It’s been two months since a young Dalit woman was brutally raped and killed in Hathras in India and, in contrast to the swift action by the government in previous cases, there has been little action taken since the four men allegedly responsible were arrested. The 19-year-old woman was found in a paralytic state not far from her home in Boolgarhi village in September. She was initially treated at a district hospital and then at JNMC hospital in Aligarh before being shifted to Safdarjung hospital. Before she died a few days later, she said that four upper-caste men had gang-raped her and strangled her.
The four men are in police custody, but since their arrest, four Muslim men who travelled to Hathras to visit the woman’s family in a show of support and sympathy have also been arrested on charges of sedition as it seems the Uttar Pradesh government wanted Muslim scapegoats to divert attention from the rape case. The Muslim men were raising funds for the victim’s family as, according to the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, the victim’s family are living in conditions similar to a house arrest. The family has also expressed fear for their lives once the official protection given to them is withdrawn. The police have characterized the Muslim men’s interest in the victim’s family as a terrorist conspiracy to trigger caste riots over the rape and murder.
That crime, along with the subsequent conduct of the police and Uttar Pradesh government, has brought stark attention to the plight of Dalit women in a country that still clings to its outdated and barbaric caste system. As it happens, the young woman who was allegedly gang-raped in September died at the same hospital where Jyoti Singh, a member of the higher Bhumihar caste, died in 2012 after she was gang-raped and tortured on a private bus in what became known as the Nirbhaya case that sparked an international outcry about sexual violence in India.
The word nirbhaya means “fearless” and the case prompted a swift change in the rape law, which broadened the definition of rape, made punishments more strict, and established a timeline for further procedural reforms. Four of the six men convicted of raping that woman were hanged by the state earlier this year.
There has not and probably won’t be justice for the lower-caste victim in the Hathras case, just as there was not justice for Bhanwari Devi in 1992. There have been at least two other incidents of Dalit women and girls having been raped and killed in Uttar Pradesh this year, a province in which anti-Dalit violence is rife. On average, 10 Dalit women are raped every day throughout the country, according to official figures. Sexual violence committed against Dalit women and girls is mostly perpetrated by men from dominant upper castes, who use sexual violence as a tool to assert power and reinforce existing caste, social, and gender hierarchies.
Despite officially abolishing discrimination on the basis of caste in 1950, the devastating effects of the caste system are felt by Dalits in the educational, social, and economic systems in modern India. The hardships these women face are not simply due to poverty, economic status, or lack of education, but a direct result of the severe exploitation and oppression by the upper castes, legitimized by corrupt interpretations of Hindu religious scriptures. Should a Dalit person speak up against any of these injustices, they face retribution from their communities and the majority Hindu public, who still hold the caste system as a holy social order. In the case of Dalit women, should they place a toe out of line, they are raped in a brutal show of power dynamics so that, according to human rights organizations, Dalit women bear the brunt of much of India’s sexual violence. In India, as is the case with many other countries and cultures, destroying a woman’s honour is the ultimate weapon to show women or members of a specific community their “place” and to establish dominance. Many women in the Dalit community have deep, personal and traumatic stories and have no way of telling them because they are scared of the repercussions, so the rape of a Dalit woman is mutely accepted and their families move on.
The Hathras case is typical of what happens when a Dalit resists oppression: they are met with violence. The dispute began with the Dalit family’s agricultural land on which the Thakur family would bring their buffaloes to graze. The victim’s grandfather reportedly asked the Thakurs to take the buffaloes away from the land and the Thakur family, incensed that a Dalit man had the audacity to stand up to them, raped and murdered this woman.
The script is the same in case after case yet only rarely does one draw world attention, and then the character assassination begins. In the case of Devi, judges were inexplicably changed five times and in November 1995, the accused were acquitted of rape. They were instead found guilty of lesser offences and were given just nine months in jail. Some of the bizarre reasons the judge gave were: the village head cannot rape, men of different castes cannot participate in gang rape, elder men of 60 to 70 years old cannot rape, a man cannot rape in front of a relative, a member of the higher caste cannot rape a lower caste woman due to purity, and Devi's husband couldn't have quietly watched his wife being gang-raped. Massive protests held in Jaipur with thousands marching through the city streets yielded nothing.
Similar outrage erupted in India last month in Hathras and continue to happen around the country as the police initially dismissed the victim’s rape allegations, considered it a case of murder, and later sought to deny the rape.
When the victim first reported the rape, the police did not listen to her. Neither of the woman's two allegations of rape, which were made within hours of being attacked, were entered into police records. The police failed to write up the complaint, instead asking the woman’s brother to do it, did not include what the victim told them, and didn't call an ambulance for medical attention, even though she was in a bad condition. A rape kit was done at the hospital 11 days after the attack—too late for any usable evidence to be found—and the police denied there ever being a rape, citing the lack of DNA on the rape kit. Dr Azeem Malik, who attended to the woman said government guidelines strictly say forensic evidence can only be found up to 96 hours after the incident and that the report cannot confirm or deny the victim being raped. He was fired shortly afterward for contradicting the police statements. A viral video of Hathras district magistrate, Praveen Kumar, warning the woman’s family of harm to their credibility lends credence to the family’s claims of threats from the administration. The state and police maintain innocence of any wrongdoing, as do the men accused of her rape and murder, who have shifted blame to the victim’s family.
On the night that the victim died, police returned to the family’s village with her body but instead of handing her over to her mourning family for the final rites—an important part of Hinduism—they insisted she be cremated in an open field immediately. When the family refused, saying they wanted time to say goodbye, police locked them in their home and took her to a field where they burned her body using gasoline, according to the family who have finally been granted court-ordered protection since the incident.
While the the state launched the Nirbhaya Fund to support women’s safety after the rape and murder of Singh, Dalit women and other minorities face severe challenges reporting crimes to the police, who often try to invalidate their claims and rarely follow proper criminal procedure. Hospitals fail to gather evidence, and there is derogatory treatment of survivors in courtrooms should they make it there.
Manjula Pradeep, director of campaigns at the Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network, said Dalit women are seen as impure and deprived when they access basic amenities even as their bodies are also used as objects to take revenge on the Dalit communities and keep them oppressed. The state of Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of reported cases of violence against Dalits and during the lockdown this year, there was a spike in attacks on Dalits by Thakurs. No arrests have been made, pointing to a lack of concern over the wellbeing of the Dalit people by the authorities.
Last year, a young Dalit man was beaten to death for sitting on a chair and eating in front of upper-caste people at a wedding. In May, a man was prevented from going into a temple to pray and after the victim approached the police (who did not take any action), he was shot to death in his home. In July, the body of a Dalit woman was forcibly taken off a funeral pyre by men of more privileged castes. The police did not intervene and said they could not unless the family filed charges. The family, however, decided not to file a complaint because they wanted to continue living peacefully in the village and keep their odd jobs provided by the more privileged castes.
Authorities say caste has nothing to do with rape because they want to deny the everyday brutality of the caste system. The denial also ensures the caste system continues to flourish, especially among Hindu nationalists like Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ilk, who are mostly upper caste and therefore protected from this scourge. Modi insists that he belongs to the caste of the working man but Dalit voters say Modi has failed to protect them from growing caste-based violence and there is even a perception that Modi’s government has diluted some legal protections for Dalits, even though the caste group helped elect him in 2014.
It should not take a 19-year-old being gang-raped, strangled and left naked in a field with blood flowing from her mouth, neck, and vagina to bring attention to a people who have faced barbaric crimes at the hands of others who claim to be more civilized than them. We should not have to wait for another woman to be sacrificed at the altar of tradition and brutal inequality before there is change.