The recent gang-rape case of a 19 year old Dalit girl from Hathras, Uttar Pradesh had made it to the headlines of the popular newspapers and has also occupied the space on all mainstream TV news channels during the past one week. International media and the agitated upper caste people in India are calling the case “the Nirbhaya of Hathras”. The non-Dalit protestors are drawing such comparisons to the present Hathras case because the brutality is equivalent or of higher degree in comparison to the rape of a woman in Delhi on 12 December 2012.. Such reactions from the upper castes are not new and have set an unfortunate pattern.
Now, the media and the upper castes only react to a rape of a woman when it takes a gruesome form. As a result, they overlook the wide-ranging atrocities committed on women on an everyday basis. Besides, such a view also downplays the role of caste and its implications for the Dalit women. The atrocities on Dalit women is part of the wider problem where the society refuses to acknowledge it as a special caste related problem, and the state machinery (police and judiciary) is complicit with the criminals.
Dalit atrocities end up remaining as mere stories for the media that are highlighted for a few days and then conveniently forgotten. The bigger debate that sparked up on various media forums post this incident was about whether this case should be looked at as a case of gender-based violence or as caste-based violence. While the upper caste politicians, activists and feminists in general wanted to treat this as a crime against woman, Dalits argued that it must be seen as a caste atrocity on a Dalit woman. Dalits argue that a rape of a Dalit woman is specifically done by the upper caste men to teach the former community a ‘lesson’. And this in itself answers the question why the caste of the victim as well as the perpetrator is significant in this case. The erasure of caste of the victim becomes “the agenda” in the midst of this incident.
Accepting that a gang-rape has been committed on a woman and she is a Dalit becomes really tough. The upper caste ‘sympathisers’ are ready to see it as a gang-rape but there is a strong hesitation in accepting the caste identity of the Dalit victim as well as that of the upper caste perpetrators. Most importantly they do not want to accept that their caste fellows are practicing caste-based discrimination and exclusion on an everyday basis. Ironically, however, the same groups (Brahmins, Rajput and Thakurs) are absolutely comfortable in flaunting and valorising their caste pride and their caste norms in public highlighting the ‘richness’ of their culture and traditions.
There is an on-going tension between two communities which has gone unacknowledged as well as unaddressed. And this tension is rooted in the relationship of the upper caste Hindus with Dalits. Dominant caste groups are offended when they see a Dalit who refuses to be under their servility. The worst is when they find the caste norms broken when a Dalit seeks education, earns a decent income, and lives a dignified life. Such defying of caste norms by the Dalits invokes frustration among the upper castes who use the mediums of criminal activities to put the former ‘in their place’. Such criminal activities committed by the upper caste groups rely on the moral justification offered by the Hindu religious scriptures. The caste norms derived from the religious scriptures such as The Laws of Manu permit the upper caste men to rape and commit gruesome atrocities on Dalit women. Dalit women are specifically targeted by the upper caste men and they are raped in order to teach a lesson to the larger Dalit community.
While the upper castes rely on the Laws of Manu to commit atrocities on Dalits, the country is now governed by a modern legal framework enshrined in the Indian constitution. It is through the provisions in the constitution that the Dalits have sought protection against the atrocities. With the adoption of Indian Constitution in 1950, Dalits were given the status of equal citizens and legislations were brought in effect to remove the practice of untouchability. To tackle the increasing atrocities, the Government of India in 1990 has passed the Scheduled Castes-Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The Act lists down 22 different offences that classify to be an atrocity. This act is drafted in a manner that it makes a provision for the prevention of atrocity. However, this Act is only used when the atrocity has already been committed. This is what happens in majority cases and the same has happened in the Hathras case.
Despite the fact that there is a Special legislation for the protection and prevention of Dalits against such atrocities, it has been made redundant by the upper caste police officials and the upper caste judges. In 2019, Dalit Women Fight, which is India’s largest and only Dalit-women led Collective, took up 100 cases of caste based atrocities on Dalit women, children and assisted the survivors with free legal aid. In these cases it was found that there is a complete system failure. In 99% of these cases, the police handed over an acknowledgement for a Non-Cognizable offence instead of filing the First Information Report (FIR). It is only when Dalit rights activists or lawyers exerted massive pressure that an FIR was filed, and the criminals were booked under the accurate sections under the SC-ST Prevention of Atrocity Act. The next step is to make sure that a strong charge-sheet is framed with the accurate charges against the criminals. This is where the police machinery is complicit with the upper caste criminals. The police use some irrelevant sections or frame the caste perpetrators in some weaker charges which allows them to go scot free. For instance a 13 year old minor Dalit girl was kidnapped and raped in Uttar Pradesh last year. In this case the criminal should have been booked under the SC-ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act as well as The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012. However, the police charged the criminal only under the POCSO Act. As a result, this weakens the case of the Dalit victim who is otherwise given greater protection under the SC-ST Atrocities Act.
And when finally the case reaches the court, it can be seen that the public prosecutors that are appointed to the survivors are most of the time disinterested in the case. The judges have also not left any scope of why they should not be seen as complicit. In the Mirchpur Massacre Case 2010, the Sessions Court in Delhi acquitted those perpetrators whom the High Court convicted later. In the cases of Crimes Against Scheduled Castes, as per the 2018 statistics by the National Crimes Record Bureau, the conviction rate is 28.5% and the pendency rate of the cases is 93.5%. In 2018, total cases of crime on Scheduled Castes was recorded to be 42793 and out of these there were acquittals in 16852 cases. The extremely high acquittal rate is evidence that the judiciary is also complicit in such cases. Such instances of acquittals are used by the upper caste Hindus to argue for the scrapping of the atrocity act.
In the present scenario the complete system is working in favour of protecting the criminals than ensuring that Dalits are secure in the country. The energy and resources are channelized in providing impunity to the perpetrators. The power of caste solidarity is clearly visible. The upper caste villagers in Hathras have stood firmly in favour of the rapists. The District Magistrate has even threatened the victim’s family of dire consequences if they spoke to the media. And, the state government of Uttar Pradesh has imposed section 144 prohibiting the movement of people in that area.
This is very much in contrast with the case of Delhi gangrape 2012, where the victim was an upper caste woman. In her case, the whole system was compelled to work and it was ensured that the perpetrators were given the highest punishment. Moreover, new amendments were also introduced following this rape case in the existing rape law. There was a consensus that the new amendments should be more stringent for the protection of women. However, there was a clear split when it came to the Scheduled Castes-Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act except for Dalit & Trbal groups.The left liberals didnt show any enthusiasm to support this legislation. In some cases elected representatives as well as upper caste groups were entirely hostile to this legislation.
It is high time that the upper caste liberals and leftists see the role of caste in crime and stand in solidarity with the Dalit women – the way Dalit women have historically stood with them when a crime is committed against the upper caste women.
Riya Singh is a doctoral researcher in Women & Gender Studies at Centre for Women’s Development Studies, Delhi - Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University, Delhi. She is a part of Core Leadership Group in India’s single and largest dalit women-led collective, Dalit Women Fight. She works on ground with the survivors of caste based atrocities of dalit community in six states of Northern India.