The Indian caste system is the oldest surviving form of social stratification, established over 3000 years ago to divide Hindus based on their karma (work) and dharma (duty). The system places individuals in descending order of hierarchy based on the four varnas: the Brahmins (priests), the Kshatriyas (warriors), the Vaishyas (merchants) and the Shudras (servants) — communities which belong to one of the four aforementioned varnas are called savarna. Below these is the fifth caste known as the acchoots (untouchables) categorised as avarna as they don’t belong to any of the four varnas. Caste membership is entirely dependent on what family you are born into, and the classification determines how much access to wealth and privilege an individual will have in their lifetime.
Trigger Warning: sexual assault, rape, murder.
On the 14th September 2020, a 19-year-old Dalit girl was brutally gang-raped by 4 upper-caste men in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh. The girl died 2 weeks later in the hospital from injuries sustained during the attack. According to her brother no arrests were made by the police within 10 days of the event, and the issue was further escalated when the police cremated the body of the victim without the consent of her family. The Hathras case marked the beginning of several protests in India against sexual violence towards women, but many privileged upper-caste people were able to reduce what happened to the victim as simply being an act of patriarchal violence when the reality is that Dalit women are disproportionately more likely to face sexual violence than their savarna counterparts.
Savarna women being the dominant voices in Indian feminist spaces has meant that lower-caste women are often left out of the picture. Discussion on the role of caste is largely missing from the upper-caste women’s movement thus Indian feminists fail to advocate for true equality without being able to acknowledge they also benefit from the casteist system. Some even claim bringing up caste is ‘divisive’ as they believe women, regardless of background, ultimately share the same experiences of being subjected to sexual violence due to the patriarchy. However, such over-simplifications lead to an incomplete understanding of how important caste is in India’s rape epidemic.
“In many instances, sexual violence committed against Dalit women and girls is perpetrated by men from dominant ‘upper castes’, who use sexual violence as a tool to assert power and reinforce existing caste, social and gender hierarchies”Divya Srinivasan, a South Asia consultant for Equality Now
Even in casual derogatory sexist remarks aimed at Dalit women, there are casteist undertones, as is seen in a common saying amongst landowning Jats — “you have not really experienced the land until you have experienced the Dalit women”. Within unequal societies there is a trend of targeting women to seek revenge and assert control on marginalised communities; these women are seen as vulnerable and easily accessible by privileged men, and in the case of upper-caste men they believe they are entitled to do what they want to Dalit women as they have the societal advantage that means they rarely face the consequences of committing such horrific actions.
Lower-caste people do not have the same access to the legal system that savarna people do — there are incidents in which the police are paid off by the family of the upper-caste perpetrator so do not further investigate the crime, many women do not report the incident at all due to pressure from upper-caste locals (who may even pay them in exchange for their silence) or because they risk tainting their reputation. Some of these conditions can be seen in the case of Lalasa Devi, whose husband claims the investigator offered 200,000 Rupees for her to drop the case. In addition to the trauma that her rape had caused her, the social stigma placed an increased burden as she felt severely humiliated due to her neighbours making judgemental comments and her children being taunted at school.
It is important to note the protests demanding justice for the Hathras victim were only a moment and not the start of a movement. This was only one case that sparked nationwide protests, but according to the National Crime Records Bureau in 2019, on average 10 Dalit women were raped daily in India (these figures are likely to be higher due to the number of unreported incidents). There are countless other victims that are never heard of.
The sexual violence Dalit women are subjected to only gains media coverage when the victim has been extremely brutalised, thus the media rely on shock value to report such events to the wider Indian demographic. There is still a lot more work to be done for India to finally recognise the root causes of their rape crisis — only when there is a national dialogue about casteist patriarchy can there be justice for the many lower-caste women that have carried the burden of oppression.
Written by Tasneem Ali
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