The horrible Hathras gangrape case has left a scar on India, not just as another instance of gender-based violence but one of structural oppression based on caste.
To give a rewind - late last month, a 19-year-old woman was allegedly gang-raped and brutally assaulted by four men belonging to the Thakur community in the Hathras district of Western Uttar Pradesh (UP). She was a Dalit. Reportedly, she was denied any help by the cops in her village and even struggled to get proper medical attention, and succumbed to her injuries two weeks after the attack.
Dalit women have been at the receiving end of deep-rooted casteism and patriarchy for a long time. And while gender violence in India has become rampant, this case highlights the systemic discrimination and misogyny that Dalit women face every day, which is otherwise blatantly ignored.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s annual report, atrocities against the Dalits in the last decade have gone up by 37 percent and the conviction rate has gone up by a mere 2.5 percent. In 2019, 10 Dalit women were raped in the country every day as per the statistics. UP reported the highest number of cases of sexual assault against women, with 11,289 cases - the highest number of crimes against the Dalits in India. In fact, UP, Rajasthan, and Bihar, make up for more than half of the cases of atrocities against the Dalits.
The familiar story
The aftermath of the Hathras case played out – unsurprisingly – with delayed investigations, alleged cover-ups by the authorities, and political gameplays. The police even locked up the victim’s family and forcibly cremated her body after midnight, denying the family to see her body for one last time. They even barred media and opposition politicians for a brief time, raising further doubts of a cover-up.
ABSOLUTELY UNBELIEVABLE - Right behind me is the body of #HathrasCase victim burning. Police barricaded the family inside their home and burnt the body without letting anybody know. When we questioned the police, this is what they did. pic.twitter.com/0VgfQGjjfb
— Tanushree Pandey (@TanushreePande) September 29, 2020
A senior police officer from UP even claimed that the girl had not been raped at all and that the incident was only an attempt to disrupt the peace and stir caste tensions in the State. Additional Director General (ADG) of Police Prashant Kumar had told reporters that the forensic report (which was late by 11 ays) had found “no sperm samples” on the body of the victim.
However, Indian anti-rape laws clarify that the absence or presence of semen by itself does not prove rape. In fact, on October 14, the Allahabad high court came down heavily on the UP government for ‘violating the fundamental rights’ of the victim and her family with the above-mentioned moves.
It’s all about the caste
An examination of the cases of sexual assault against Dalit women shows that perpetrators enjoy a pattern of impunity. Especially in rural areas, the power remains with the upper and middle classes. For example, take the 1992 Bhanwari Devi gang-rape case - the accused were let go on the basis that upper-caste men cannot rape a lower-caste woman because of ‘purity’. (The judgement caused a global outrage, which finally led to India’s first law for sexual harassment in the workplace being passed in 1997.) However, the five accused in the case were acquitted, despite the 1989 law that aims to prevent atrocities against the community, and other laws that protect women.
Who gets to protest & who doesn't, whose protests are crushed, which protestors are jailed, their bail denied, SM tracked, families hounded, is also determined by social privilege. Everyone has right to protest, but not everyone's rights are guarded equally. Amplify Dalit voices.
— #MeTooIndia (@IndiaMeToo) October 2, 2020
Dalit women are to this day - assaulted, raped, and murdered - even by members of their own caste. When the Centre for Dalit Rights examined 100 such cases of sexual violence against Dalit women in India between 2004 and 2013, it was found that the perpetrators belonged to 36 different castes, including Dalit.
It is unfortunate that even after decades of Independence, India’s casteism refutes change. But Dalit women are fighting back like never before. Earlier the violence went unchecked. As Dalit rights activist Majula Pradeep rightly put it, Dalits now have visibility, are stronger and more assertive. And the Judiciary’s latest move gives hope.
(Edited by Athira Nair)