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Like Una and Rohith Vemula, BJP govt will come after Hathras protesters: Jignesh Mevani

It is difficult to say if any anti-caste movement will see positive political shift under a Hindutva government.

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The shocking impunity in the alleged gangrape and murder of a Valmiki Dalit woman by four upper caste Thakur men in Hathras, and the Uttar Pradesh government’s atrocious response to this heinous crime appears to have finally shaken the people enough to hit the streets again. This comes after a long spell of undemocratic arrests since our nationwide anti-CAA/NRC movement to save the constitutional values of democracy.

What has shocked people is the brazenness of it all — from the UP Police hurriedly cremating the victim’s body late in the night without her family’s presence, to the Hathras district administration sealing the borders and prohibiting journalists from entering. It’s not just the media that was barred by the UP administration, thereby denying them their fundamental right to press freedom. Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, two faces of the largest opposition party, too, were accosted and allegedly even beaten by the UP Police.

The Delhi-UP borders have been effectively closed off with heavy police patrolling along the Noida area. The Yogi Adityanath-led UP administration is putting pressure on officials to establish that it wasn’t a case of gangrape even as Aligarh Hospital MLC’s report suggests otherwise. The four alleged rapists are Thakurs, the politically dominant community in Uttar Pradesh, to which CM Yogi Adityanath also belongs.

As far as the investigation is concerned, I don’t trust the UP Police. Nor do I trust the CBI. Free and fair investigation in this case is possible only by an SIT in which the names of two investigating officers are suggested by the victim’s family. And for this to happen, Dalit leaders and human rights activist/lawyers must be allowed to meet the family members and convince them to suggest the names of officers whose integrity is impeccable. But given what UP and India under the BJP has become, this possibility is very bleak.

But as troubling as this development has been, since the eruption of subsequent wave of protests, I and many like-minded people have had a nagging question in the back of our heads: Will such agitations make a dent? Should we dare to expect any real change, howsoever small?

Also read: Forensic report ruling out rape in Hathras unreliable, say doctors at AMU where woman was treated

Caste-centred rape a fact of India’s patriarchal society

To understand this doubt, it’s crucial to look back at our socio-political history. Rape is a fact of India’s patriarchal society, and caste-based rapes are also a reality in our country’s feudal, Manuvadi system. In the 1970s, the Mathura custodial rape became a landmark case — a tribal-bahujan girl was raped by two policemen in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli. The case culminated in a shocking judgment by the Supreme Court where it acquitted the accused and remarked that it could not have been rape, because there were ‘no visible signs of injury on her body, thereby suggesting no struggle and therefore, no rape’. This verdict shocked the conscience of civil society, feminist groups and many in the legal fraternity. As thousands took to the streets, wrote articles and campaigned in protest, the movement finally affected major changes in India’s rape legislation.

In the 1990s, a similar trajectory ensued with the gangrape of a Dalit social-worker in rural Rajasthan. Bhanwari Devi was raped by Gurjar men, but the trial court judge acquitted the accused, saying that “they could not have committed the crime. An upper-caste man could not have defiled himself by raping a lower-caste woman.” The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 was yet to be implemented. Soon after the accused were acquitted, India saw a nationwide movement against the judgment. Bhanwari Devi’s story, much like Mathura’s, had led to widespread protests, feminist uprising and political shift, finally resulting in a change in India’s workplace sexual harassment laws for good. We need to look back at these stories to see how Dalit and Adivasi women have always been denied justice by our legal system and society. Such incidents also highlight a significant shift between then and now, politically speaking.

Back then, the cases saw no legal punishment against the upper-caste or power-wielding perpetrators, while simultaneously provoking big changes in India’s rape laws for good. Today, as someone who marched in movements such as Una and against Rohith Vemula’s institutional murder, and the Valmiki gangrape victim now, I fear a shrinking sense of tangible victories. While earlier governments were apathetic to activists, the government today is not just apathetic, but also an active participant in our criminalisation.

Also read: When words lose meaning: Indian politics as a clash of visuals

What I have learnt from Una, Vemula movements

Despite the 2016 Una incident — seven members of a Dalit family were assaulted by cow vigilantes — being filmed and its video shared, the BJP-affiliated perpetrators went scot-free, but our team of organisers, including me, were detained on multiple counts, and charged with FIRs for carrying out peaceful protests. To date, my fellow activists who had demanded land for Dalits after the Una Yatra, continue to appear before local courts for voicing their dissent. Similarly, Rohith Vemula’s mother Radhika, too, was constantly vilified and hounded by the BJP. The Bhima Koregaon celebration of 2018, a powerful symbol of Dalit dissent, has been branded as a gathering of ‘urban Naxals’ with many senior activists and lawyers such as Anand Teltumbde and Sudha Bharadwaj now in jail.

Although, it is important not to lose hope, and we must aspire for justice in the Hathras protests, the sense of repression is unmistakable. Today, we have farmers and anti-caste voices dissenting on the streets, but two of UP’s former chief ministers — Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav — have yet to visit the Hathras victim’s family. Speaks volumes about the BJP’s power of silencing.

The Yogi government can easily trample the Congress’ leaders and get away with it. Similarly, the media, which had expressed open-resentment against the UPA government after the December 2012 Delhi gangrape, today, is shy of questioning the state government on its disregard and the role of caste. In nearby Balrampur, where another Dalit woman was raped, the alleged rapists’ ‘Muslim identity’ became more important for the Right wing news ecosystem. In Hathras, not a sound has been uttered for the Thakur accused.

Crimes against the Dalits have been happening since forever, and we have also been protesting just like we do today. But whether any anti-caste movement will see a positive political shift under a Hindutva government is difficult to say. The way I see it, we will need a truly broad-based coalition, especially one that involves workers and labour movements from across the board, to see some real change with this government. Till now, the workers’ anger has been seen only briefly with the migrant mass-exodus. The real question is: whether it can be realistically sustained in long protests in the years to come.

Jignesh Mevani is an independent MLA in the Gujarat assembly and convener of the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch. Views are personal.

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  1. This article is not based on the strength of proven facts in public domain. Let the truth about Hathras emerge after the enquiry is completed. But don’t try to falsify established facts in other cases in the same breadth. That’s cheap opportunism. Eg., The Rohit Vemula case.
    One doesn’t expect ‘The Print’ to stoop so low as to give free run to such writers with extremely low credibility, whose only vile intent is to show the opposite parties in bad light and cause violent disturbances.

  2. “I don’t trust the UP Police. Nor do I trust the CBI. Free and fair investigation, in this case, is possible only by an SIT in which the names of two investigating officers are suggested by the victim’s family” ??? Explains everything. How does the Victim’s family in a village knows names of officers in SIT?

    This is the problem by attention-seeking hyper-activism!

  3. The guilty who have been accused should be given punishment to the fullest extent of the law.

    People who are terming one rape is worst than other and are only focussing on rapes to disturb harmony amongst HINDUS. Should be dealt with very strictly this time and every time. They don’t get to decide where to protest and where not to protest.

    By deciding to protest selectively they have lost MORAL authority and such people are a danger to peace and they cannot be allowed to carry out this vicious and dangerous agenda.

  4. in this case caste has to be included because this is about who has the power.
    Caste system is today all about power hierarchy. Thakurs have the power and large voting block in UP, so they expect to get away with their crimes.

  5. It’s a collective failure of our society and we haven’t reformed and are living with medivial mindset. It turns out from the article, highest of courts have failed us, providing dignity to victms.
    Yes a broad based solidarity is needed to push back regressive forces and for marching towards progress. But with this dispensation which has zero tolerance for dissent and agitate, and has created a ecosystem that distracts from main issues, how can people fight for broder change is a challenge as made by writer. For any progress this government has to go and that seems to be prerequisite, unless BJP mends it’s ways

  6. Such a poorly written article. How Mr. Shekar approved this to be published. Rape is Rape there shouldn’t be any excuse to it. It’s neither congress nor bjp’s responsibility, the onus is on every single citizen to ensure the safety of children, women and backwards class

  7. So Jignesh now you bat for crony Congress and rape never happened during UPA rule?Because now your masters are Shekar and his chamcha’s and you are very without life experiences you are allowed to preach Congress agenda. You know nothing so just shut up. You better not show up in Gujarat because they will lynch you.

  8. Waste article. Dont involve caste. No ome will support rapes on women but including caste is shame. What happened to other innocent women who was raped in other states. Fight for every women victim with out seeing caste

    • Partition of the country was on religious identity and accepted by Congress and leftists in 1947 and similarly, caste is playing an important part in the admission to the educational institution and government jobs. In our constitution SC, ST and OBC and also religious minorities have some privileges. You can’t blame BJP for that.

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