This past week, the world mourned with a town called Baduan in Uttar Pradesh, India. There the raped bodies of two young girls were found hanging in a mango tree while behind them their grim families refused to leave until justice was done. And as the news cycle ran statements from International NGOs, UN Officials, and pundits, there was no denying that the rotting smell of India’s strange fruit had come front and center to the world stage.
I am a Dalit woman, I’m here to tell you that this Strange Fruit has a name and its name is caste. Just as there is no way to understand sexual violence in the history of the United States without understanding racism, there is no way to understand the frequency and lack of punishment of violence against women in India right now without understanding caste.
This system ranks human beings at birth, with your family’s caste determining the whole of your life—your job, your level of spiritual purity, and your social standing. Those at the bottom are branded “Untouchables”, untouchable because we are spiritually defiling to others and thus condemned to a life of exploitation.
We are 200 million people struggling against this unjust system. We are not a small fringe group, we are a critical mass. We reject this heinous system and call ourselves “Dalits.” Dalit meaning broken by oppression, but defined by struggle.
Since independence there has been an affirmative action policy in India that has led to a first generation of Dalit doctors, scientists, lawyers, and public officials. Yet the great majority of Dalits are still condemned to the margins of life. We live in a caste apartheid with separate villages, places of worship, and even schools. It is a lethal system where, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, four Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, and two Dalit homes are torched every day.
Baduan has woken up the world to this reality. India’s culture of caste is a culture of rape. Both for oppression and opportunism, caste-based sexual violence is meant to silence our communities. Each attempt to achieve equality— going to school, getting a job, or voting—brings greater risk of reprisal. Because at its heart, caste-based sexual violence is about creating a climate of terror so that Dalits will fear challenging this system. This reprisal violence though has now reached record numbers with a recent study by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights reporting that over 67% of Dalit women have faced some form of sexual violence.
This culture of rape is also a culture of impunity where upper-caste Hindu perpetrators of these crimes are protected within India’s rape culture at all levels of the justice system. UN Special Rapporteur Ms. Rashida Manjoo relays in her recent report on the status of women in India that there is a “deeply entrenched patriarchal attitude of police officers, prosecutors, judicial officers.” This coupled with the unsavory reality that members of the police, judiciary, and public officials often collude with perpetrators to keep Dalit women from filing claims and receiving justice.
That is why we must all break the silence about caste-based sexual violence. We must stop talking about this rape culture in terms of individual incidents. It is more than Baduan, Delhi, Bagahana, or Mumbai. It is in fact the India of today. We must look at this as a systemic, structural problem. We must look at the culpability of the Indian state, from the police to the courts. The shame intended for Dalits by these acts is actually the shame of a country that refuses to protect all its citizens. From the corrupt, rural police outpost to the politicians in Delhi, the culture of impunity protects perpetrators and denies justice for our women.
With such a failure of the rule of law, the only legitimate response we have now is to fight. Dalit women in all spheres-- activists, thinkers, artists-- are leading historic movements all over South Asia to end caste and caste-based sexual violence. Because the world stood with the civil rights movement in the United Sates and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, these movements succeeded. So too, we ask for the world to stand shoulder to shoulder with Dalit women and our families to end this violence. We do not fight only for ourselves, we fight for all who have suffered from this rape culture.
So we ask you. Stand with us. For this is our final truth: Until Dalit women are free, no woman is free.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan is a filmmaker and Transmedia artist. She is the co-founder of the international women’s media technology collective , Third World Majority.