Perhaps one of the most distressing aspects of the pandemic has been denied dignity in death. On 30th September, in a place called Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, India, a 19-year-old girl was denied dignity in death. No, she didn’t suffer from COVID-19, she was victim of an endemic – caste and gender-based violence.
Every day, 4 Dalit (untouchables) women are raped in India. The “alleged” gang rape of the 19-year-old is controversial, victim statement versus forensic evidence. Does it matter? She was just another statistic, among the 9 other reported rape cases in the state in September 2020. We are numb to these numbers.
“Take me home” were her last words – the 19-year-old’s body never returned to the family.
The Hathras case like many before, has sparked outrage in India. Again, and painfully, our societal fault lines lay bare. Again, I hold my breath – is it the watershed moment? The case like Bhanwari Devi (1992) and many since her are narratives of sexual violence anchored within the dynamics of social location of caste and gender. Globally, we all relate and recognise “gender” as a social construct, so let’s start with caste.
The caste system has been the backbone of Indian society for centuries. You are born into a caste that classifies individuals in descending order of hierarchy – the upper caste Brahmins (priests) and the Kshatriyas (warriors), the Vaishyas (merchants), the Shudras (servants), and finally the fifth caste Dalits (untouchables). The two most important characteristics of the Indian caste system are occupational restriction and endogamy. A Harvard degree or being a top Indian bureaucrat won’t change your social location.
Ambedkar in his essay ‘Castes In India’, elucidates that caste is a system of graded inequalities and that women are at its gateway, as the burden of endogamy is linked to the bodies of women. With Ambedkar’s ‘graded inequalities’ as a reference point, Chakravarti and Krishnaraj note the concept of ‘graded patriarchies’ contained firmly within the caste system. There is a tight control on the sexuality of the upper-caste women based on purity, which is essential to maintain endogamy. In contrast, lower-caste women are thought to be sexually available to upper-caste men through the material structure of domination with practices such as Devadasis (sex slaves).
Caste serves three key purposes: caste as tradition, caste as power politics and caste as humiliation. Sexualised verbal abuses are an example of how caste is used as a subject for humiliation and depriving rights. The brutality of sexual violence, manifested through language against Dalit women, is such that it cannot be documented without sanitisation. In Uttar Pradesh the phrase, “a man is not satisfied until he has devoured goat’s milk and a Chamar (Dalit) woman’s body” is commonly used among dominant upper-caste men. The phrase brings forth the nature of authority which upper-caste men exercise over the bodies of Dalit women and the level of impunity they enjoy as evidenced through several cases of sexual violence.
There are gendered hierarchies, placing upper-caste women above Dalit women with authority, often seen through the occupational stratification. Dalit women are employed as maids and manual scavengers in their homes, placing them in subservient positions of social relations – collective identities further polarised. Women’s reality in a caste-based society is not a homogenous experience, it is intersectional. Gendered patterns of labour are shaped not only by caste but are also determined by class and regional identities. Majority of urban cultural intellectual elite with modern consciousness resent “affirmative action”; it is seen as an unfair, minority appeasing political gimmick. Education and economic advancement have only marginally addressed the social contestations in India, continually reorganizing class, power and caste assertions.
The Indian constitution challenges this caste impunity through certain laws and acts which protect the marginalised and vulnerable from the atrocities committed against them, for instance, the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Protection against Atrocity Act. Protectionist laws and the Constitution safeguards Dalit women with rights to equal citizenship. However, the ground reality is different – the state machinery is not free from the ideological controls of caste supremacy and patriarchal dominion. It is 2020 – ideals of equality, liberty and fraternity remain aspirational. Our legal system, just like our health system does not sit outside the society and its political ideology, rather it constantly affirms the underlying values.
In recent years, the Nirbhaya case, became an inflection point, galvanising a national debate on the violence against women. New anti-rape laws were introduced in 2013. The discourse on rape stigmatisation for the victim has somewhat changed, but sexual violence and brutal killings remain on the rise.
For the 19-year old Dalit girl, social norms had little dignity to offer in life. The wailing mother pleaded for some in death. In this of time of shame and blame, in these moments of dismay, I wonder what Ambedkar would have said.
About the author: Jagnoor Jagnoor is a humanist public health researcher with several privileges of economic class and education. Jagnoor does not identify herself with any religion, caste or class.
Competing interest: None to declare.
Handling Editor: Neha Faruqui