On September 14, a 19-year-old Dalit woman was gangraped in the Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh. She succumbed to her injuries this Tuesday in Safdarjung Hospital, New Delhi.
This, tragically, is not a new normal in India, where approximately 32,632 cases of rape were reported in 2018 and have been seen to rise steadily. However, the Hathras case is not reductively a heinous crime committed against a woman, but it is also a symptom and a consequence of the caste system that pervades every aspect of the Indian experience.
Many of us who come from a certain kind of privilege – class and caste – have time and again claimed that nobody cares about caste anymore. However much as our willful ignorance and savarna comfort would want us to believe that, the truth is we do not exist in a casteless society. Take a look at a matrimonial advertisement, or even Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking, and you would see how the endogamy that perpetrates caste is as alive today as it was almost a century ago, when Dr. B.R. Ambedkar urged the annihilation of caste.
In the Hathras case, the savarna defensive mechanism is seen in the furtive debate that has been gaining momentum on social media and news channels – what is the need to bring the victim’s caste in the middle of this issue?
A plain look at the facts and the testimony of the victim’s family and the victim herself, before her demise, point to the prevailing caste violence and oppression in Hathras. She belonged to the Dalit Valmiki community – which is located outside of the varnavyavastha ladder, according to Manusmriti. The four rapist-murderers reported and arrested in the case were upper-caste Thakurs. Ravi, one of the rapists, allegedly had a history of violence with the victim’s family, founded upon the caste-based power differential. In an incident going back nearly two decades, the Thakur family had attacked the victim’s grandfather, as the latter had proposed that the Thakurs take their cattle elsewhere for grazing, as they destroyed the crops on the latter’s land.
The rape against the Dalit woman, then, is the manifestation of the aforementioned power differential. For those of us who resort to the Shakespearean rhetoric of ‘what’s in a name’, this may be difficult to digest – surnames and castes change the way the socio-political world perceives you. To say that rape is a ‘crime against women’ is reductive, because rape is a crime of power. In a society that still posits traditional notions of pride within a woman’s sexuality, where honour killings are routine, the Dalit woman’s body is a site for asserting upper-caste, hyper-masculine power dominance.
The victim and the perpetrator do not exist in a vacuum, isolated from their social and political capital, but they are very significantly rooted within it. Attempt to think of it as follows: why is the rhetoric of safeguarding your mother’s, sister’s, or daughter’s ‘integrity’ so prevalent in popular culture, as well as real life?
This is because we have ingrained a narrative of ‘othering’, where it is okay to perversely sexualise the bodies that men and perpetrators feel no immediate connection with. The Dalit woman’s body is on the farthest extreme of this ‘othering’ that stems from the graded inequality of caste. She was not raped as a 19-year-old who happened to be a Dalit, but her upper-caste Thakur rapists were empowered by the prospect of abusing and brutalising her body precisely because she was a Dalit.
Caste provides systemic power and impunity – to register this, take a look at the continuous and gaping lapses of the police in first filing the report, then apprehending the accused, and in categorising the violence as rape. This callousness and complacence stems from the aforementioned ‘othering’ and marked inferiority of the Dalit woman’s body in casteist practices, because had the victim been an upper-caste woman from the Thakur family, the community would have erupted in rage and solidarity. According to the Indian Express, “Of the 600-odd families in the village, nearly half are Thakur, say district officials, while Brahmins make up another 100. Only 15-odd families are Dalit.”
Oppressed as a minority in such a demographic, the systemic recourse for the Dalit family becomes near-impossible, because the power is consolidated by the Thakurs and other upper-caste groups.
Think of Priyanka Reddy and the mob justice against her alleged rapists – as an upper-caste, upper-class woman, she was the ideal victim to launch our societal cries against rape culture and her perpetrators were executed in an encounter without due procedure. Now think of the case of an eight-year-old Asifa’s rape in Kathua, which invited a protest rally in support of the accused (attended by two BJP ministers), owing to the political and social capital of the rapist. This is to say that social, cultural, economic capital changes the manner in which our attitudes towards victims and perpetrators are constructed.
The attempt at the erasure of the caste identity of the victim shows that we, as a society, still refuse to stand up and say that Dalit lives matter. When one individual from a marginalised group (religion, caste, or gender) commits a crime, it is almost instinctive to hold the entire group culpable, giving rise to stereotypes and retaliation against the whole group, because we have a tendency to homogenise the constructed ‘other’. Similarly, when a doubly marginalised victim (Dalit and a woman) comes to the fore, it becomes integral to rupture our illusions and see the perpetrators’ psychology of caste and gender-based othering – it is a message, a warning, an attack, and an assertion of dominance through power for the marginalised community.
To deny the violent atrocity of caste in the case of the Hathras gangrape, is to deny the continued oppression of the Dalit body through force and abuse. The Khairlanji massacre, honour killings, and custodial caste murders are a reality of our nation-state, and the Hathras gangrape is a part of the systemic casteist silencing of the Dalit voice and the curbing of resistance of the Dalit body and mind.
From Babasaheb to Valmiki and Kalayana Rao, writers and artists have documented the brutalities of systemic casteism on the Dalit bodies, with Rao poignantly articulating:
“In this country, the air that one breathes has caste… The school, temple and the village square have caste… The State has caste, its laws have caste… The corpse and the cemetery have caste”.
It is high time that those protected by their caste and class privileges acknowledge the manifestation of these words in the real, living world of Indian society, and accept that the Hathras gangrape too has the foundation and framework of caste.
Anushree Joshi is an over-thinker who studies English literature at Lady Shri Ram College who has strong opinions on why your #IAmHumanistNotFeminist attitude is a problem and why Manto should be taught in schools and colleges across the country.