By Shivangi Behera
TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains explicit mentions of gang rape, sexual assault, and murder.
On 10 October 2020, students from The Graduate Institute, Geneva assembled by the Broken Chair in front of Palais des Nations to protest against the gang rape by four upper caste Thakur men of a 19-year old Dalit woman in the Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh(UP). The protestors gathered to condemn her rape and the state police’s subsequent irresponsible treatment of the case. Dalit, meaning ‘broken/scattered’ is the term used for people belonging to castes in India who have been historically subjected to untouchability. They are considered to be outside the four-fold varna system prevalent in Hinduism. This case, one of the many heinous caste atrocities committed in India on a daily basis, has sparked public outrage against the ruling government and its absolute disregard for the law.
It happened on 14 September 2020. A 19-year old Dalit woman in Hathras, in UP, went to work in the fields near her home. Four Thakur men gang raped her, whom she named in her dying declaration. Newslaundry’s ground report from 29 September 2020 quotes her mother as saying, “My daughter was lying naked with her tongue protruding from her mouth. Her eyes were bulging out and she was bleeding from her mouth, her neck and there was blood near her eyes. I also noticed bleeding from her vagina. I quickly covered her with the pallu of my saree, and started screaming.”
What should have followed is very clearly mentioned in India’s legal code—hospitalisation, followed by the lodging of First Information Report (FIR), statement of the survivor in presence of a magistrate; if the survivor passes away, their body is handed over to the family after a post-mortem. Instead, what followed was a mockery–both of the survivor and her family, of the country’s system of codified law, and of democracy itself. The victim passed away in Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi two weeks after the incident. UP police officers acting as accomplices, cremated her in the middle of the night—without letting the family members see her dead body—while the family locked themselves in fear of the state. As Tanushree Pandey captured in her first-person account on Twitter, a police officer had asked the family to admit their mistakes.
State actors have twisted the events; their statements contain anything but the truth. Additional Deputy General Prashant Kumar said that she died due to injury in her spinal cord and not because rape, standing in direct opposition to the victim’s statement. Anuj Kumar’s report in The Hindu quotes the victim’s brother saying, “we have been punished twice. Once when my sister was killed by the Thakur boys and the second time when the administration burnt her body in the dead of the night.” It is important to note here that according to Sec 166A of the Indian Penal Code, the police is responsible for delays in registering FIR after a victim makes a complaint. Chief Minister of UP, Yogi Adityanath, has not only denied the role of caste in this case, but also called this a foreign-funded conspiracy case to malign the “development” record of the state and fuel caste disturbances in UP. The Allahabad High Court has taken suo moto cognizance of the case in “In Re: Right to decent and dignified last rites/cremation.”
Caste-based atrocities are a routine occurrence in the country. Indian society has upper caste sanctions on Dalit livelihood, bodies, and lives. Dalits endure discrimination and segregation in all social interactions like access to housing, education, economic opportunities, places of worship, and public services. The Indian constitution has reparations like caste-based reservations embedded in it. Reservation is a system of affirmative action that provides representation to historically and contemporary disadvantaged groups in education, employment, and politics. However, not much can be said about its impact on India’s social dynamics. To this date, Dalits have to perform jobs that no one else wants to do. The upper caste continues to discriminate against Dalits and deter them from living a dignified life.
In India’s legal trajectory, the Hathras gang rape and murder may even appear to be a norm, rather than an aberration. In 1995, for example, the Rajasthan High Court in its judgement on the Bhanwari Devi gang rape case held that upper caste men would not rape a lower caste woman because they wouldn’t so much as touch her! The Khairlanji case of 2006 is another instance when the judiciary denied the existence of caste atrocities; despite the sexual assault and murders of Surekha Bhotmange, her daughter and her two sons, the Nagpur High Court insisted that the mob-murder was a revenge killing and not a caste-based one.
A popular narrative compares the Hathras gang rape and murder to the Nirbhaya case of December 2012, when a 23-year old woman was beaten, gang raped, and tortured in a private bus in South Delhi while she was travelling with her male friend. As Indian law disallows the press organisations to publish a rape victim’s name, she was given the nomenclature of Nirbhaya, meaning fearless. Her struggle and death became a symbol for resistance to rape across the world.
The comparison, however, is faulty as it erases the long and bloody history of everyday caste-based barbarity. Dalits, especially Dalit women continue to face grave physical and sexual violence, and witch-branding. The comparison also allows the upper caste to do away with the discomfort they face when acknowledging the role of caste in the atrocity that took the 19-year-old’s life in Hathras. While the Nirbhaya case gripped the country’s attention, the same year saw a relentless increase in rapes, gang rapes, sexual assault and murder of Dalit girls and women in the neighboring state of Haryana that were muted from public discourse. According to a report released on September 9 2020 called ‘Quest for Justice’ by the National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ) – National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, crimes against Dalits have increased 6% from 2009 to 2018, and over 3.91 lakh atrocities have been reported.
Despite this increase, a large number of caste-based atrocities are not registered, the ones that are registered end up becoming just another number in the larger pool of data. As the NDMJ report shows, on average 88.5% cases filed under Prevention of Atrocities Act from 2009 to 2018 remain are still pending trial. This concerted lack of legal venues for seeking justice also acts as a deterrent for victims to seek help from the judiciary. As Dr V A Ramesh Nathan, general secretary of NDMJ was reported as saying, “it looks like the State lacks political will and is taking the side of the perpetrators.”
While this case is particularly harrowing, in reality, nothing about it is unique. Gang rape, murder, cover-ups by the state: the Hathras case is one among many. Perceiving it as a rare occurrence betrays the lived experience of Dalits and India’s historical reality.
As I finished writing this, my phone is beeping with a news alert: Newslaundry’s ground report of a 17 – year old Dalit girl having been found dead in her employer’s home, and how the Delhi police has forced her cremation.
Shivangi Behera is in the 1st year of M.A. International History. Instagram: @shivangib03 / Twitter: @shivangi_behera
Cover photo by Aviral Goenka.