Annesha Saha writes on the condition of Dalit women in India during the lockdown. She chronicles the atrocities committed on them and links the atrocities to long standing structural inequalities that have historically marginalized and brutalised communities.
“No shame have I
To say the faults of my caste
Though all blame me
A cursed offspring on earth”
Poykayil Appachan’s poem on the struggles of Dalits in India remains relevant even after almost 80 years precisely because India’s caste system continues to proliferate in the face of laws and changing times. Although the corona virus pandemic has been touted as “the longest period of human quiet”, India continues to set new records of human quiet every day, as evinced by the silence surrounding horrific acts of caste based violence. Despite constitutional safeguards and special legislation for the country’s 201 million scheduled castes (the official term for Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Dalits), violations of their fundamental rights are now a quotidian affair.
The reality of the caste system and all its manifestations in every sphere of life denying dignity and full humanity to the oppressed cannot be disputed. On a daily basis, they battle multiple forms of discrimination and atrocity. Under the lockdown in India, members of the Dalit community have been further marginalised and ostracised. The lockdown has witnessed a massive rise in inhumane humiliations, discrimination, oppressions, attacks and human rights violations faced by Dalits. While India continues to tout itself as the largest democracy in the world, the atrocities and injustices committed against Dalits continue unabated. At least 2 Dalits are assaulted every hour and every day three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered and 2 Dalit houses are torched on average.
On account of being born a Dalit in India, one is compelled to accept a life of ignominy and shame. But when you are a Dalit and also a woman, the predicament is much worse. In the case of a Dalit woman, the devaluation of her personality takes on a double dimension precisely because she is simultaneously devalued as a woman and a Dalit. Dalit women’s right- as both women and Dalits- to selfhood, autonomy, sexual and bodily integrity, equality and dignity and respect are almost always viewed to be in contradiction to patriarchal constructs of their honour and chastity and their sexual availability. Covid 19 has affected a considerable transformation of the world and the ensuing lockdown has failed to bring a halt to caste atrocities against Dalits and tribals, and has been instrumental in putting the spotlight on the rampant sexual violence faced by India’s 80 million Dalit women, who like their male counterparts, languish at the bottom of India’s stringent caste hierarchies. In addition to being victims of gender bias and caste discrimination, the lockdown had also ensured that India’s female Dalit population now face economic deprivation.
Caste violence is often intricately linked with sexual violence faced by Dalit women who remain invisible and their problems are relegated to the periphery in this wider struggle of the Dalit community to gain recognition. Sexual violence like all violence is highly functional which is to say that it serves certain motives including the reinforcement of female subordination and disempowerment. This type of violence is individual-social. At its core it violates Dalit women’s rights to privacy vis-à-vis their ownership of sexual, bodily and psychological integrity and their identity. There are fundamental contradictions, dichotomies and tensions that pervade Dalit women’s lives, which shape and intensify their experiences of as well as responses to sexual violence. An incident on 9th October 2020, involving the gang rape of a 20 year old woman by 2 people in a village in Liluali (U.P.) when she was returning after defecating in a field, highlights how sexual violence against Dalit women threatens their collective rights to a life of security. She returned home in the wee hours of the following day, in a bad condition with glucose drip attached to her arms. She was soon rushed to a hospital but died on the way. Irrespective of where it falls on the continuum, every form of sexual violence constitutes a serious breach of women’s rights.
Dalit women are accorded a low social status owing to the notion of untouchability which functions as an opportune rationale for dominant castes to discriminate against them and subsequently devalue their capabilities. Untouchability in itself acts more like an ideological veneer that assists in camouflaging these violations, rather than explaining other crimes. Untouchability not only presents an avenue for legitimizing dominant caste appropriation of the minimal resources available to Dalit women and their families, but also functions systematically to deny them any political agency. Dalit women’s impure caste status serves as evidence for dominant castes’ allegations of witchcraft and accordingly justifies assaults on these women’s bodies as punishment for the alleged crimes of causing illnesses and death to humans and animals in the village. On 9th May 2020, three women in Muzaffarpur district were allegedly branded as witches and thrashed and tonsured. They were performing some rituals when they were caught by angry villagers on suspicion of being involved in black magic. They were thrashed, tonsured and paraded half naked in the village.
The contradiction in the practice of untouchability becomes apparent in dominant caste physical or sexual violence against Dalit women where a claim is laid over the women’s’ bodies and sexuality. This also maintains the inequitable power relationships in a gender-based, casteist society. A curious paradox follows. Dominant caste men’s vociferous claims to purity and their consequent desire to remain segregated from “impure” Dalits, fall through when the former find no difficulty indulging in sexual relationships with Dalit women. Caste discrimination still exists. But the fact that untouchability in its literal form does not exist so much, makes at least some people think that the caste system does not exist anymore.
Sexual violence and the fear of it, governs Dalit women’s lives more than any other form of violence. During the lockdown in India, Lakhimpur Khari district in U.P. witnessed two incidents of the rape and murder of Dalit girls. On 14th August 2020, the body of a 13 year old Dalit girl was found in a sugarcane field owned by one of the accused. Her eyes had been gouged out. Her tongue was cut and strangled with a dupatta. And on 26th August 2020, a 17 year old girl was found dead near her house. The police said that the minor was raped before being killed with a sharp weapon. After recovering her mutilated body, the police said there were injury marks on her neck and a part of her leg seemed to have been devoured by a stray animal.
Atrocities continue against Dalits in the country in the form of rapes, naked parading and character assassination and domestic violence. The pain, suffering and terror that a Dalit woman is put through by the casteist society, makes her a mere object of hatred, desire and contempt. Her unprotected availability at fields, and construction sites, in order to earn a livelihood has made her available to men. Perceived as properties available for sexual gratification by upper caste Hindus, they are molested and violated.
The persistence of such crimes in India with sickening regularity underlines that the law is only as effective as its enforcement. The perpetuation of human rights abuses against India’s Dalit population is intimately connected to police abuse. Local police officials routinely refuse to register cases against caste Hindus or enforce relevant legislation that protects Dalits. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 was designed to prevent abuses against members of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes and punish those responsible. The laws however have benefitted very few.
Sexual violence looms large in both the ideology and practise of class, caste and gender oppression. Dominant caste men view Dalit women as accessible for forced or coerced sexual acts due to their caste, relative independence of movement and economic dependence primarily on dominant castes for their livelihood. Oftentimes, the Dalit woman’s body is used for sexual gratification and this act is viewed as a dominant caste male right. In a video circulated in social media, the Hathras victim is seen telling the police about the actions of her perpetrators: “Gala daba diya (They strangled me)”. When she was asked why she said, “Zabardasti na karne de rahi taiku (Because I did not let them force me)”. Following an absolute dismissal of formal law, the question of Dalit women’s consent becomes immaterial. A proverb in currency in U.P. is very telling of this right of appropriation, “just as a she-goat may be milked at any time at one’s will, so can a Chamar woman be enjoyed at any time, at one’s will, at one’s discretion”.
The persistence of such crimes with nauseating regularity underscores that the law is only as effective as its enforcement. Most violence of this nature involves official complicity in one form or another and Dalits remain mostly unprotected by the state machinery. Oftentimes, the police fail to exercise due diligence to prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence, especially in cases where the victim is a Dalit woman. In the Hathras rape case, U.P. police conveniently claimed that no sperm was found even though they collected the forensic evidence 11 days after the incident, with complete disregard to government guidelines that such evidence must be gathered within 9 hours. To prevent further discussions and speculation around the narrative, media and opposition politicians were initially prevented from entering Hathras. The district magistrate who threatened the family got away. Those who tried to bribe the family to change the story also managed to escape. The Thakur men in the area took to raising slogans in support of the rapists because they were well aware of the fact that their upper caste status would function as an insulatory blanket. A common pattern of silence pervades such sexual crimes. When women seek legal redress they are blocked in their attempts at the community level. When on18th October 2020, a 22 year old Dalit woman from U.P., was raped at gunpoint by two men, the accused also included a former village head. The accused duo barged into her house when she was alone and raped her one by one at gunpoint. They then left after threatening her of dire consequences if she dared to speak about the incident to anyone.
Aruna Gogulamanda points out that the Dalit woman has been effectively conceived of as the other by the whole of Indian society. Her poem “A Dalit Woman in the Land of Godesses” which explores the ghastly treatment that is meted out to Dalit women on a regular basis becomes particularly noteworthy in this regard:
“Her eyes two dry hollows bear
To hundreds of deaths of her
Mothers, daughters, sisters
Their dreams, respect and
Her calloused hands, her
Her cracked heels, her wrinkled
Tell the tales of living through
Fears and years
Of centuries and millennia of
Violations and deaths
She was told
That she was dirt
She was filth and
In this sacred land of thousands of goddesses
She is called a Dalit.”
Annesha Saha finished her graduation in English from Bethune College, Kolkata. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.