Violence Against Dalit Women is a Caste Issue

On September 14th, a woman belonging to the Dalit Valmiki caste was raped by four upper caste Thakur men. Not only did the victim succumb to her injuries, on September 29th, the Uttar Pradesh police cremated her body without her parent’s consent after barricading the family inside of their home.

 

People are angry. The violence perpetrated against women is grotesque, inhumane and shocking. It is not just the rape that is horrifying, but the fact that her tongue was cut off, and her body cremated without the consent of her family. There is something so particular about the act of cutting off the tongue of a Dalit woman because it is such an astonishing act of literally silencing her, and the blatant disregard of her humanity, even in death, is gut wrenching. And yet, the victim’s Dalit identity is actively being invisiblised, where claims of bringing up her Dalit identity is said to distract from the “real” issue — that is that she is a woman who was raped.

 

There has been an active suppression of conversation regarding the victim’s caste and the fact that it factors into the violence propagated against her. It is essential that the victim’s caste is highlighted because this demonstrates a specific dynamic that compounds the violence against the victim. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, rape and sexual assault are the most common forms of violence perpetrated against Dalits, and there has been a 25% increase in crimes against Dalit over the past decade. The Hathras crime, which was committed in the state of Uttar Pradesh, has topped the list of states with disproportionate levels of violence against Dalits. This is why it becomes important to highlight the victim’s caste because it raises the issue of casteist violence in a country that actively promotes casteist ideology, one that serves to terrorise those individuals who are deemed as “low caste” with murder, rape and sexual violence, while the justice system turns a blind eye.

 

Most victims of sexualised violence are women, and most perpetrators are men. However, this is still a pretty one-dimensional understanding of sexual violence against women because it ignores how caste informs upper caste men’s attitudes towards Dalit women. Rape is a tool of terror, a terror that is specifically weaponised against women because it serves to instill fear into women who dare to exist, whether it be in privacy of their homes or in public spaces. Rape is not simply violence against women, it weaponises sex against women — this is crucial to understand because any conversations around sex is a source of great shame, and when it is used to brutalise a woman’s body, it is the woman who is unfairly harmed and isolated in society, not the man who perpetrates the violence. Rape is also used as a punishment against those who deviate from the norm — who deviate from the rules of casteist brahmanical patriarchy.

 

Dalit women face the specific hurdle of having their gender intersect with the caste. They exist in the margins of society in terms of caste, gender and class, where sexual violence exacted against them “by landlords and the police to inflict political “lessons” and crush dissent and labor movements within Dalit communities”, according to Human Rights Watch. Sexual violence committed against Dalit women and girls is deeply political, as upper caste men use this as a tool to assert power in order to reinforce social, gender and caste hierarchies. Furthermore, these hierarchies that are so deeply entrenched into sociopolitical structures of India provides attackers of Dalit women a sense of impunity. Assaults on women who come from lower caste backgrounds are rarely reported because there is a system in place that fails them at every point, nor does any attack on them actually incite media coverage.

 

India’s long history of tolerating and perpetuating narratives of violence against women, especially of those against Dalit women, is not new. The Dalit woman’s experience is not new, but social location of being Dalit, of being a woman, and how this intersects with the issue of class gives us a unique understanding that her experiences are simply not the same as those of upper caste women. For further context, the Bhanwari Devi case that served as the basis for the Public Interest Litigation case and brought about the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013 was that of an Other Backward Class (OBC) woman who had been raped because she agitated against child marriage. However, the criminal court subjected Bhanwari Devi to humiliating remarks about how it was not possible that the Gujjars, who were upper-caste men, to have raped Devi as it would sully their caste purity. Yet, the violence that Bhanwari Devi faced was very specific because her caste played a role in said violence, which was erased and discarded, eliminating any possible chance to receive full and complete justice.

 

Ignoring the caste of a woman’s identity does not facilitate casteism, but allows for a fuller understanding of a woman’s social context, and the violence that they face based on that. But the sheer will of Indian society to ignore this aspect of their lives is infuriating because this is a very deliberate effort to maintain casteist hierarchy, to continue to maintain the privileged positions that they are able to maintain due to being upper caste. The judicial system is also guilty of ensuring that those who commit casteist violence are pardoned, or simply ignore the possibility of caste as a possible factor of violence perpetrated against Dalit communities. Turning a blind-eye against casteist violence allows for and is a direct cause of brahmanic casteist patriarchy. Vigilant feminist politics requires us to see all the factors that intersect together to see the deep rot in our society in order to weed it out and discard it. But more than anything, it requires a serious interrogation as to why our society is so willing to ignore casteist violence, what are the conditions that encourage male violence against women, and it requires us to understand that our demands for accountability and redressal must centre the needs of Dalit people, so that we may have a possible shot at living in a violence free society.

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