A 19-year old Dalit woman in a village in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, died on September 28, 2020, after battling for life following rape and torture by four caste men on September 14. She was abducted while cutting grass for her cattle and was found several hours later paralyzed with multiple injuries, a broken neck, and a bleeding tongue.
Police arrested the four rapists after five days, moved her to a bigger hospital nearby, and then to a Delhi hospital where she died. Her body was brought back to her village the same night by the police and was cremated in a field at 2:00 am without any family members present. The post-mortem report released the next morning stated that the woman was not raped and that her death was due to the injuries.
The features of the aftermath of the rape and murder were the same as always whenever a Dalit woman is assaulted: slow, reluctant, or hostile police response; tardy investigations; questions about whether it was a rape at all; counter-narratives holding the girl or girl’s family responsible for her death; that it was not a caste atrocity; and the state authorities and caste communities conniving to protect the perpetrators.
This is not just a stray incident of rape, but a continuing trend of violence against Dalit women. As per a 2019 report of India’s National Criminal Records Bureau, every day 117 Dalits were assaulted, two murdered, and ten Dalit women raped by caste men. The conviction rate continues to be low. The culprits often get away exercising their caste privilege and using political connections. In some cases, the victims are penalized with jail sentences, torture, murder, and their communities are punished through economic boycotts for their audacity to seek justice. Dalits, over 200 million, are the most oppressed people of the caste-ridden Indian society. Despite laws that criminalize untouchability, discrimination, and violence, Dalits continue to live through these experiences.
Even as the rape of women is a shameful global reality, the Dalit women's experience of sexual violence stands out as one legitimized by two robust cultures of domination and subjugation, namely, caste and patriarchy. Dalit women suffer multiple forms of exploitation due to being poor, women, and low caste. So much so that news of their violation is often met with apathy and indifference as compared to organized protests and swift legal action when caste Hindu women are victims. Very few women’s movements respond or express their solidarity.
What makes it more disastrous now is the increased lethality of this combination of caste and patriarchy in an ethos of supremacist political culture. These forces seem to work together to manipulate public attitudes and responses by refurbishing myths and glorifying oppressive roles and social relationships. So much so that every time a rape or assault occurs, along with a brief spell of moral outrage, it is followed by victim-blaming, with some men holding women’s dress preferences, behavior, and mobility as provocations.
The reassertion of these cultures of caste, racism, and similar others, and patriarchy, in the emerging supremacist political culture along with the pervasive neo-liberal economic pursuits, indicate grave challenges. These thrive on the logic of domination, discrimination, subjugation, and exploitation. Devaluation of some is crucial and necessary for the assertion of pride, power, and privilege. These women, in whichever social and economic location, bear the brunt of the intensity of the interplay of these dehumanizing forces.
With hatred and discrimination on one hand, and arrogance and aggression on the other as sustaining energies, the cumulative effect of these forces, whether in India or elsewhere, will only diminish possibilities for the values of justice, equity, dignity, compassion, and solidarity to guide human relationships. Furthermore, a healthier evolution of societies with respectable gender relationships may not be easy where oppressive social relationships and violation of human dignity are institutionalized, and subservience and conformity are held as virtues.
It is ironic that these forces draw their strength and sustenance from religious resources. Alongside the finer and life-assuring expressions of faith communities worldwide through their humanitarian engagement during the current pandemic, we also see the relentless distortion of religious resources by some to legitimize their greedy schemes for wealth, power, and privilege. At this moment in time when religious resources are increasingly seen as forces of injustice, oppression, and death, it is imperative for all others - faith communities, civil society organizations, and interfaith initiatives - to assert their moral responsibility both to defend dignity and rights of women and similarly disempowered people and to restore the fallen structures of human society.
Let me end on a positive note: the rape and murder of this young woman seem to have evoked a new understanding of the interplay of these forces and a new sense of empathy and solidarity among women’s movements in India. Women from many backgrounds and social locations have joined the protests led by Dalit women. Despite lockdowns, there have been demonstrations in many cities in India since then and in other parts of the world too.
Campaigns in solidarity with the Dalits and those committed to ending violence against women demand firm action against the rapists and the government’s decisive action to curb the rising trend of violence against Dalits and Dalit women. Their social media protests are being facilitated through the following hashtags:
#DalitLivesMatter #ifwedonotrise #HatrasCase #stopcastebasedsexualviolenceondalitwomen
To learn more about the incident, the Dalits and the Dalit women leaders, follow the links below: