Violating a Dalit Female Body: Why Caste Matters?

Rape is an act of atrocity against women and an act of caste oppression too, when committed against a woman from the backward castes.

At 2:30 am, while most of her family was home, the police cremated the body. | Image credit : NDTV

“A rape is a rape, how does her caste matter?” is a question that one will find in the comments section under almost every article about a rape of a Dalit girl/woman. The rape and murder of a young Dalit girl by four Thakur men in Boolgarhi, Hathras on September 14th is no different. It is high time we foreground this ‘why should her caste matter?’ debate and make it clear that the rape of a Dalit woman is a crime that is deeply entrenched in caste – the caste of the victim and of the perpetrator(s). The social location of 19 year old girl from Valmiki community, a Dalit caste living in a rural settlement instantly reveals her vulnerability that is largely invisible to the educated, urban dweller (the commenter).

In Boolgarhi, a village dominated both politically and numerically by the upper-caste Thakur community, caste based violence and discrimination is an everyday reality for the four Dalit families living there. They lived there to serve the Thakurs and failure of which brought down unspeakable forms of violence on them. The gang-rape and murder of the Dalit girl is one such example. An example set by the Thakur men to scare, discipline and disgrace the Dalits by violating, mutilating and ultimately murdering the Dalit woman. There is no escaping the role of caste within the unequal rural realities of caste based hierarchical social relationships of power when a Dalit woman is raped and/or murdered.  

For liberal elites, the reinforcement of the victim’s caste and that of the perpetrators’ may still seem unwarranted. It is because they are unable to understand the mammoth web of caste and its networks that is constantly evolving as the society is modernising. Caste is far from a thing of the past that no longer has any relevance in the present. If anything, caste is the Kraken that has reached its ugly tentacles far beyond rural areas and has wrapped tightly around modern urban institutions and lives. Caste today is very much a modern entity that has found its way into our everyday life. 

A cursory glance at the social, political, economic and geographic layout of Boolgarhi-Hathras, the site of crime, may reveal the caste underpinnings. Hathras might well be a Thakur district given their political and numerical clout (more than hundred Thakur families live there), followed by a few Brahmin households and a mere four Dalit families. The Dalit families do not own any land and their means of livelihood is through selling their labour to the Thakurs and from the sale of milk from the few buffaloes they own. The caste boundaries are clearly marked in Hathras with the Dalit settlements given a designated corner in the village so as to not interfere in the daily affairs of the Thakurs unless called upon.

In a place where a community (Dalits) is socio-economically, politically and numerically impotent and can neither migrate out of there, they become victims of violence and discrimination at the hands of the majority (Thakurs). It is the social location of the Dalits in the Hindu social order that complicates their position further and worsens their situation in the village. The Dalits of Hathras: men, women and children are mercilessly beaten shamed and ridiculed regularly if they were to breach the so-called caste boundaries because being a Dalit is considered to be a sin [1]. Their touch is considered ‘polluting’ and they are on the whole considered ‘dirty’ and ‘defiling’. They are not allowed to take out wedding processions in the village or occupy public spaces. In totality, the Dalit families of Hathras live in constant state of fear of unknowingly violating a caste rule and unintentionally offending a Thakur which can only lead to horrific consequences for them.

Why Her Caste Matters?

In the Indian society, caste operates in tandem with other social variables – gender and social class, religion, region and physical location – this is why a rape of a Dalit woman cannot be reduced to her gender alone or seen simply as a sexual crime. Incidences of humiliation and violence are a part and parcel of everyday life for Dalits in Hathras. The culmination of these daily occurrences is what led to the violent rape and murder of the young girl. Unfortunately, such ghastly atrocities will continue to repeat themselves as long as caste pervades in our society. The rape and murder of a 22-year old Dalit woman in Balrampur in UP just a few days after the Hathras incident is a testimony to this. The social relations between caste, class and gender has varied implications based on one’s social location. The Thakur man, an upper-caste, land-owning male standing at the top of the caste pyramid exercises power (he derives from all his privileges) through the use of force on the Dalit woman who is at the bottom. This use of force via rape, murder, and other forms of violence on Dalits by upper caste men is to enforce the maintenance of ‘order’ in the caste-class-gender relations. It is to ensure that the established absolute power (of Thakurs) is not threatened or weakened by the powerless (the Dalits).

Women in a caste society are seen as passive beings and property of men. Gender within a caste society is structured around the ‘manhood’ of the caste and the amount of control the men of that caste have over their women. Therefore, by this argument raping and humiliating a Dalit woman is seen as attacking the ‘manhood’ of the Dalit caste. Several instances of Dalit women being stripped, beaten, their heads shaved and paraded naked publicly while the Dalit men are made to watch unable to aggress is the upper caste way of reducing the Dalit ‘masculinity’. The public humiliation of Dalit women via parading them naked and/or molesting them is to suggest that they are ‘easy’ and ‘available’. An open statement made not just about the woman’s character but also by extension her caste. This is primarily the reason why Dalit women’s bodies are seen as an easy site for perpetrating violence by upper caste men. The currency of caste affords the upper caste male to escape any form of punishment or even derision. The socio-political clout that comes with being the ‘raja beta’ of the ruling caste allows him to desecrate Dalit women’s bodies with zero repercussions. The sheer inhumanity shown in violating the Dalit girl’s body by not just raping her but also severing her tongue, breaking her spine leaving her paralysed and left to die in the fields is symbolism of the Thakur power and its arbitrary usage on the Dalits in Hathras.

Caste, State and Police Nexus

‘Quest for Justice’ a report released by National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ) – National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights shows that between 2009 to 2018 crimes against Dalits have increased by 6% [3]. It also reports that Dalit women are subjected to dominant caste violence both physical and sexual and witch-branding. Further it also highlighted the challenges faced by the women when trying to file a FIR. The report states that an average of 88.5% of cases under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 and 1995 are pending trial during 2009-2018. In Hathras, the ruling Thakur caste has its members strategically positioned starting from the local panchayat, to the police and the magistracy. The local (khap) panchayat decides no crime was committed, and the victim’s body was hastily cremated by the police in the absence of her family. Even the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh a Thakur by caste is yet to condemn the incident. There is also media footage of the District Magistrate threatening the girl’s family saying, “the media will go, but we will remain” and demanding that they withdraw the complaint. The victim’s family now lives in constant fear of complete annihilation by the Thakurs and has gone on record with it.

It is here that a passage from Dr. Ambedkar’s writings and speeches is relevant. Ambedkar writes,

 “…the impossibility for the Untouchables to obtain any protection from the police or justice from the courts. The police are drawn from the ranks of the caste Hindus. The Magistracy from the rank of the caste Hindus. The police and the Magistracy are the kith and kin of the caste Hindus. They share the sentiments and prejudices of the caste Hindus against the Untouchables” (Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches Vol. 5. p. 268).

The Thakurs with their caste and political influence have disallowed the victim’s family to articulate the injustice meted out to the 19-year old girl by percolating every state apparatus and the very state itself with their caste power, and road blocking all means to obtain justice. This is the absolute demonstration of the supreme power of the upper-castes and its extensive permeation within the Indian politico-legal system.

Fourteen years ago, two Dalit women, mother-daughter were gang-raped and murdered Kunbi (dominant) caste men after they were stripped, beaten, paraded naked and their mutilated, lifeless bodies thrown in a canal by in Khairlanji, Maharashtra. Today, the bestial rape and murder of the Hathras victim by four Thakur men carries with it not just the spectre of Khairjanji but the innumerable incidences of violence against Dalit women, majority of which go unreported. Therefore, it is significant to understand that the performative and celebratory nature of rape of a Dalit woman by upper/dominant caste collectives is primarily to ‘teach’ a lesson to the entire Dalit community and to reinforce the existing Hindu social order – where the Dalit man is at the bottom, and a Dalit woman is a Dalit among the Dalits.

Nivedita N is a Research Scholar at Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.




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