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?
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.
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.