Amazing, till about three days ago the news was that a Dalit girl has been raped and killed- as a matter of fact. It occurs every now and then, and here is another such incidence. So do not fret. It happens. That is the audacity with which we are informed about the rape of a Dalit girl. And then, come the day prior to the birthday of the Father of the Nation and these very agencies are telling us, well, she was not raped as there are no traces of semen on the body- flouting the very penal code under which rape qualifies as a heinous crime. Mind boggling. But not really. If Babri Masjid was not demolished, she was not raped too. Simple. If the Babri Masjid can be pronounced to have crumbled on its own defying all the visual evidences, so did this young girl- perhaps raped her own self and slit her tongue and broke her spine. So much for the safety of women and girls- despite the Nirbhaya funds of which barely 10 % has been utilized.
Rape has acquired a new definition beyond the parameters of offence and punishment. The rape of Dalits girls and women is gone beyond all boundaries of human imagination. The infamous 16 December 2012 rape appeared to be the nadir of such heinous activities. But Hathras has put smaller town of its kind to absolute disgrace and abhorrence. The likes of Delhi which earned the sobriquet of Rape Capital post December 2012, has got a chance to smile in vengeance. New India, is this what you have in store for your people? Your stratified unequal people? Who, you pretend, are all equal. From Bhanwari Devi of Rajasthan, the Badaun sisters, women in Belchhi, to the little girl in Kathua and an adolescent in Unnao, the young girl in Hathras and many more, illustrate the duality in the state provisions based on constitutional and legal safeguards and their implementation. Almost thirty years after Bhanwari Devi a gram sevika, was gang-raped by her high-caste neighbours in a nondescript village of Rajasthan, on 22 September 1992, another day (or perhaps night) in September has relived the black history. A young girl from Hathras, was raped because her family members resisted the ‘upper caste’ buffaloes (yes, if their owner are upper caste, they too will be!) grazing on their fields, or rather their crops.
Raping the female species- yes, they are no more girls or women, they are reduced to a body part- the vagina- wherein the family honour rests. And by forcing the relevant male body part to penetrate, a symbolic communication of putting the people in their place, telling them their ‘auqat’ is materialized. This is more so for the Dalits- girls, women and men alike. Dalits cannot aspire for parity and fairness. Their women and girls particularly, are the ‘objects’ for the satisfaction- of all forms, for the upper caste, and shall remain so. This is the guiding principle of the majority.
A usual argument put forth is that caste has nothing to do with rape because rape is a rape- whether it is Dalit or non-Dalit who has been vandalized and often killed too. But her is the most pertinent question. Have we ever heard of a Dalit man raping an upper caste women? What is the conviction rate of the perpetrators for the rapes of Dalit girls vs upper caste girls? That’s where lies the reason which perpetuates the right to subjugate the Dalits and rape their girls and women to ‘put them in their place’. And therefore, rape has a lot to do with the caste based exclusion and sense of superiority. The inherent cruelty and brutality of the Hindu caste system and their malicious vindictiveness towards the Dalits is where the rape of Dalit girls and women is embedded. This denial perpetuates graded hierarchy inherent in the caste system which continues to flourish in present times. The evident intersectionality between caste and gender is often overlooked even by some liberal thinkers who do not support comparisons across women of different social strata and therefore refrain from ‘reducing’ rape and murder to a ‘caste atrocity’. This, by their argument, implies that ‘caste atrocities are ‘lesser’ crime! Audacious. Fake are those who create the facade of that discrimination induced atrocities are non-existent. I am reminded of the film ‘Ankur’ by the legendary film maker Shyam Bengal. And Nishant too, by the same film maker- what do these films have in common? The same narrative- prejudice laden upper castes unleashing their rightful’ atrocities on the Dalits.
It really is not ‘a thing of past’- the untouchability. It is alive and flourishing even in the urban spaces which are believed to be the ‘levelers’ and ‘concealers’- albeit in its metamorphosed versions. In rural areas, for fear of ‘pollution’, there are restrictions for the upper caste in walking past the Dalit padas. In the villages residential segregation is clearly evident Perceptibly, coming close to Dalits residential quarters ‘pollutes the self-proclaimed ones, but if the latter happens to venture out on the ‘forbidden land’, then the former have the right to ‘punish’ the ‘intruder(s)’. ‘Atrocity’, I strongly believe, is a fairly mild expression for this ghastly exchange. The Dalit elders still stand, bow down and even remove their foot wears and headgears like topi safa etc, if the ‘upper caste’ passes by. The upper caste, even as service providers- postman, anganwadi workers Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM), refrain from entering the Dalit houses and if they have no alternative, then, would prefer to stand outside or send a message through someone to inform, if they wish so. Most of the time they do not. As long as the subservience of the Dalits was intact, and the sense of ‘upper’ was safely guarded, everything was ‘fine’. As assertion among Dalits is taking over their subjugation and humiliation by the self-proclaimed ones, the fear of losing the latter’s hold on the subjugated, looms large and is marked with atrocities and rapes. When Dalits resist oppression of all forms- land grab, forced labour , sexual assault, and prove their equivalence in education and skills, they are often met with violence and rebuke. The upper caste is unable to accept that the subjugated can be at par with them in any way. The rising number of Dalits in educational institutions and their accomplishments, is evolving untouchability and it consequences, in newer forms today. Memories of Una have not yet faded when the Dalit youth were flogged for refusing to carry the carcass.
By the way, why do we have to continue naming them as ‘upper caste’ when they engage in such lowly acts?? I think we need a serious introspection and scan the dictionary for more appropriate term to define these self-proclaimed owners of right to humiliate the fellow human beings and rape and kill their daughters and sisters in the times of ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ and promised safety for girls and women by the state.
Sanghmitra S Acharya is a Professor in the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, School of Social Sciences. Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She was Director, Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, New Delhi, during 2015-18. She has been a Visiting Fellow at CASS, China; Ball State University, USA and UPPI, Manila, The Philippines; East West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii and University of Botswana. She was awarded Asian Scholarship Foundation fellowship in 2005. She has published extensively in peer reviewed journals on the issues of health and social exclusion with focus on youth in development; gender in urban spaces; and North East India. Her current work is on social discrimination in health care access among cleaners (sanitation workers). She has three books and about thirty articles to her credit. Her recent work includes co-edited books titled ‘Marginalization in Globalizing Delhi- Issues of Land, Labour and Health’; and Health, Safety and Well-Being of Workers in the Informal Sector in India- Lessons for Emerging Economies, 2019, both published by Springer.