Even before the Hathras rape crime, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 was passed following the protests in 2012 Delhi gang rape case, making jail terms in most sexual assault cases more stringent and also providing for the death penalty in rape cases, many of us knew it was a task half-finished. Aware of the monumental limitations of the legal protection for victims, our belief that crimes born in households and society cannot be addressed only in the courts of law kept getting strengthened as the rapes and brutality continued.
“On September 14, 2020, a 19-year-old Dalit woman was raped by four ‘upper’ caste men in Bhoolgarhi village of Hathras district in Uttar Pradesh. After battling for her life for two weeks, she died in a Delhi hospital.”
On September 14, 2020, a 19-year-old Dalit woman was raped by four ‘upper’ caste men in Bhoolgarhi village of Hathras district in Uttar Pradesh. After battling for her life for two weeks, she died in a Delhi hospital. According to her family, the victim’s body was taken away from the hospital without their permission. Despite their appeals to the District Magistrate for permission to take the body home for last rites, the police went ahead with the forced cremation at 3 am while most of her family members were away.
The Hathras crime and its treatment have once again laid bare the deep discord that exists between the constitutional law and cultural codes of the society within which they are meant to be enforced. The width of this gap between the two is significantly determined by the caste status of the alleged victim and the accused. If the victim is Dalit, her chances of availing legal protection measures are significantly decreased and the caste impunity with which such crimes are committed ensures enough societal protection to the rapists.
According to the findings of a research done on convicted rapists in India, rapists are not ‘monsters’ and are ordinary men who grow up having false ideas of masculinity and sexuality in their homes and their responses to why they raped echoed what we often hear in our own homes. It is in homes that women are taught to be submissive while men are infused with toxic masculinity. No surprise that sexual crimes are systemic and continuing in order to control women and their sexuality; in partial fulfilment of the grand aim of maintaining the equilibrium of the society.
While patriarchy is the main culprit in producing crimes of sexual nature, it is important to highlight the role of fear of law or lack of it in rapists carrying out such crimes. Convinced of their responsibility to control women, in most cases, rapists carry out the crime under circumstances which offer them least fear of being caught and penalised. And this is where caste becomes a crucial factor as ‘upper’ caste status accords these men enhanced societal protection and ‘lower’ caste victims and their families increased penalties for reporting such crimes. Thus, the subordinate position of Dalit women constructed at the intersection of their gender, caste and often resultant class is exploited by those in power along these axes who carry out attacks with further impunity.
The development of the Hathras case shows instances that manifest various ways in which the gap between societal protection to ‘upper’ caste men and lack of legal protection to Dalit victims is kept wide and gaping.
Existing Caste Dynamics in Bhoolgarhi village
Caste-based clustering of houses, penalties for refusing to clean the drains, association of Dalits with pollution of food and spaces, physical violence and chopping off of fingers for raising voice against ‘upper caste’ and overall acceptance of discriminatory caste practices are everyday realities of the village in which such a crime was just waiting to be exposed. And a caste society like this is inherently violent in nature.
Response and Support Differential
Longstanding normalisation of sexual crimes against Dalit women is also evident in case of too late too little media reporting of rape and murder of Hathras victim. It is also exposed by how the collective consciousness of the country responds to such crimes based on the caste of the victim.
It is not bad enough that non-Dalit individuals and groups have stayed away from expressing their horror with the same passion as they did in 2012 Delhi gangrape case, what is more horrific is the comments on social media by ‘upper’ caste profiles mocking the unmet demand of victim’s family for carrying out cremation as per cultural rites.
The historicity of exclusion of Dalits from Hindu practices became instrumental in the hands of system in denying the victim dignity in death as well when her body was burned and refused funeral.
After being quiet for few days, when the silence is finally being broken by a few, it is mainly to challenge the claim of rape and to empower the accused.
Inefficacy of Formal Protection System
Despite media attention, the Hathras case is close to becoming one of the disproportionately high cases of unprotected and unprosecuted cases of Dalit victims. The contradictory statements of victims’ family and FIRs recorded in the case highlight the weakness of the system in taking timely and adequate cognizance of crimes committed against Dalits in caste societies. Barriers to reporting sexual assault are only stronger in cases of Dalit victims. When one does not take victim’s dying declaration as a starting point for filing FIR and starting investigations, one can reasonably predict the daunting obstacles women are faced with in successful persecution of rape cases.
In a society that is coming together to safeguard the ‘honour’ of the ‘upper’ caste men and to avenge the resistance of Dalit women to the violations committed by them, victims don’t only face the fear of lack of trust by formal law upholders (because god forbid ‘upper’ caste men will not even ‘touch’ Dalit women), they also experience fear of retribution from the perpetrators.
Informal Societal Protection Systems
The power of informal protection systems over formal protection processes is an issue that has long threatened India’s democratic status. While the formal protection system is struggling to do its job, the informal systems of societal protection for ‘upper’ caste are duly engaged in ensuring the ‘justice’ for the accused.
The savarna samaj held panchayat in favour of the accused where they demanded CBI inquiry in the incident. Sheltered by police, politicians and administrators alike, the panchayat is a continued attempt to replace constitution with Manusmriti. While police stopped the victim’s family and supporters to meet and support the family, this aggregation for support for the accused was allowed. Defending the accused, the panchayat is upholding the rule of defining process and punishment as per the caste of the accused.
So, the caste matters in sexual assault!
So, the caste matters in sexual assault. Caste matters because in this country, a trial judge acquitted the rape accused by saying, “An upper-caste man could not have defiled himself by raping a lower-caste woman.” Caste matters because a Dalit man is forced to eat excreta for marrying a woman of ‘upper’ caste. Having an affair with one ends with public humiliation, beatings and even rape of sisters to avenge, regardless of the consent of woman in affair. Caste matters because the same punishments are not meted out to the man when the caste status of woman and men in sexual relationships is reversed. Caste matters because social codes laid down by Manusmriti continue to be more powerful and more sincerely implemented than the constitutional laws of this country. Caste matters because it ensures that societal protection to the rapist overpowers legal protection to the victims.
The problem of viewing violence against Dalit women as sex-based crimes or as caste-based crimes is a grave one. The intersection of caste, class and gender continues to remain missing from mainstream discourse. The Hathras crime, thus, is not a mere matter of absence of law and order in UP, but an outcome of structural processes, practices and institutions that have allowed and even rewarded atrocities against people living at intersection of certain disadvantaged caste, class and gender identities.
It is foolish and dangerous to try and address it without looking at the ways in which women’s identity as poor Dalit women lead to much compounded challenges than they experience as only women or only poor or only Dalits.