ON THE INTERSECTIONS OF CASTE AND GENDER VIOLENCE: EXAMINING THE HATHRAS CASE
Devdutta Chakraborty - Reducing Inequalities Mandate
Image Source: The Print India
Sexual violence against women is pervasive in India. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) India recorded 88 rape cases every day in 2019. The north-western state of Rajasthan reported 6000 cases while Uttar Pradesh followed a close second with 3065 cases. In all of this, the Dalit women have it worse. On an average, 10 Dalit women are raped every day in India, and Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of cases over any other state.
On 14 September, 2020 India witnessed the death of a 19-year-old Dalit girl from a Valmiki community who died in Hathras in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The girl was brutally assaulted and gang-raped by four Rajput men belonging to the Thakur community. This attack on the Dalit girl was the latest case highlighting the ever-increasing atrocious sexual and other kinds of violence against 200 million Dalits living in India. Cases regarding atrocities on marginalised communities have mostly remained (in)visible in the eye of mainstream media. But what this majorly highlighted was how as Gopal Guru (2020), puts it that when a society is divided along the lines of caste and communities, a countrywide response to the social and the gender question is unlikely because despite the human and universal nature of the question, the response of such a society will always remain fragmentary.
In this piece, I aim to explore the intersections of caste and gender and the horizontal inequalities faced by marginalised communities and the need for a more intersectional framework to bring a positive change.
THE INTERSECTION OF CASTE
While it is necessary to acknowledge that most rape victims are women, men being the perpetrators; yet looking at it merely from a binary and a uni-dimensional lens conceals the root causes of why rapes occur or more importantly, why it is mostly the marginalised communities who are the sufferers of such heinous crimes. In the Indian context, this statement stands especially true in the case of the marginalised communities and their women, in this case specifically, the Dalit women. It is important to examine intersecting discrimination to understand the skewed reality of our vision of gender inequality. When it comes to the question of gender-based violence, the lived experiences of the Dalit women is invisibilised and even normalised due to their being at the bottom of caste and class ranking.
To understand how caste plays a role in structural violence and inequality, we need to look at the question of sexual violence from an intersectional lens. In answering the questions of gender justice, an intersectional understanding is needed because different identities lead to different circumstances and manifestations of injustice. Therefore, intersecting identities such as caste become extremely important to understand the forms of violence against the marginalised. Here, rape becomes a weapon of power assertion and symbolic of the dominance of one over the other. Hence, looking at it from merely a gendered perspective leads to a myopic understanding of the issues. An intersectional lens however, helps put the spotlight on the skewed justice systems and flawed societies.
Protests in various cities demanding justice for the Rape victim. Picture Credit: New India Express
India remains the most dangerous country in the world to be a woman, according to a survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation (2019) which cited cultural traditions, sexual violence and trafficking as the main reasons behind the ranking. According to official statistics, there were an average of 87 reported rape cases per day, in 2019 alone. For the Dalits, the problem is even more pronounced. In 2019, more than 3500 Dalit women were raped in India, an increase of 18.6% compared to 2018. These are just among the officially reported cases. A large number of cases even go unreported and never make it to the official records. This is because of a large number of reasons. The most dominant among them is the fear of revenge and further ostracization by the dominant castes in the rural and urban areas.
Crenshaw in her seminal essay on intersectionality titled ‘Mapping the Margins’ (1990) argued how black women did not face discrimination, marginalisation or violence because of their race or sex, but because of the intersections of both race and sex. Borrowing from her argument, I would say this is pertinent to the Dalit women in India. It is important to acknowledge how intersections of identities and hierarchies result in structural violence. This is especially visible in the case of women who are differentially affected by various institutional, social, patriarchal and hierarchical structures. The social location of a Dalit woman who is situated at the lowest rung of multiple intersections of caste, class and gender hierarchies makes them susceptible to greater amounts of targeted violence.
A Dalit woman is raped not just to harm and humiliate her but her family and the entire community. She is raped in a bid to maintain and assert the power and dominance of an upper class system and society, which chooses to remain oblivious to discrimination and prevalent misogyny. India is a deeply patriarchal society where sexual aggression is equated with masculinity and openly propagated. Raping a Dalit woman takes it a notch further. It underscores the helplessness of the community and its men to be able to ‘protect’ their women.
Picture Credit: India TV News
The Hathras case is just another addition to a long list of cases. The Khairlanji incident or the Bhanwari Devi case are a few among the numerous cases that managed to at least garner media attention. What is common in all these cases is that justice never was served and was systematically denied. In both these cases, the perpetrators were shielded and let scot free, as seems to be the case in the Hathras incident. For example, in the Hathras incident, the body of the woman was severely brutalised-- her tongues torn, her spinal cord broken and her limbs fractured. The woman eventually succumbed to her injuries a fortnight later yet the Uttar Pradesh police refused to file a rape complaint, accused the woman of lying and delayed her treatment. A police official even went to the extent to claim that the rape never took place because the victim’s body had no semen on it. Further, in a bid to destroy evidence, the victim’s body was cremated in the dead of the night, with none of her family members being allowed to go near it. The victim’s brother was later taken in for an investigation and it is alleged that the family faced harassment from other community members too.
None of the women from the Thakur community spoke up and shielded the men who later even staged a protest, gathering the upper caste community to support them. The magnitude of the crime committed has already been diminished through general consensus. The media coverage conveniently choose to ignore important feminist concerns like that of the role of “consent”. The police repeated the narrative that no rape took place even after the woman mentioned in her dying declaration that they perpetrators did “zabardasti” with her, the connotations of the word being very specific.
THE INEQUALITY IN THE STRUGGLE FOR EQUALITY
The manner in which the voices of Dalit women have been erased from the mainstream media, literature etc. is evidence to the disregard faced by the community at large, especially within the women’s movement. Even when the media did take notice and set up panels to discuss and condemn the incident, the presence of Dalit voices were largely amiss. This brings us to the question of how will the media understand the intersectionality of gender and caste violence if they never take into account or have no understanding of episodes like that of Khairlanji or the Bhanwari Devi case? If nothing else, the events that unfolded in Hathras could be seen as a primer on the need for a shift in perspective in the covering of crimes with gender and caste dimensions.
Image source: bbc.com
The lived experiences of Dalit women is not simply because of their social standing but is also determined by the intersection of myriad modalities that make their suffering distinct, requiring combined efforts and affirmative action. Their oppression is multi-faceted, where they are oppressed not just by men from the upper castes but also from the Dalit communities because of the hierarchies prevalent within lower castes as well. So even if we choose to remain ignorant about the social and structural inequalities, caste remains an inherent inscription in the social fabric of our nation.
Add to this the fact that India’s criminal justice system is predominantly male, misogynistic and massively dominated by the upper-caste. In such a scenario, the chances of a Dalit woman securing justice is a rarity. Her social and political identity always remains “unequal” compared to other women. So the issue then goes beyond gender.
When we talk about inequalities, we have to understand that inequalities among large groups do not always arise due to individual choices but what Barros, Ferreira and others (2009) have called ‘morally irrelevant pre-determined circumstances’ which can be social, political, economic or cultural. Furthermore, age, religion, caste, creed, gender, ethnicity and location-- all which form the base of identities and distinctions and horizontal horizontal inequalities along these lines can be a source of injustice. Intersecting inequalities, as Crenshaw says, can be identified along these lines among the deprived and the marginalised. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013 provided a death penalty for cases that resulted in death yet that hasn’t reduced the incidence of rape in India, the number increasing by 31% in the last 10 years. Under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, a crime against a Dalit is an atrocity and calls for stringent punishment. In India’s case, the caste and power hierarchies give the perpetrators a worryingly high sense of impunity. To protest against this growing oppressions as Guru (2020) states remain confined to the social groups such as the Dalits, minorities and Adivasis. The cases of atrocities against minorities, especially the cases of rape should not be merely looked through the gender angle because even in today’s day and age, where women are increasingly reclaiming agency and autonomy of their bodies, a parallel reality exists in our country where marginalised women are not merely gendered entities but their bodies a tool to exert power and maintain hierarchies, further flaming the fires of oppression.
Five months since, there has been no concrete steps to provide any remedial action to the family. According to an India Today report, after the uproar the incident caused, a CBI report was filed which mentions how even after the woman mentioned the term ‘chhedkhani’ in her statement, the police did not order a test for sexual assault and observes how police negligence led to ‘non-collection of crucial evidence’.
The handling of the case reflects a massive caste-cultural dichotomy and a lack of action by either the judiciary or the police. The behaviour of the police and the state government reflect the systemic discrimination that a community faces. This particular instance is an example of the fact that even when Dalit women are regular victims of sexual violence, the state is often complicit in veiling the incidents which makes justice a distant reality. The dominant castes, here the Thakurs specifically play a significant role in electoral politics and occupy important positions even in administrative areas. Even after a dying declaration from the victim, the police refused to lodge a complaint in order to maintain the supremacy prevalent in these areas.
In conclusion, for proper redressed measures, there is a need to approach these cases from an intersectional lens. Ignoring identity will only strengthen the hold of a vicious caste-centric patriarchy over the society. To envision structural, systemic and social changes, an intersectional understanding is needed for more accountability, redressal of disadvantages. This will lead to lesser prejudice and facilitate a greater voice to and participation of women from underprivileged communities where the spotlight is put on not what is assumed but rather on their own narratives. Understanding of positionality and privilege is among the first steps towards a more inclusive fight for equality.
Devdutta Chakraborty is a research intern at CRRSS. She has received her master’s degree in Humanities and social sciences from IIT Gandhinagar. Her research interests lie in areas of trauma studies, gender and sexuality and violence studies.