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The Grim Reality of Caste Based Sexual Violence


The rape and death of a young Dalit girl from Hathras district in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, a few months ago, drew global outrage. The world witnessed the surreal interception of justice every step of the way, even in the aftermath of the crime.

The police delayed registering an FIR, the young girl did not receive timely medical attention, and her body was cremated without the permission of the family.

Yet this crime and the obfuscation of justice is not new for the marginalized. Dalit people have faced discrimination for millennia. Dalit women, in particular, face multiple layers of oppression for their caste, class, gender and sexuality. Their perpetrators include many in society at large — dominant caste men, dominant caste women, Dalit men, natal and marital families, and the police. The statistics on crime against Dalit women is grim. Ten Dalit women are raped every day, according to India’s latest official crime data. Reported cases of rape and assault against Dalit women have increased in the past five years. Of all the cases of crimes against Dalits, 20.4% were related to violence against women.

Caste norms and traditions of untouchability have translated to violence for the simplest reasons. Some of the reasons for which women and girls have faced violence includes working in the fields, buying milk, sitting on a chair, accidentally touching a bucket that belonged to a dominant caste person, transgressing endogamy (marrying within one’s community), and aspiring for  political power.

What we see is a consistent threat of violence directed towards Dalit women, both in their public and private lives.

“Dalit women are more likely to suffer violence and especially sexual violence and are least likely to get redress in the courts. They are, in a sense, doubly victimized – first at the hands of their attackers, and then at the hands of a judicial system that fails to offer them protection and redress,” states a Human Rights Watch report titled ‘Hidden Apartheid – Caste discrimination against India’s ‘untouchables.’

Dalit women and girls, particularly from some communities, are forced into religiously sanctioned systems of sexual abuse, such as the devadasi and jogini systems, and trafficked into urban brothels.

In their places of work, especially agricultural fields, Dalit women often face sexual harassment from landed dominant caste employers. In private, not only do rural Dalit women experience domestic violence and child sex abuse as do other women and girls, but they also face sexual assault and abuse by non-family members, who force themselves into their homes.

Even political leadership doesn’t foreground their caste status. Dalit women contesting elections or wielding any political power can invite retribution. As elected local body chiefs (panchayat sarpanch), they are still expected to follow caste norms.

Every slice of life is a possible scene for a caste crime.

The violence Dalit women experience comes in different forms. Between 2014-2018, 95% of the crimes Dalit women faced were filed under ‘Rape, Assault to Outrage modesty, Kidnapping & Attempt to compel for marriage.’ 

A study by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) on violence faced by 500 Dalit women in five Indian states found that Dalit women face twelve major forms of violence. Nine forms of violence — physical assault, verbal abuse, sexual harassment and assault, rape, sexual exploitation, forced prostitution, kidnapping and abduction, forced incarceration, and medical negligence were inflicted by society at large, while three forms of violence — female foeticide and infanticide, child sexual abuse and domestic violence were conducted by natal and marital families.

The Intersection of Caste Politics and Gang Rape

Of these forms of violence, gang rape, in particular, is the kind of sexual violence directed towards Dalit women by dominant caste men who assert their masculinity and caste supremacy. It is used as a disciplinary act to ‘teach’ Dalit communities a collective lesson if they violate caste rules or assert themselves. In the case of Dalit people, all other castes, including those backward castes that face oppression from other castes themselves form dominant communities who inflict violence on them.

Ranvir Sena, an outlawed ‘upper’ caste militia of men from  bhumihar, a land-owning dominant caste, killed hundreds of Dalits in cold blood in Bihar in mass pogroms in the 1990s. Violence against Dalit women was a routine fragment of their crimes; women and girls were raped and shot, including five girls aged around 15 years in Laxmanpur-Bathe in 1997.

In the chilling Khairlanji massacre in Maharashtra in 2006, a mob of dominant Kunbi-Maratha villagers gathered to avenge a Dalit family that had testified against dominant caste men in a court case. The entire family, except the father who was away at the time, was killed and their home razed. Collective reprisal included the mother and her 19-year-old daughter being stripped, paraded naked around the village, beaten, raped, and killed by members of the same village.

Laws Against Caste Crimes in India

These fatal crimes occurred despite the fact that, over the years, India has framed robust laws to deal with caste violence.

Adopted in 1950, the right to equality articles of the Indian constitution provide for equality before the law and freedom from all discrimination. Article 17 in particular reads, ‘"Untouchability” is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden.”

Five years later, the Untouchability Offences Act 1955 was enacted to further Article 17. But the 1960s and 70s still saw brutal caste violence such as the Kilavenmani massacre in 1968 in which 42 Dalit agricultural labourers were killed by landlords for demanding higher wages in Tamil Nadu and the killing of Kotesu Kanchikacherla, a Dalit person who was burnt for allegedly stealing a tumbler in 1969 in Andhra Pradesh.

The law was made stringent and amended as the Protection of Civil Rights Act 1976, mandating prison sentences for untouchability.

These laws along with provisions of the Indian Penal Code (1860) (that deals with criminal offenses such as murder, rape, kidnapping, etc.) still did not discourage caste crimes.

The most crucial law against caste crimes, the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 PoA or Atrocities Act) was brought into force in January 1990. It mandated immediate arrest of the accused, made penalties for caste offenses more severe and classified caste atrocities as cognizable offenses — in which the police can investigate and make arrests without a warrant or court permission.

Despite strong laws and thirty years since the PoA, crimes against marginalized communities and women, in particular, continues unabated. Even the COVID lockdown, with its curtailment of civil liberties, saw a surge in crimes against Dalits. The implementation of these laws has been rife with loopholes.

The Police: Agents of the Oppressor Caste

Those responsible for enforcing the law are often complicit in violating it. The Indian police have been perpetrators of custodial violence and have worked to weaken cases, obstruct justice, and enable dominant caste perpetrators. The processes of seeking justice — registering a case, investigation, chargesheeting, and court trials, become exercises reinforcing caste discrimination.

Victims are dissuaded from registering cases, pressured to settle cases outside of court, cases are filed under other less serious sections, or they are often not registered under the PoA act. If filed under SC & ST (PoA) Act, the chargesheet has to be filed sooner, within 60 days; if cases are filed under rape laws the charge sheet by the police has to be filed within 90 days.

Delays in police investigation put extraordinary strain on victims and their families. They are intimidated by dominant caste perpetrators, counter cases are filed on them, the accused are often out on bail before evidence is collected and witnesses are threatened.

In 2018, 16300 cases of crimes against Dalits were pending police investigation, a rise of 167.43 % from 6,095 cases in 2009. Even after investigations, most cases await trial each year. By the end of 2018, 93.5% of cases under the SC & ST (PoA) Act 1989 were pending trial in courts.

Cases that last through these challenges, and finally make it to trial, see a high acquittal and low conviction rate due to shoddy prosecution. The conviction rate for rape in India is as low as 27.8%. The conviction rate for crimes against scheduled castes between 2009 and 2018 averaged 25.2 % and the acquittal rate was as high as 62.5%. Not only do Dalit women experience violence differently and more publicly than other women in Indian society, but their historical disadvantages — low literacy, lack of land ownership and economic resources, and the absence of networks — can disempower them in their fight for justice. The system unites to gaslight marginalised women and finds reasons to rationalise crime against them. As far back as 1972, in the custodial rape of a minor tribal girl in Maharashtra, the court had observed that the girl had no injuries, showed "passive submission," and had not “resisted the rape”, stirring protests by women’s rights groups in India.

Two decades later, in the case of Bhanwari Devi, a ‘low caste’ social worker who was gang-raped in 1992 by dominant caste men for her work in the village, the crime led to India’s first law against sexual harassment at the workplace. Yet, she got no justice and all five accused were acquitted. The rationale of the judge included that upper caste men could not rape a lower caste woman for reasons of purity.

However, we see from similar cases of rape and murder of dominant caste women such as the Delhi gang-rape 2012 and the rape and murder of a young veterinarian in Hyderabad in 2019, that the state machinery reacted sympathetically. After the Delhi gang rape, criminal law was amended to make punishments for sexual violence against women harsher and the accused were given the death penalty; in the Hyderabad gang rape case, the accused were shot by the police in an extrajudicial killing.

In contrast, in the case of marginalised women, it is often inferred that rape has not even occurred, as was done in Hathras, where the police and the state government aligned themselves with dominant caste Thakur perpetrators.

The extraordinary media scrutiny and public outcry in the Hathras case did not translate to accountability in the ensuing investigation or fair treatment for the victim’s family, demonstrating that caste plays out with impunity. It does not matter that the crime is being watched and documented.

For every crime against a Dalit woman that is recorded, several go unnoticed or even unreported. A month before Hathras, at least six similar incidents were recorded in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Another young girl in Balrampur, Uttar Pradesh was raped and killed just days after. Other crimes of rape and murder continue to this day.

Yet, none of this is new. It has happened before Hathras, it has happened since.