Barely 24 hours after the remains of the 19-year-old-Dalit woman were consigned to flames by the police in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras without the consent of the family, another sexual assault and death of a 22-year-old Dalit woman has surfaced from Balrampur in the same state.
Reflective of widely pervasive casteist mindsets, these brutal sexual assaults against Dalit women are being framed as isolated incidents of crime rather than atrocities which are the outcome of systemic and deep-rooted casteism and misogyny.
It is important to acknowledge that there are several intersecting factors such as identities, institutions and hierarchies that result in this kind of structural violence. Women are not a homogenous group and are differentially impacted by forces of caste, class, religion, ethnicity, race, among others. The social location of Dalit women at the lowest rung of caste, class and gender hierarchies results in them facing multiple forms of discrimination and targeted violence.
We have witnessed time and again how rape and other forms of sexual violence are used against Dalit women to dehumanise the community and maintain caste-based hierarchies and power relations. As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) 2019, nearly ten Dalit women are raped every day in the country with Uttar Pradesh recording among the highest numbers. This figure is likely a significant undercount as data for the total number of reported cases of sexual assaults is not disaggregated by caste or religion, so the exact figures of women from marginalised communities reporting sexual assault remain unknown. Most often, such cases do not even get reported due to fear of heightened backlash from ‘dominant’ castes.
In the Hathras case, reports suggest that the police initially did not want to register a case against the four accused, all of whom belong to the ‘dominant’ Thakur caste. A member of the ruling party dismissed the existence of caste-based discrimination in the village that continues to practice ‘untouchability’ and denied that the incident of gang-rape had taken place in Hathras.
The victim, who had multiple fractures and injuries, lay in the normal ward of a hospital for more than a week before pressure built up. She was later shifted to the ICU. There, the victim’s relatives allege that they were not informed of the impact of her injuries and that they had to plead with the doctors to attend to her. She was later shifted to Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital, where she eventually breathed her last. Without the consent and presence of her family, the police forcibly and hurriedly cremated her body at 2:30 am on September 30 to erase all evidence in the case. The critical question here is, on whose behest were the police acting? The systemic sanction to violate Dalit women’s dignity and rights, and the social capital and networks of impunity that men from ‘dominant’ castes leverage is appalling.
An examination of cases of sexual assault and violence against Dalit women reveals a pattern of impunity enjoyed by both state and non-state perpetrators. For instance, in the infamous gang-rape of Bhanwari Devi (1992), the perpetrators were acquitted in 1995 on the grounds that upper-caste men would not rape a woman from a lower caste due to reasons of ‘purity’. The Hathras case has yet again exposed the fragility of accountability mechanisms and the justice system vis-à-vis Dalit women.
Meena Kandasamy, writer and anti-caste activist states that in just four years, between 2014 to 2018, crimes against Dalits have shot up by 47%. “This is a very dangerous trend if we factor that most crimes go unreported and thereby, unprosecuted,” she says.
“What happened in Hathras is a continuation of the same violence. Caste Hindus are convinced that they will enjoy all impunity. Simultaneously, just as UP tops the charts for atrocities against Dalits, it also tops the charts for crimes against women. These go hand in hand. A caste conditioned society which believes that it has the right to be violent against Dalits will unleash this violence at the first instance against women and children, and especially, because they are the most vulnerable,” said Kandasamy.
The Nirbhaya case (2012) prompted the government to take several measures, which may have led to enforcing higher levels of reporting but that does not necessarily lead to higher conviction rates. As the NCRB data, 2018 shows only 25.5% of rape cases end in conviction. The amendments brought about in criminal law in 2013 were a step forward but they have failed to set the criminal justice system in motion or get the police to conduct unbiased investigations, prosecute the accused and provide witness protection (before, during and after the trial) to victims/survivors and their family members who most often are key witnesses in the criminal trials. Dalit women and other minorities continue to remain extremely vulnerable to sexual assaults and collective violence which has very specific gender implications.
Kiruba Munusamy, Supreme Court advocate and Dalit rights activist, states, “The low conviction rate points to the existence of caste prejudice both in the law enforcement as well as the judiciary. Police officials who are negligent in registering the case or invoking Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, deliberately do not follow the procedures as mandated by law.”
She says the law mandates that the case is investigated by an officer who is or above the rank of DSP, that the caste certificate of the victim not be attached, and that a chargesheet in rape cases be filed within 60 days. “But most of these requirements are not adhered to. After a long legal battle, when a case ends up in a conviction, the high court or even the Supreme Court reverses the conviction order acquitting the accused. The state machinery and the justice system have miserably failed Dalit women”, said Munusamy.
Despite constitutional safeguards as well as special legislations like the SC/ST PoA Act, 1989, Dalit women continue to experience the violation of their fundamental rights. The state has consistently failed to provide even the most basic protection to Dalit women. Justice and accountability remain elusive and remote. The roadblocks lie in equitable access to justice and in terms of preventive measures as well as restorative justice – both of which are crucial for addressing the root causes underlying structural conditions and the apathy of the state that enables sexual assaults and targeted violence against Dalit women.
The derogation of rights and the abuse of law and protocols are clearly evident at every stage in this case. The sanction of barbarism, absence of due diligence by law enforcement agencies and the guarantee of impunity highlights the importance of understanding the systemic oppression and violence faced by Dalit women differently from that of non-Dalit women.
Priyanka Samy is a member of the National Federation of Dalit Women and can be reached on Twitter @PriyankaSamy.