is a process of double marginalization and victimization of women from vulnerable groups. While the conviction rate for rape cases is as low as 26%, a study of rape cases filed by Dalit victims show a conviction rate as low as 2%. The administration fails the victims on a regular basis. When families of Dalit girls who have been abducted approach police, there is a callous attitude on the part of the police administration to not take their complaints seriously. The administration sits back voyeuristically making a spectacle of grief and fear. The public nature of violence inflicted upon these women points out to the blatant fact that not merely crippled by their gender, these women’s vulnerability is accentuated by their group identity which happens to be that of Dalits while perpetrators often act with impunity.
Caste violence is also marked by the use of crude violence and then making a spectacle of it. Rape is never only about sexual violence, rather it points to the unequal power relationship between the rapist and the victim embodied in a patriarchal society. And rapes of Dalit women are first and foremost tools of caste oppression. Dalit women have not only been raped but also mutilated, burned, paraded naked through villages and forced to eat human faeces.
Other simple transgressions have also been met brutally. Dalit bridegroom pelted with stones for riding a horse, the fingers of a Dalit girl chopped for stealing some vegetables point to a deep rooted feudal mentality. Upper castes and those at the middle rung of the social ladder see such transgressions as questioning and subverting the age old caste system and hence challenging the hegemony of higher castes and upsetting the social hierarchy. Making a spectacle of violence is aimed to send a message that Dalits dare not raise their heads.
While caste atrocities and violence have shamefully become commonplace, a close look at three recent and not so recent incidents will bring forth certain difficult questions that our society needs to grapple with. In 2006, in Maharashtra’s Khairlanji, four members of the Bhotmange family were murdered in cold blood. The Bhotmanges opposed the use of their land as a passage for the tractors of the land owning Jat Community. As a result of this assertion by the Bhotmanges who were Dalits, the repression that came was inhumane. While all four members were brutally attacked, the women of the family were raped and paraded naked before being murdered. The sole survivor Bhaiyalal Bhotmange witnessed helplessly his entire family being lynched by the crowd. The entire village jeered at the spectacle while no one tried to stop the massacre. The police, media tried to do a cover up initially but were forced to acknowledge it as a caste violence after constant protests by Dalit activists.
The second incident that I want to mention is the Bhagana Rape Case. In March, 2014 four Dalit girls went to the nearby wheat fields to relieve themselves, they were abducted by men of the Jat Community, sedated and raped. They came to senses 90 miles away from Bhagana. The incident goes back to 2012 when the elected village council was given a plot of land to divide among the community free of cost. But the unelected khap panchayat of Jat elders insisted that the land be divided only among Jats and Dalits should be charged money for giving any land. There was a ploy to deny Dalits access to land. The mounting hostilities between the two communities with regard to land often manifested itself through violence against Dalit women. Harassment in school forced many Dalit students to drop out and the Bhagana rape seems to be an extension of such prevalent attitude which aims at systemic exclusion.
The third gruesome incident is the recent rape of two Dalit girls in the Badaun village of Uttar Pradesh. Two Dalit girls who happen to be cousins went out to relieve themselves. They were abducted, gang raped by five men then killed. In a grissly twist, their bodies were left hanging in a mango tree. While all five rape accused belong to the Yadav Community, two of them happen to be police constables. As a result the police administration tried to take a callous attitude towards registering an FIR.
Another eye raising issue with regard to the Badaun rape case was the circulation of the photographs of this grissly act on social media. While Dalit activists have said that such lapses on the part of Journalists are common when the victim is a Dalit, for many the aim is to awaken a complacent society which is reticient to regular rapes that happen far away from the metros. As a journalist puts it—crimes committed by the poor against the poor seems far too common for the precious resources of national outrage. But can such circulation give a background to caste violence? Also such circulation tend to accentuate the use of Dalit victims’ bodies as a spectacle, the same way the perpetrator aims to.
The latest act in similar line is the rape and murder of a law student in Kerala. The gruesome nature of her murder brings will make anyone shudder. Pulling out a part of one’s intestine, stabbing her body 30 times will make one wonder about what the rapist aimed at. It definitely cannot be mere sexual gratification. Rape of a Dalit woman is always related to her Dalitness as well as her womanhood. The brutalization which accompanies is aimed to show the community their place. While the Kerala law student’s rape was similar to Nirbhaya, the silence in this case is deafening. If such inhuman brutality does not anger us as a community, it points to a tacit acceptance of the fact that Dalit bodies are more available for such torture.
Dalit women are often treated as subhuman and their dehumanization acts as a precursor to rape and other kinds of violence. They are denied human dignity when their bodies become the playground where politics of caste hierarchies are played out. The dalit law student in Kerala was brutalized and killed in the safety of her home. The apathy of her neighbours to this incident is shocking. It shows that Dalit lives matter a little less.
The common thread that runs through all kind of caste atrocities is a deep rooted feudal opposition to any kind of social mobility of Dalits. Those who have been systemically pushed behind margins for ages, tried to take advantage of policies like MGNREGA, tried to get access to education and break out of traditional and feudal bonded labour systems. The backlash from powerful land owning castes has been extremely violent and desperately tried to push them back.
While these incidents point to extremely tragic realities—Dalits not having access to basic amenities like sanitation, drinking water, being forced to live outside the villages, not allowed to own land, the rapes of Dalit women must be acknowledged as caste violence and not only sexual violence because their bruised and mutilated bodies are used as exemplars to carry the threat of not subverting caste hierarchy and embedded power relationship. Not acknowledging it will deny both justice and dignity to the victims. Justice for the dalit law student of Kerala must begin with acknowledging the intersectionality of caste and gender as one kind of oppression cannot be opposed without acknowledging the other.
Parvin Sultana is an Assistant Professor in P B College of Assam. Her research interest includes Muslims in Assam, development and northeast, gender etc. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published on: May 10, 2016 @ 04:53