The Caravan Magazine in August 2020, reported an incident from the month of June this year from Pokhari Village, Uttar Pradesh. Several upper-caste men hailing from the Thakur community (the caste community from which UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath also hails from), attacked a colony of the Dalit community in the Gorakhpur district triggered by a puja of Goddess Kali in the presence of a few Dalits a day before the attack. Several people from the colony faced serious injuries, and the women faced attempts at molestation and harassment. An FIR was launched against each and every person who participated in perpetrating the crime, and were also identified by names. However, the report says, that even after two months, not a single person was arrested. The Thakurs – as it has been reported in news portals especially during elections – hold immense political representation and at least until 2004, held 50 percent of farmland in the entire state. But, the Gorakhpur incident, just like so many others in UP, would not hold the attention of mainstream media because it is part of the everyday, mundane, and probably also because the women on whom molestation was attempted, are still alive.
Nevertheless, looking at the times we are living in, I would invoke a woman hailing from UP who in a significant manner, got associated with the Thakur community around four decades from now – Phoolan Devi, just in case it captures attention to our pasts. There are conflicting accounts about some details in her life, and indeed it is difficult to speak about her after about 20 years of her demise. But we know that Phoolan Devi who belonged to the Mallah community (recognized as the lowest of the lower caste communities in UP) along with her gang of Bandits open fired at 22 innocent Thakur men at the Behmai village in 1981, reportedly, as revenge for several weeks of rape perpetrated on her, by two Thakur men from the same village. Till date – academics, political spectrums, feminists, human rights groups etc. are either divided or silent on the Behmai massacre event. I was not born while she lived most of her life, neither was I at a mature age to understand the socio-political contexts behind why she was shot dead in 2001. However, I grew up hearing stories about her, and remembered her every time debates on punitive measures with regards to sexual assault, molestation, harassment and rape took place in public and media portals over the years.
Today, when a rape case which is deemed important (or sensational) enough to be reported by media is brought forth, there is always a party which supports death penalty for the rapists, and one which does not. The latter believes that not only will a ‘quick-fix’ measure of punishment fail to delve deeper into the issue and uproot it properly – but also since the state itself is paternalistic – a State-executed death penalty will reiterate the powers of that very paternalistic State. It refers to the brutality of capital punishments, and expresses concerns about an individual’s right to live. I completely agree with the former reason – a death penalty is quick and has the potential to silence deeper conversations that are needed with relation to sexual violence, and more stringent actions that are needed in this regard. More so, there are many more social and legal gaps in such a proposition. For instance, in cases where rapes happen within the family or caste community and the perpetrator is known, the knowledge of a mandatory death penalty may lead to collective resistance against reporting of such crimes, as a result of which, lesser number of crimes shall be reported. Despite agreeing, I cannot refrain from noticing with disdain, some characteristics within ‘progressive-radical’ circles within academia and certain political spectrums. I want to ask, what does refraining from taking help from a paternalistic State or from legal bodies even mean? What is it that we exactly want, by posing a direct attack on the State?
For the circles that deem the State and the ‘court of law’ handicapped to solve issues of sexual violence, whether it is death penalty or more stringent punishments as punitive measure for the perpetrator, I would like to remind that both will inevitably have to fall under the ambit of the State’s decision – it is a truth we cannot deny. We learnt our lessons well in the month of January, 2013 when the J.S Verma Committee came up with a report on revising and amending laws on sexual violence in India, which established the death penalty as an unsatisfactory punitive measure, and reestablished the definitive boundaries of sexual violence by recognizing marital rape as a crime in the eyes of law (among many other things). It was only to our disappointment, that the final decisions were taken without paying much heed to the report. So unfortunately, whether handicapped or not, the truth shall remain that we do not have a language of resolution outside of legal and State forces.
More than four decades have passed to the things Phoolan had faced. Hathras is around 5 hours away by bus, both from Behmai (where the massacre happened in 1981) and Jalaun (where Phoolan is said to have spent the initial years of her life). WildFilmsIndia on their Youtube channel, uploaded a video in the month of May two years ago; the original date of that interview is unknown. But we can safely conclude that during the time of the interview, Phoolan was an MP, had entered her later political life where she had spoken in favour of democratic institutions, and the importance of legal order quite visibly. The faceless interviewer asks her how come in her early life as a bandit, she did not think of the importance of democratic and legal institutions and took to other forms of resolution, such as the gun? She cuts off the interviewer halfway, and answers saying she did go to the police when she faced issues. There, she was beaten and the police forces themselves did things to her, she does not want to talk about. She was never told as a little child to take to the gun, and she was also a daughter to someone. She became what the society made her. If we listen to her other available interviews, she is often, very curiously asked about her life as an outlaw, and that life has also been written about, studied and analysed widely. But despite the acknowledgement, what we fail to see is that perhaps the ‘progressive- radicals’ can appreciate her early life only because she surrendered her arms two years after the Behmai massacre and served 11 years of jail sentence. The State did intervene in her life at that point – but of course, on her own terms. Phoolan’s early life and the massacre does very clearly fall under a language outside of modern legal institutions and the State forces.
Today, when we are denied even a transparent report of what is happening inside the Thakur-dominated village of Hathras, I want to ask the ‘progressive-radicals’ like ourselves, as to where we stand? The paternalistic state is looming over us when we criticize death penalty as being useless, it is looming when we ask for more stringent laws, we do not like Phoolan’s early life and look at it as too disruptive, despite it being a very direct resistance to both modern legal language and the State forces. Despite all this, we are sitting as harbingers of critique of the State and legal bodies.
First of all, the progressive-radical left and academic spectrums should recognize that we are taking cognizance to caste violence only when there is death involved. The existence of caste for us, is merely in the form of caste violence, and that too if there is brutality leading to death. In the case of university spaces, scholars like Drishadwati Bargi have spoken about this, who argue that unless the occurrence of death acts as an evidence for caste minority students’ violation of rights and sufferings, there IS no caste based violence. I can simply prove my point with the fact that most of us did not even know – let alone take to the streets or write about, on the incidence of police neglect in the Gorakhpur district case with which I began my article. Secondly, there needs to be a recognition – that the State can be (and must be) challenged, but not erased. We know from the works of many including V. Geetha and K. Balagopal, that the State comes to help in the form of help and support groups for victims of sexual violence at local levels, in states like Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu etc. and the ‘court of law’ has the potential to bear witness to and provide justice and protection to caste and other minority groups. While the upper caste rung has other means of gaining justice and protection, minorities don’t, and a sweeping criticism of the legal bodies and the State (towards their complete dismissal) by progressive-radical circles, is nothing less than arrogant. Moreover, not only in method and theory, but also in practice, articulation of political protests, and within classroom spaces, it must be recognized that a critique of the State cannot be articulated in isolation with caste in a country like ours. That the State and caste system go hand in hand, is absolutely naked in front us since time immemorial. Even if we are impatient enough to attack the State and call for the erasure of it in its present format, being witness to Phoolan’s response to the interviewer, her murder done to avenge the massacre on Thakurs, a “mysteriously” sealed Hathras village, and now, a denial of any event of rape in Hathras itself, must tell us of how if the State needs to be criticized to the point of erasure, then that must mandatorily happen alongside the recognition of its unity with caste as it exists in everyday life.
Anamika Das is currently pursuing her MPhil in Social Sciences from the Center for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Her current research interests include women’s movements as a whole, with a focus on the post 2010 women’s movements on gender and sexuality in India. Email id: email@example.com