Death, that final stage of the life cycle, is frightening. Every culture and religion has customs to dignify the dead body, to help collective human communities deal with it. To let us bid goodbye. Across religions and regions, bodies are ritually cleansed. Prepared. There are clothes in which the body is dressed. New clothes. The body is laid down gently. Eyes closed. Arms on the side. Or, folded across the chest. There are rules of touch and honour. Holy water is often sprinkled. Holy oils too. Sometimes on the body. Sometimes around it. Generally counter clockwise. Sometimes there is a full shroud. Sometimes the face is exposed. Bodies may face east-west. Cremation grounds and cemeteries are often placed at specific distances from habitations of the living. There is the hour at which the soul can be released.
The Hathras victim was denied every dignity accorded to the dead, a body as profaned in death as it was in life. Were her broken limbs given a ritual cleansing? Did they throw her like a carcass on to the pyre, those unworthy policemen, or did they muster humanity enough to place it gently? Which direction did her head face? Was she wrapped in a clean cloth? Perhaps for them, her Dalit body was beyond ritual purification, so it did not matter.
Flip identities. Recognise the structural profanity we live each day. Imagine if this were a Thakur woman, gang-raped and killed by four Dalit men. Imagine how it would have turned out. Every institution would have sought justice for what she suffered. No policeman would have dared to cover it up. No district magistrate would have dared to deny her family the respect and collective support they deserved. They would have been allowed to mourn the brutalisation of their daughter’s body. Their anger should have and would have been allowed to burst like a screaming wound across channels – to say stop this violence against India’s women.
But a Valmiki is different. If our slogans say the Hathras victim was our daughter and our sister, then let these not be just anodyne slogans that paper over the reality of this case. Let us be true to her. She was a daughter that many Indians would not let their son marry. A daughter who would not be allowed to enter kitchens or touch food. Yes, a daughter. But, a caste-marked daughter, her fate decided at birth. In this powerful moment of coming together as women, human beings and wounded citizens seeking justice, let our connection to this young woman force us to grasp the truth of her rape and the truth of her murder. This was not just the violent misogyny of men. It was the age-old entitlement of upper caste men to the labour and the body of a ‘low caste’ woman. It was the continuing sexual violence of centuries past. It was brutal and it was utterly ordinary. It happens every day.
The system’s response to the Hathras case demonstrates once again, the resilience of caste as an abiding barrier to justice in India, one that trumps gender. It matters less that this was a brutal aggravated sexual assault and murder. What matters more is who was raped, who raped and that these identities are structured and ordained to play out differently in our institutions of justice. Public outrage had forced a patriarchal system to at least make a show of delivering justice in the ‘Nirbhaya’ case. This time our job as citizens is to ensure that when the victim is a Valmiki and her alleged rapists Thakurs, we push even harder, and do not allow the caste-patriarchy combine to get away with it.
At the time of writing, hashtags for justice to the Hathras victim proliferate. Some big influencers of Bollywood have tweeted. Politicians too. And every visceral response should be welcome with open arms. But there is selective silence in these tweets; silences sought to be replaced by the optics of outrage and calls for the death penalty.
“Doshiyon ko jald se jald phansi ki sazaa milni chahiye,” tweeted Arvind Kejriwal on September 29.
“Angry and frustrated! Such brutality in #Hathras gangrape. When will this stop? Our laws and their enforcement must be so strict that the mere thought of punishment makes rapists shudder with fear! Hang the culprits. Raise your voice to safeguard daughters and sisters – it’s the least we can do,” tweeted Akshay Kumar.
Asking for the death penalty while refusing to confront the centrality of caste subjugation is not just disingenuous, it is dishonest. On March 20, 2020, four men were hanged in Tihar Jail for the gang-rape and murder of ‘Nirbahaya’ in Delhi. A bare six months later, four more men have gang-raped and murdered a woman in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh.
In the interim, scores of rapes and murders have gone unnoticed. There is no deterrence in the death penalty, Akshay Kumar. Or, did you not read closely? Hathras, Balrampur… Their spines are being broken, their tongues cut. They are being strangled. All that the threat of death penalty does is make certain the death of more rape victims – so they can never utter the names of their attackers. ‘Hang the rapists’ is mere macho outrage. Patriarchal protectiveness is wounded, so you want some bloodletting in the public square. This is quick relief feel-good antacid, not a challenge to this crime. Calls to ‘hang the rapists’ only make convictions less assured, and cover ups more guaranteed. The death penalty does not make any woman safer.
Justice for the Hathras victim lies in embracing the truth of her life as a Dalit woman, and her death because of it. Hang the rapists is no solution. Bury the caste system is what we need to say and do.
Farah Naqvi is an activist and writer who lives and works in Delhi.