Caste & Rape Have Always Gone Hand in Hand. The Hathras Case is Only Following a Template


Caste & Rape Have Always Gone Hand in Hand. The Hathras Case is Only Following a Template

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Last year, I watched Article 15, and distinctly remember coming out of it feeling slightly weird. To me, it was strange that a story directly addressing the rape and murder of two Dalit girls, made a hero out of a Brahmin man, played by a caste-privileged Ayushmann Khurrana. Article 15 was also directed by a politically liberal, privileged-caste man, Anubhav Sinha. The eventual takeaway was a certificate of wokeness for both of these men, but even those misgivings evaporated when my friend told me, “The caste issue needs to be addressed but mixing it with rape seems a bit dramatic.” I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the film or the comment this week, in the wake of the horrific Hathras gang-rape.

My Twitter feed over the past week has been flooded with equally problematic takes as my friend’s opinion. To paraphrase a hundred too many tweets, “Rapes must be stopped, rapists should be punished, but how is this about the victim’s caste?” Aside from the whitewashing campaign that now seems to be underway, privilege-blindness is no longer permissible or forgivable when it turns into rape apologia. (Looking at you, Markandey Katju.)

But since so many of us seem to be confused about the connection between caste and rape, let me try and break it down. A cis-het “upper-caste” man with Elon Musk as his role model might ask, “Okay, but I don’t see the caste angle. From what I hear, rape is all about a man exerting his power over a woman, right?” Well, I hate to break it to you but the caste angle is about 360 degrees.

First off, any incident of rape is about the victim and their multiple, layered identities – often these identities are woman, queer, Dalit, minority, who they are and what agency they have. According to our historical hierarchies Dalits are the most disadvantaged group in this country. In a society that replicates Brahminical rituals in its treatment of women, Dalit and Adivasi women are in the most disadvantaged position. Which means that they are the most vulnerable of an already vulnerable section of society.

Atrocities against this group are not only easy to perpetrate, but also excused, even by those of us who have the privilege of ignoring… wait for it… intersectionality. It is on the bodies and psyche of Dalit and Adivasi woman, that men have written the narrative of upper-caste and male supremacy, whether it is arrests and rapes of Dalit women whose male relatives are absconding, or sexual violence linked to debt bondage in rural areas.

According to our historical hierarchies Dalits are the most disadvantaged group in this country.

“A pattern of impunity”

While I grew up in urban Jharkhand in a bubble of caste privilege, I only got a reality check from speaking with Dalit friends. When one told me that from early on in her childhood that she realised that upper-caste men felt entitled to her body, I wasn’t prepared for what she was about to say, “Two of my mother’s aunts in a village in Bihar, when they were out to defecate, were raped by upper-caste men. The two felt so humiliated that they jumped into the village well and died by suicide.”

I wish I could say that this was an isolated story, or one that occurred only in my friend’s family. Sadly, you’d be hard pressed to find a Dalit family that hasn’t undergone this kind of brutalisation.

Even a cursory look around will tell you how deep the connection between caste and sexual violence is. A report by the international watchdog, Human Rights Watch charts out the attacks on Dalit women, labelling it, “A Pattern of Impunity”, and how, even within the women’s movement, Dalit women’s issues are consistently ignored. The report documents “the use of sexual abuse and other forms of violence against Dalit women as tools by landlords and the police to inflict political ‘lessons’ and crush dissent and labour movements within Dalit communities. In Laxmanpur-Bathe, Bihar, women were raped and mutilated before being massacred by members of the Ranvir Sena in 1997… Like other Indian women whose relatives are sought by the police, Dalit women have also been arrested and raped in custody as a means of punishing their male relatives who are hiding from the police. As very young women, they are forced into prostitution in temples under the Devadasi system.”

The failure to prosecute rape cases lodged by Dalit women, is another consistent pattern, and its similarities with the Hathras case are chilling. In 1985, the case of Rajasthan grassroots worker Bhanwari Devi, who had “dared” to intervene in a child marriage in an “upper-caste” family and was gang-raped in retaliation, came to the fore.

During the trial, the judge had acquitted the accused observing that “rape is usually committed by teenagers, and since the accused are middle-aged and therefore respectable, they could not have committed the crime. An upper-caste man could not have defiled himself by raping a lower-caste woman.” Those rapists too enjoyed political support – BJP leader Kanhaiya Lal Meena had “reportedly organised a rally in support of the accused.” More than 30 years later, the Savarna Parishad has sprung to the defence of the accused in the Hathras gang-rape, even as a PR firm hired by the Uttar Pradesh government goes about denying that the rape even occurred.

Who is answerable for the generational trauma that millions of Dalit women grow up with?

A history of violence

Indian history is littered with names that occasionally make it to public consciousness, possibly because the crimes are so hideous and unnerving that they are impossible to ignore. Khairlanji, a village in Maharashtra, where Surekha and Priyanka Bhotmange were raped, paraded naked in the village, before being hacked to death for daring to lodge a police complaint in a land dispute. Lalasa Devi, a mother in her mid-30s, whose attacker yelled “Chamar” in her face, before raping her. Delta Meghwal, a 17-year-old Dalit girl who was raped and found murdered in the water tank of the school she attended in Bikaner.

Over time, these names die a natural death, as the news cycle moves on to other more “important” crimes. The question remains – who is answerable for the generational trauma that millions of Dalit women grow up with?

Way too many acts of violence have been committed against Dalit women by upper-caste men, to prove that Dalit men are incapable of looking after their women, further proving that Dalit women are stripped of their agency even in principle. How many stories of war end with, “They killed the men and raped their women”? What is rape if not a tool to “show them their place”?

What is “their place”? Why is a Dalit woman’s agency so difficult for the upper-castes to stomach? I say upper-castes and not upper-caste men here because dominant or upper-caste women have been complicit in perpetrating violence against Dalit women. After all, dominant-caste women had cheered on the brutalisation of the Bhotmange women in Khairlanji. None of those women were charged with abetment of rape and murder.

Dr Anand Teltumbde, who wrote Khairlanji: A Strange And Bitter Crop in 2008, tells us how the deceased mother-daughter duo were assertive Dalit women who had previously helped their relative escape murder at the hands of the dominant-caste mob in the village. The mother was labelled a promiscuous woman and the daughter’s academic success in 10th grade the “upper castes”. Most importantly, their family-owned land although they were Dalits.

The only fault of the deceased in Khairlanji was their social mobility which came at the cost of their dignity and lives. The same dignity that wasn’t afforded to the Hathras rape victim, neither in life nor in death, as her body was burnt – not cremated – in the wee hours, her family forbidden from performing her last rites, their house barricaded with the cops telling them, “Aap log bhi maaniye ki aap log se bhi galti hua hai (you should accept that the fault was yours too).” The only fault of the Hathras victim – as that of every Dalit woman in this country – is their accident of birth into the bottom of an anarchic hierarchy.