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A 19-year-old Dalit woman who had gone missing on December 31, was found hanging from a tree in Modasa, Gujarat on Sunday, January 5.
The victim’s family has accused four men of gang-rape and murder.
After the incident, thousands of Dalits, in protest against the crime, gathered at the Modasa Rural police station demanding arrests of the culprits and removal of the police officer on duty.
Media houses are often questioned for mentioning the caste of the victim/survivor and perpetrators involved in such crimes. What we essentially need to understand is that upper-caste members dominating members from lower-castes is a deeply ingrained issue in Indian society. The ancient male dominant society is still influential almost everywhere in the country, so these crimes almost always have a caste angle to them.
A caste society is inherently violent in nature, and when it comes to Dalit women, the violence perpetrated on them is the most brutal.
In most mainstream discourses, the systemic and unrelenting violence on Dalit women is hardly ever highlighted. The intersectionality of gender, class and caste often remains unseen.
Every time a Dalit woman or a woman from any so-called lower-caste is subjected to sexual violence, it becomes clear that the prevailing structure of caste and the status of women in society are largely responsible for the violation of their human rights.
As much as one may slam media houses for mentioning the caste factor in rape and murder cases, there is no doubt that it plays a major role in violence against these women.
For Dalit women, violence is almost always associated with their caste positions, and also depends on how they behave within the system. For example, their resistance to or dissent towards the caste structure often triggers the violence.
The gang-rape and murder of two teenage girls were reported in the Katra village of Budaun district, Uttar Pradesh on May 27, 2014. The two girls, cousins, from the Dalit Maurya community, were kidnapped, gang-raped and hanged from a tree in Katra Sadatganj.
The girls’ fault? They had asked their upper-caste employer to increase their salary by a mere sum of Rs 3. The upper-caste man was unable to stomach the audacity of these girls to demand something from him.
This violence is not just meant to control women, but also to carefully maintain the caste structure.
Dalit women, when compared to other women, most of the time, find themselves in economically, socially and culturally vulnerable locations, which basically works to aggravate the sense of impunity with which perpetrators inflict violence on them.
Since ancient times, violence against Dalits, especially Dalit women, has been prevalent in society, and the echo of their pains and struggles can be heard even today.
In April 2018, a Dalit girl walked into the superintendent of police’s office in the Satna district in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, carrying a six-month-old fetus wrapped in a plastic bag. She accused three upper-caste men of sexually assaulting her for several months.
A similar incident came to the fore in Chhattisgarh when a priest allegedly lured a 22-year-old woman and raped her.
The list is never-ending, and according to observers, rape is nothing but a tool used by upper-caste people to dominate lower-caste women, to keep them ‘under control’.
According to Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research, although these incidents take place on a daily, sickening basis, there is no substantial caste-based data on sexual violence in India.
Despite the absence of data, however, it is clearly there for us to see.
In a horrific incident in February 2016 in Haryana, there was an agitation by the Jat community, which is a relatively well-off upper-caste agricultural community, regarding reservations of government jobs. During this period of unrest, some attackers dragged out nine Dalit women from their houses and brutally gang-raped them.
Such incidents of sexual violence, however, are not restricted to rural areas and villages. Hyderabad’s crime records bureau in April 2018 revealed that over the past three years, members of upper castes have raped as many as 37 Dalit and tribal women in the city.
Rape, therefore, is often used as a weapon during situations of caste or class conflict.
According to sociologist Sanjay Srivastava, besides being an exercise of power by upper-caste members, sexual violence is also a method used by upper-caste men to show lower-caste men that they were unable to “protect” their women – they use rape as a tool to stage a “contest” among men.
Dalit women make up the majority of landless labourers and scavengers in India. In rural areas, a number of them are forced into prostitution or sold into urban brothels.
The subordinate position of Dalit women, positioned at the bottom of India’s caste, class, and gender hierarchies and almost always uneducated and paid much less than their male counterparts, is often exploited by those in power. Upper-caste members carry out their attacks with impunity.
A report documented by Human Rights Watch revealed that landlords and the police often used sexual assault and other forms of violence against Dalit women to teach them “political” lessons, and also to suppress their voice and crush dissent.
In Laxmanpur-Bathe, Bihar, members of the Ranvir Sena raped and mutilated Dalit women before carrying out a massacre in 1997. To punish men who were hiding from the police, their Dalit women relatives have been arrested and raped in custody.
A New Indian Express report said that according to the 2016 National Crime Records Bureau data, of all crimes committed against the members of the Scheduled Castes, the highest is against Dalit women. A lion’s share of all cases against Dalits include assaults on SC women to outrage her modesty, rapes, attempts to commit rapes and insults to the modesty of SC women.
The data also suggests that over four Dalit women are raped every day. The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, an NGO, revealed that more than 23% of Dalit women report being raped. In fact, many of them have reported multiple instances of rape.
Because of a sense of impunity among dominant castes, Dalit women, even if they acquire political power, as when they are elected as sarpanches, they receive no protection from society’s power, that sanctions discrimination and violence against them.
According to Rita Izsák, UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, what results in widespread underreporting of cases is society’s tendency to blame the victim, especially when she belongs to a lower-caste. In her work, she found that violation against Dalit women is not restricted to physical abuse – due to discrimination, Dalit girls have lower literacy levels, drop-out rates are higher and they are prevented from pursuing an education.
Saraswathi Menon, Director, Policy Division, UN Women, said that while caste-based discrimination was widespread in India there is, “a failure to implement laws and a tendency to minimize the gravity of the situation.”
Failure to prosecute rape cases, especially those of women belonging to lower castes, is another major problem in the system. Women in India face daunting obstacles starting from lodging an FIR to the judge’s opinion if a case at all reaches that far. For women who belong to lower castes, it is even more difficult to access the justice system.
Those who manage to pursue cases of sexual violence have to face entranced biases and prejudices at every step – from the police to doctors to even their own family members.
With these alarming issues in the justice system when it comes to caste-based violence, men find it easier to perpetrate sexual violence on women of lower-castes.
The Constitution of India is considered to be the lengthiest Constitution in the world, and Right to Equality has been guaranteed under article 14 to article 18.
Article 17 of the Constitution states that ‘untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden’. The enforcement of untouchability is a punishable offence according to the law. Article 17 specifically protects Dalits from being discriminated against and also forbids the practice of untouchability.
In 1978, Untouchability (offences) act, 1955, was changed to Protection of Civil Rights, 1955. As cases of atrocities on SCs and STs were not covered under the old legislation, a new act called Scheduled Caste and Schedule Tribe (Prevention of atrocities), act, 1989, was passed by the Parliament.
The residual anger is all we have. Beyond that, there is hardly any real concern towards these horrific atrocities.
It is shameful and unfortunate that even years after independence, the patriarchal structure of society has refused to alter. Violence and sexual harassment are crucial mechanisms to show women of lower castes, their position in society.
Right now, our basic need is the proper functioning of the institutions meant to protect them and their lives.
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