The alleged gangrape and murder of a Dalit woman in Hathras in Uttar Pradesh is being called a Dalit atrocity. Many have a problem with that. What’s caste got to do with rape or murder? Don’t non-Dalits get raped and murdered? Let’s not bring caste into it for no rhyme or reason, they say.
Caste has everything to do with this case, as it does with almost every case of rape of Dalit women in at least rural India.
Let us take a deep dive into the Hathras case. Why did the Thakur men allegedly rape and murder the 20-year-old woman? Was it like the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in New Delhi in December 2012? No. Jyoti Singh had boarded a bus home. She didn’t know the bus was actually a trap and the drunk men in it were looking for a night of ‘fun’. Caste was therefore not in the picture: it could have been any woman.
In Hathras, the Thakur men knew the Dalit woman. They were neighbours. And the two families had been having disputes for 20 years now. Just a family dispute, you’d say, what’s caste got to do with it? To answer that, let us look at the nature of the old family feud.
The Dalit family has some agricultural land. Twenty years ago, the Thakur family would bring their buffaloes to graze on the crops the Dalit family was growing. The Dalit family — the woman’s grandfather — reportedly asked the Thakurs to take the buffaloes away.
So far it is a dispute that could happen between any two individuals: between two Thakurs, too. But hereon, it becomes a caste dispute.
The Thakur family was incensed that a Dalit man had the gall to ‘talk back’ to a Thakur. This is the root of the problem. The saga of violence, threats, cases, and resistance since then has culminated in the murder of the woman.
“Angered that a Dalit could tell them this, they attacked him with a knife-like object. When my grandfather tried to protect his neck, the knife cut away his fingers,” the woman’s brother told Newslaundry. He further explained to Newslaundry reporters: “People here still practise untouchability. Going past our households lowers their dignity. Our grandparents still stand up if one of them passes by. You will never find a Thakur or Brahmin entering our houses and if they need to tell us something, they send a messenger. Our ancestors used to clean their houses everyday in exchange for some bread. Today, the Thakurs are angry because we do not clean their houses or give them the respect they think they deserve.”
You can go to almost any village in India to find that different caste groups live in geographically separated bastis, and when homes or landholdings are next to each other, there is often a dispute. Talk to the dominant upper castes in the village and ask them about Dalits. They will often tell you how the Dalits don’t listen to them anymore, how they used to be subservient but that’s changing. And the upper castes are not happy about it.
When Dalits resist oppression, land grab, forced labour or sexual assault, they are often met with violence.
Why Dalit women are targeted
The dispute over grazing buffaloes over someone’s crops is about caste, because the Thakurs think they can get away with it by virtue of caste domination. You won’t ever hear of a Dalit grazing his or her cattle over a Thakur’s farm.
In many such cases when the Dalits speak up and object, the result is sexual assault or rape of the women in the Dalit family. The ‘honour’ of the women is the ultimate weapon to show the Dalit family their place, to establish who is the feudal lord and who is the subject.
Ram Kumar, a prominent Lucknow-based Dalit activist, has been documenting atrocities against Dalits for decades. When asked about whether caste had anything to do with the Hathras rape and murder, he says we wouldn’t have asked this question if the accused men were Dalit or Muslim.
“Had it been Muslim boys? Had the girl been upper caste and boys Dalit? Then what would have happened? Had it been Muslim boys, it would have been a Hindu-Muslim issue and you know what that leads to these days. Had it been Dalit boys, there would have been violence against Dalits across the state. Houses would have been bulldozed,” Kumar says.
“I have seen not one but hundreds of cases. When Dalits stand up for justice, their mothers and daughters are raped. The idea is to show down the whole community — tumhari aukat kya hai? What’s your worth?” He explains that it also helps silence the Dalit family and makes them give up their land and retract FIRs.
Since rape is seen as an act of humiliation and dishonour, many families of victims go silent and stop resisting the everyday caste oppression.
But the issue isn’t just one of silencing Dalits who mistakenly demand fundamental rights and justice.
Kumar says, “Upper caste men think they have the right to the bodies of Dalit women. This is something we have seen growing up. Parents have to tell daughters to stay far away from upper-caste men because they know they can’t fight for justice. Now people fight for justice.”
In short, Dalit women are often raped because upper-caste men think they have the right to rape them. It gets worse when the Dalit family is resisting oppression, such as trying to save their crops from the cattle of the upper castes, land grab, ostracisation and so on.
Ever been to India?
Newspapers are full of stories of atrocities against Dalit women. Every other day you’ll find a headline that says a Dalit woman was raped. In 2013, Kumar was part of a civil society group that prepared a report on violence against Dalit women. At the press conference on the release of the report in Lucknow, a journalist asked why don’t you speak up also for the atrocities against upper-caste women?
Kumar recalls Professor Ramesh Dixit replying, “Find me a single case of a Dalit man raping a Brahmin woman ever.”
That alone should answer those who say the rape of a Dalit woman is not about her caste. The Hathras woman’s brother told The Indian Express this about the main accused: “Sandeep is an alcoholic who harasses women, but nobody ever files a complaint.” Why does ‘nobody ever file a complaint’ against him? It’s because he’s a Thakur, and he can get away with anything. It is caste that gave him such impunity.
None of this is new or unknown. Hindutva supporters want to say caste has nothing to do with rape because they want to deny the cruelty and everyday brutality of the Hindu caste system. The denial is not only to pretend it doesn’t exist, but also to make sure the caste system continues to flourish, since Hindutva forces are largely dominated by upper castes.
It becomes important to point out the obvious and well-known intersectionality between caste and gender because even some liberal-minded upper castes don’t get it, or pretend not to. When a supposedly liberal-minded journalist wants us to not “reduce” a gangrape and murder to a caste atrocity, you really wonder if some Indians have ever been to India.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.