When Power Demands: Hathras Gang-Rape & Caste-Based Gendered Violence In India

 When Power Demands: Hathras Gang-Rape & Caste-Based Gendered Violence In India
The News Minute

Writer-Director Anvita Dutt had once told Homegrown, “It [rape] is an emotional act, a mental act. It’s like bullying. It’s not about the fact that I might be bigger than you, it’s about the fact that I feel bigger when I make you feel small.”

In a blood-curdling reminder of the 2012 Delhi gang-rape case, four upper-caste men in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh brutally gang-raped a 19-year-old Scheduled Caste woman. They tortured and left her for dead without her clothes in the field where she was cutting grass with her family. An NDTV report posits, “The woman had suffered multiple fractures, paralysis and a deep gash in her tongue in the savage assault compared by many to the 2012 Nirbhaya gang-rape.”

The 2012 Delhi rape case had apparently shaken the conscience of the nation. Books, papers, petition, newsletters, and speeches were written; the Nirbhaya fund which “provides for a non-lapsable corpus fund for safety and security of women” was launched; films and promises were made, and yet, as per a 2018 Wire report, India’s average rate of reported rape cases is about 6.3 per 100,000 of the population. According to a Livemint report, about 99% of cases of sexual violence go unreported. If true, The Wire says, “this would put India among the nations with the highest levels of crimes against women.”

After Nirbhaya, came Asifa. Then there was Unnao, Surat, and Nadia. There were girl children, disabled women, and 100-year-olds. These, however, are merely to name a few. National data shows that with 87 rape cases a day, crimes against women have gone up by 7.3 per cent last year. NDTV informs, “The crime rate registered per lakh women population is 62.4 per cent in 2019, up from the 58.8 per cent figure of 2018.”

But beyond being an act of gender-based violence, this particular incident is also an instance of the widespread caste-based discrimination and violence in India. Citing National Crime Bureau Records data, The Print had revealed in 2018, “over the decade to 2016, the rate of crime against Dalits rose more than eight times (746%); there were 2.4 crimes per 100,000 Dalits in 2006, rising to 20.3 in 2016.”

The Indian Express explains, “In the village in Hathras district, where a 19-year-old Dalit woman was battered and allegedly gang-raped by four upper-caste men, leading to her death, Valmiki families number just about 15. Out of the 600-odd families, nearly half are Thakur, and Brahmins another 100-odd. The cremation grounds for them are separate, they are not allowed into the local temple, and the officials starting from the local school are upper castes, the Dalits say.”

Other Dalits from the village recounted experiences of their children’s classmates not speaking with them because they are untouchables and Dalit brides’ palanquins not being allowed to go on the main street because of their caste status. Approximately even after seven decades of recognition of the 1950 Constitution, Dalits are ghettoised and not permitted to settle in certain parts of the town/village.

Dalit Camera cites an example, “It is not accidental that the outcastes’ habitat is always located next to the garbage dumping area or the sewer, especially if the outcastes in question are associated with sanitary labour. The municipalities recruit members of the outcastes from specific neighbourhoods to remove the filth and dirt from the urban space. These outcastes enter the urban space only as a cleaner of the streets, colleges, schools etc.”

Talking about political representation of Dalits, the same Express article points out, “A woman said they can’t go to the local panchayat either. “How do you expect to resolve our issues if you don’t even allow us into meetings? They tell us to go home if we try to attend.”

In her official statement to the police, Manisha Valmiki, the victim stated that she had been dragged into the fields by these men from a spot where she was cutting grass with her mother and brother. Her younger brother says, “My mother covered her up and we went to the police and lay her down there. Three bones on her neck were broken. She had difficulty breathing... She needed oxygen right from the beginning.”

News of her death reached members of the Bhim Army who took to streets and social media to protest against the horrific act. The woman’s brother claimed that the UP police only took action upon being met with public outrage. At one point, sexual violence was even denied by the police.

The woman, first admitted to Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College and Hospital, Aligarh, after the gang rape on September 14, was brought to Safdarjung Hospital where she succumbed to her injuries. If all of this was not enough, the woman was forcibly cremated in the middle of the night by the local police without her family’s consent. Despite their repeated cries and pleadings, the woman’s family was not allowed near the cremation site. The BBC reports that the police beat up her family members and did not even spare women. Not even being assigned respect in death, the family was left wailing and crying as all their requests were turned down by the police officers.

Clad in their sarees, veils covering all of their faces, the victim’s mother and her relatives took their grievances to the TV media. A larger discussion would probably take us to think about how women in South Asia are expected to cover themselves up from head to toe in order to mark their shame, but dragged by their dupatta, their marker of shame and chastity, they are left uncovered, naked in fields, deprived of any residue of dignity.

Women, all over, are reduced, vilified, shamed, and brutalised, but when it comes to women from the lower castes, the attacks get doubled. It is important to realise that this particular act of rape was an act of rape on a lower-caste woman performed by four savarna men, in a state that is led by a theocratic upper-caste man and a bureaucracy that is run by upper-caste men. Subdued by their caste status, Dalit women often find themselves in the deepest of the vulnerability rot in the country. Always open to be abused, justice is always denied to them.

Indian society’s penchant for or ignorance towards caste-based gendered violence is necessarily evinced by the gaping lacuna in data available. Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research says, “We have seen this almost on a daily, yet sickening, basis. There is no caste-based data on sexual crimes in the country, but it is there for everyone to see. The women are also targeted more when their menfolk leave for urban centres in search of work.” When it comes to Dalit women, rape is often a means of retaliation and ‘punishment’. In a class or caste conflict amongst men of different communities, it’s the women who are raped and mutilated. For what fault?

The Logical Indian refers to 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.

As Dutt would say, they do this because they think they can do this. They exercise their power and derive more confidence out of this. The worst part is that the oppressors are ones who are in charge of the narrative and so, not only do they do this, they also get away with their acts of crime.

Pragya Akhilesh further says, “The justice system in India makes it impossible for a Dalit woman to lodge her complaint in a police station and when it is combined by the happening of a sexual crime, the system fails them completely. And so forth the obstacles continue.”

One of the rhetorics that the ongoing protests have generated is that the woman’s death was an example of systemic brutality. A system that favours the powerful seldom looks at its weak as anything but bait to further power. The Hathras rape incident was one of many such incidents.

It’s time, however, for all of us to rise and question — our privilege, our caste status, our fears, and why do we shirk away from calling those responsible out. We cannot keep adding to the silence that the system anyway demands when it comes to matters of caste and gender injustice.

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