CASTE-BASED VIOLENCE IN INDIA
The Vastavik sheds light on a topic, which has been allegedly addressed but ignored for a long period of time, and connects it to the recent events with the history of the same.
“Caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wire which prevents the Hindus from co-mingling and which has, therefore, to be pulled down. Caste is a notion; it is a state of the mind.” - B.R Ambedkar
Introduction and Overview
On September 14, 2020. A Dalit family reported that their daughter had been gang-raped in a field just outside their village. The police only took action and filed an FIR 8 days later. The young woman died due to severe injuries in Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi. The autopsy report was not released since the body of the woman was heinously cremated in secrecy at 2:30 AM without the family’s involvement or permission.
The circumstances of the initial report and the eventual cremation raised some doubts in people, propelling the case to mainstream news. The story however has also reignited the discussion of caste oppression in India, owing to the fact that the victim was a Dalit (lower caste) and the accused are upper caste Thakurs.
The Hathras Story
The 19-year-old victim was accosted in a field in her village in the Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh. 4 men dragged her by her dupatta through the fields, leaving her with a spinal cord injury that paralyzed her. She was brutally gang raped by the 4 men who also reportedly tried to cut her tongue and strangle her.
The victim’s mother found her in the fields, naked from the waist down and significantly injured. The mother and brother soon took her to Chandpa Police Station nearby, where the woman reported the attack to a police officer. There is also video evidence of this meeting between the victim and the police officer. The video clearly shows the victim lying on a cement slab, saying that the men did zabardasti with her, which is a commonly known slang for rape in rural communities.
The police then asked the brother to write the report and for reasons not made public, the police left out any mention of rape which had been clearly informed by the victim. Due to the severity of the injuries, the victim had to be transported to Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi for her treatment, where she eventually died. After her death, the police took her body for a hasty autopsy and cremated her in the dead of night without the consent of the family. Last rites, which are an important part of Hindu religion, are conducted by the family but such was not the case here. Some have alleged that the body was incinerated to remove any DNA evidence that might be detrimental to the accused.
Following the ‘cremation’, the case received overwhelming national attention. The police repeatedly denied that any rape had occurred, even with insurmountable evidence to their statements. Evidence included statements from the victim herself, which hold a great deal of power in Indian Law, as it was a dying declaration. There was also a report that confirmed rape, based on the investigation by the hospital the victim stayed at in Aligarh.
The village from where the victim hailed was locked down, with the government claiming it as a ‘COVID hotspot’. Journalists and politicians were barred from entering. Protests occurred throughout the country. The UP government imposed a ban on large gatherings as well as arrested journalists on charges of sedition and UAPA for reporting “false news”.
Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi and his sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra organised a march to Hathras, to meet the victim’s family, but were detained by the UP police for organising a large gathering. Videos of Rahul Gandhi being pushed to the ground by the UP police have also surfaced.
Police claim that the victim only made rape allegations nine days after the assault, at which point forensic evidence is considered useless. But there is video evidence of the victim claiming that the men raped her just hours after the attack, at Chandpa Police Station. So far, the UP Government has suspended Hathras Superintendent of Police as well as 4 other officers, all of whom deny wrongdoing. The Police and governments insistence that rape had not occurred is based on forensic evidence gathered 11 days after the attack, at which point it is not valid as evidence anymore.
The Caste Nexus in the Country
As a Hindu majority country, India still has many people who abide by and live according to the caste system of the Hindu religion. Hinduism declared that there are 4 main castes, which are Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. Brahmins are at the top of this system and Shudras are at the bottom. There is another category, Dalits. They are also known as “untouchables”.
In rural communities, caste plays a huge role still, despite efforts by the government to uplift lower castes. In most villages, there will be a segregation of facilities, based on caste. Caste is also often a motivation for rape, murder, assault, etc.
In a country where a girl is raped every 15 minutes, most cases fail to make news. The Hathras case in particular has immensely disturbed the country. A 19-year old Dalit girl’s rape by four upper caste men and their exoneration bring out the deeply buried caste system and long-standing issues of women security. This particular case highlights the role of caste in sexual violence. It highlights the exploitation of lower caste, especially women, when violence against these castes is essentially used to portray domination and power. Dalit women are subjugated to rape and violence by upper caste men, their bodies are used as objects, and this tool is further used to portray superiority and keep the casteism intact.
The victim also made a dying declaration, something that holds huge value in a court. She named the 4 accused, all of whom have since been arrested and also deny all allegations. If found guilty, the accused could face the death penalty.
More reports are surfacing every day, alleging that there was no rape, despite evidence from experts in Delhi.
The Centre for Dalit Rights group examined 100 incidents of sexual violence against Dalit women and girls across 16 districts in India between 2004 and 2013. They concluded that 46% of the victims were aged below 18 and 85% were less than 30 years old.
In a 2006 study, 500 Dalit women across four states talked about the forms of violence they had faced, 54% had been physically assaulted; 46% had been sexually harassed; 43% had faced domestic violence; 23% had been raped; and 62% had been verbally abused.
Despite 1989 law to prevent atrocities against Dalit community, women from lower castes continue to be stalked, abused, molested, raped and murdered with impunity. According to official figures, 10 Dalit women were raped every day in India last year. Uttar Pradesh, in particular, has the highest number of cases of violence against women as well as the highest number of cases of sexual assault against girls. Three states - Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan - report more than half of the cases of atrocities against the Dalits. The report, titled ‘Quest for Justice’, by the National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ) - National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights suggests that Crimes against Dalits increased by 6% from 2009 to 2018 with over 3.91 lakh atrocities being reported.
Government’s Response: Yogi’s UP
Following the Hathras Case, so far the 4 accused have been arrested and 5 officers have been suspended for negligence in reporting and investigating the allegations. One of the suspended officers includes the Superintendent of police for that district.
The police has reportedly hired a PR firm to ensure that it is made known that the rape allegations are false. Uttar Pradesh' Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, has faced a lot of criticism for the way his government is handling the case, and law and order in the district in general. With widespread crime all over the state, Uttar Pradesh is considered oe of the most dangerous states in the country.
Former Hathras MLA, Rajveer Pahalwan, organised a rally in support of the 4 main accused. The family of the accused were in attendance along with hundred others and have said to the media that “The girl should get justice. But we should also get justice for these false allegations”.
Yogi Adityanath has also faced criticism for not visiting the family of the victim. Rahul Gandhi, leader of the Opposition, along with his sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, organised a march from Delhi to Hathras where they would meet with the victims family. Rahul Gandhi was detained by the UP police enroute to Hathras, for reportedly violating the UP govts rule against large gatherings. He was eventually released and after some trouble, reached Hathras.
The UP police has claimed the village where the victim and accused are from, a COVID hotspot, and subsequently sealed it off. Media and politicians are not allowed in the area. UP government has also been charging journalists with sedition for reporting on the case and painting the Government in a bad light. So far, 21 cases have been filed.