In the week that followed the death of a Dalit woman who had been raped by dominant caste men in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras, a number of discussions on public social media accounts either dismissed the heinous crime or vehemently denied its caste premise. Rekha Raj, a Dalit woman from Kerala, observes these mainstream debates with the critical eye of a feminist activist, Ambedkarite and academic who has led land struggles and agitations against sexual violence for the past two decades.
“A Dalit woman’s body here is a site of violence while the upper caste woman’s body is pure and protected. Hathras case can be categorised only as a caste crime,” she told HuffPost India in an interview.
Like Tarana Burke, a Black woman from New York who started the #MeToo movement in the US before it reached Hollywood, Raj was at the forefront of Kerala’s protests against sexual harassment which kicked off in 2018, a year before it gathered steam across the country. “Apathy towards caste reality stems from a basic problem—diminished understanding of social justice. Only if you understand the need for social justice in a democratic society will you even try to understand caste reality,” she said.
A feminist who represented with ease and authority the sexual assault experiences of caste Hindu and Dalit women during the 2018 wave of #MeToo, Raj says that given the hubris of caste denial, Dalit women find it increasingly difficult to organise against sexual atrocities. “It should be remembered that very few Dalit women are accepted in such a role of authority… On the other hand, the general trend in India is that caste-ignorant people speak for Dalit women like what has happened in the case of Hathras rape victim. What is deplorable is that even such upper-caste women get acceptance readily in the public sphere.”
The dominant castes should let go of “savarna fragility”, she said. Most importantly, she observed, “It is not enough for the upper castes to come and join the Dalits in protests, they should start protests in their own communities… In Hathras, more than the Dalits, the upper-caste public could have sensitised the Thakurs of the village who are now holding rallies to protect the culprits”.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
In the solidarity statements which came after the rape and murder of a Dalit woman in Hathras, some sections condemned the sexual violence but refused to categorise it as caste violence. Yet another section has vociferously highlighted prevalent caste oppression as the cause of the crime. Why do you think this crime brought out these varied opinions?
People do not like complications. People have affinity towards ideas which are easily understandable and they embrace social categories which are easily demarcated. Gender was not such an easily graspable category till very recently but through discussions, debates and social interventions of the feminist movement, gender has now become a category which is comparatively easier to understand than caste. But it should be understood that without considering social power relations, one cannot reach a feminist understanding of the Hathras crime.
In this particular case, a Valmiki woman was raped and killed by Thakurs who are now flaunting their caste pride. In Uttar Pradesh, if you look at the list of women who have undergone sexual violence, a majority of them would be from subaltern categories. This is a place where women are paraded naked to settle village disputes. A Dalit woman’s body here is a site of violence while the upper caste woman’s body is pure and protected. Hathras case can be categorised only as a caste crime.
Why are you absolutely sure about this categorisation?
Because an Indian village has a caste structure and this crime falls right within its ambit. In a caste village, the upper castes live in the centre of the village and the marginalised live in the fringes. In the same village, the violence which Dalit women face is not just the violence inflicted on an individual but the violence which is also directed at the marginalised community from which she hails. As is the case in Hathras, the violence is a warning or a threat to the community.
Only those who do not accept that caste is an Indian reality would say ‘a rape is a rape is a rape’. It could come from their naiveté but it also reflects their apathy towards social reality and justice. This classical feminist notion of a universal female experience does not hold anymore.
“When Dalit people talk of caste atrocities and of caste reality in everyday life, the fragile upper castes feel hurt. Why should they? The Dalits cannot help them with this fragility.”
Classical feminism may have retreated from academic and activist spaces, but does it not still influence the thinking of several women who are not connected with these fields? Doesn’t the basic premise of removing caste from a crime like this stem from this influence?
I do not think so. This apathy towards caste reality stems from a basic problem—diminished understanding of social justice. Only if you understand the need for social justice in a democratic society will you even try to understand caste reality.
For example, when an upper-caste, middle class woman decides that her life’s reality is the only universal reality, she will not be able to see beyond it. But if she looks out the window and finds a manual-scavenging woman cleaning the roads, a lottery seller or a domestic help, she will be able to see that they lead different lives and that their challenges are different from hers. Here, she will ideally have to understand that social justice matters and that those women too should get their due share. Only a position of privilege will make you oblivious to social justice.
In this case too, erasing caste reality of the victim is an act of privilege. If you are a feminist you should not just understand patriarchy but also your own privilege.
Given that there is a wilful or naïve attempt to erase caste from the gender discourse, as exemplified by a section of responses to the Hathras case, is forming a Dalit women-led front against sexual violence difficult?
The Dalit feminist articulation against caste crimes and sexual assaults started in urban academic spaces because that’s the one of the first spaces which Dalit women could claim. Given the general apathy towards caste discourse, it is difficult for this collective of academics and activists, who are still vying for their rightful space in these institutions, to form an effective front against caste oppression which will have an influence in a village in Uttar Pradesh or elsewhere in India.
What they can do is to lobby to get the attention of political actors. In universities across the country and abroad, Dalit women led protests against Hathras horror and this led the Congress party to stand by the victim and her family.
But you are a person who has worked as an activist for two decades. Was it difficult for you to organise Dalit women into social action in a casteist society where at least some sections remain oblivious to caste oppression and violence faced by Dalits?
All my life as an activist I have spent my energy trying to convince others of the confluence of gender and caste in violence against Dalit women. It was difficult to convince people that when Dalit women articulate their gender and caste realities, they strengthen the feminist movement. It was difficult to convince upper-caste men and women that Dalit women can contribute towards a broader definition of feminism which serves social justice.
For example, the equal property rights which Mary Roy fought for and won in Kerala is a huge achievement but what value is it for a Dalit woman who lives on two cents of land in a Dalit colony? It is when Muthanga (2003) and Chengara (2007) land struggles peaked that Adivasi and Dalit women’s land rights got discussed. Given that, I still think that varied voices will strengthen both Dalit and feminist movements in particular and progressive collectives in general.
“It should be remembered that very few Dalit women are accepted in such a role of authority. Not many get the chance to become an authority on feminism or the gender question because caste disadvantage relegates them to the margins.”
In 2018 you organised a Dalit women’s front against sexual violence which subsequently became Kerala’s #MeToo movement. This was a year before the #MeToo campaign kicked off in full steam in India. That year you represented savarna and Dalit women who were sexually harassed by campaigning for them on social media and even lodging police complaints on their behalf. At the time, you did it without erasing anyone’s—be that of savarna or Dalit—socio-economic experience of sexual violence. Why is it not possible for upper-caste feminists who comment or extend solidarity to the Hathras victim to do the same?
I could do that because of the years of work I have put in fighting crime against women, be it in Kerala’s ice cream parlour case, Suryanelli case or Vithura case. My voice got the acceptance and I got unconditional support because I had been consistently protesting against sexual violence and writing about women’s experiences.
I got the acceptance and could represent women of varied backgrounds also because I have been writing, speaking and engaging with the public on issues that concern social justice, be it land rights or caste oppression. I have been a consistent presence in these struggles. I could do it because I refused to be looked at as a victim and rose to a leadership position in movements. Along with me, the Dalit women who spoke out against sexual violence they faced did the same and survived. Even now the survivors are actively engaged in social justice movements.
It should be remembered that very few Dalit women are accepted in such a role of authority. Not many get the chance to become an authority on feminism or the gender question because caste disadvantage relegates them to the margins. On the other hand, the general trend in India is that caste-ignorant people speak for Dalit women like what has happened in the case of Hathras rape victim. What is deplorable is that even such upper-caste women get acceptance readily in the public sphere.
What caution should women who get such ready acceptance as representatives of the gender struggle practise if they want to speak on others’ behalf?
They should not speak on others’ behalf. They should pass the mike. If they do not understand caste atrocities, they should learn to remain silent because they are the ones who have been speaking so far. They should understand their privilege and practice silence when needed.
For example, in a classroom when there are people who cannot speak well in English and there are those who can, it is better for the latter to remain silent to encourage the former group to speak because they are underprivileged and because they have the right to be heard.
Your demand for silence on their part could be branded as an attempt at censorship.
Such readings cannot be encouraged because that’s the same logic put forth by men when they were faced with feminist struggle for gender rights. Men felt that the feminist struggle will deprive them of their rights whereas in actuality the feminist struggle only reminded men of their privilege. So, if upper-caste men or women find our demand for silence an atrocity unto itself, we will have to tell them that that demand is non-negotiable.
It is pertinent to understand that such fears stem from savarna fragility, which is similar to white fragility. When Dalit people talk of caste atrocities and of caste reality in everyday life, the fragile upper castes feel hurt. Why should they? The Dalits cannot help them with this fragility.
All the examples you have mentioned so far to explain caste reality compare the Dalit experience with universal experiences of depravity, be it gender struggle, land struggle or lack of proficiency in English. Is it tiresome to constantly attempt this comparison for the benefit of a savarna public who lacks understanding of caste?
Yes it is. The question now is whether we as Dalits should take this burden up. I think this burden of explanation and sensitisation should no longer rest on Dalits. The upper castes should educate themselves of caste realities. They should take some initiative on their own. I ask such people to read these days.
Does this lack of initiative on the part of the savarna public to educate themselves about the reality of caste oppression normalise caste violence in the country? Say, even in Hathras?
Yes, very much. I have been reiterating that anti-caste movement for the upper castes should start in their own communities.
It is not enough for the upper castes to come and join the Dalits in protests, they should start protests in their own communities. They should ideally go back and sensitise their own families and communities because they are the ones who practice caste discrimination. Only then will anti-caste values percolate down from urban centres where caste is practised to the remotest of villages where heinous caste crimes take place.
Beyond immediate families, is this sensitisation possible?
There are so many academics who can study how caste oppression gets perpetuated by upper castes. There are so many political actors who can sensitise the upper castes.
In Hathras, more than the Dalits, the upper caste public could have sensitised the Thakurs of the village, who are now holding rallies to protect the culprits. What prevented them from taking a delegation of prominent academics and activists to the village for negotiations? There should have been an attempt from their side to write pamphlets, hold rallies to the village and speak to those who are baying for blood. Such interventions are also part of anti-caste movement.
Given the lack of sensitivity, in future struggles against caste crimes, will it be Dalit women who will have to ideally lead the protests?
Struggles against caste crimes will have to be led by Dalits—men and women. In this, Dalit women could assume the lead role at times because it will help broaden the struggle. At the same time, prompt and proactive action which understands caste reality will have to come from the side of the upper castes too.