Hathras: 'Humiliated And Angry', Says Veteran Dalit Rights Activist Ruth Manorama On A Week Of Horror

Betwa Sharma
·Politics Editor, HuffPost India
·11-min read
Ruth Manorama, veteran Dalit rights activist, founded the Federation of Dalit Women in 1995.  (Photo: Courtesy Ruth Manorama)
Ruth Manorama, veteran Dalit rights activist, founded the Federation of Dalit Women in 1995. (Photo: Courtesy Ruth Manorama)

The rape and murder of a 20-year-old Dalit woman in Hathras, who was then forcibly cremated by the police in Uttar Pradesh without her family’s permission, unleashed a wave of outrage not seen since a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was raped and murdered in Delhi in 2012. The rape and murder of another Dalit woman this week, a 22-year-old in Balrampur, exposed the rapes that have continued in Uttar Pradesh over the summer and how little the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath was doing to stop crimes against women.

“I feel very humiliated and angry,” said Ruth Manorama, who has fought for the rights of Dalit women for 40 years. “Dalit women are like fodder in all kinds of atrocities. They violate Dalit women’s dignity in order to shame the whole community.”

“There is a connivance between the state and the powerful upper caste non-state actors,” she said. “How long can one tolerate such things?”

The official crime data for 2019 says that Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with 200 million people, has the highest number of crimes against women, The Indian Express reported. The highest proportion of these crimes are cruelty by husbands and relatives followed by assault on women with the intent of outraging her modesty, according to an analysis by the New Delhi-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. UP was third after Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh for rape and murder, and second after Rajasthan for rape.

The crime data shows the highest number of crimes against Dalits in 2019 were committed in UP, but it was sixth in the number of incidents per 1,00,000 Dalits, and second after Uttarakhand at securing convictions, News 18 reported. UP was second after Rajasthan for rape of Dalit women, but the number of incidents per 1,00,000 Dalits, were highest in Kerala, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

88 rape cases were reported every day in 2019. 10 cases of rape of Dalit women were reported every day.

The BJP government in UP responded to the outrage by barricading the dead woman’s village in Hathras, barring the family from speaking to the media and Opposition leaders, and contending there was no rape because no semen was found in the forensic report.

Manorama, who founded an NGO that promotes the rights of Dalit women in 1995, the National Federation of Dalit Women, spoke of how she felt about the crimes in Hathras and the horror-filled week that followed, endemic casteism and fighting back.

“Indians are not tolerating a casteless society. That is why the importance of marrying within your own caste,” she said. “Caste does not leave you even in your bedroom.”

Dalit women are like fodder in all kinds of atrocities. They violate Dalit women’s dignity in order to shame the whole community.

How do you feel about everything that has happened so far?

I feel very humiliated and angry. This is happening to the Dalit people and Dalit women for 74 years since Independence. Violence has escalated in India. Dalit women are like fodder in all kinds of atrocities. They violate Dalit women’s dignity in order to shame the whole community. If you want to shame the community, shame the women. They rape and kill them. And we can’t do anything. They terrorise the community. There is connivance between the state and the powerful upper caste non-state actors. How long can one tolerate such things? The Government of India talks about safety and security for women. (Union Minister for Women and Child Development) Smriti Irani has said that we provide safety and security for women. Where is this safety and security for women?

In the case of Dalit women, the intersection of caste, class and gender is so visible. The alienation of poor Dalit women is so bad that they can be subjected to any kind of atrocity. Caste is very hierarchical. Indians are not tolerating a casteless society. That is why the importance of marrying within your own caste. Caste does not leave you even in your bedroom.

Indians are not tolerating a casteless society. That is why the importance of marrying within your own caste. Caste does not leave you even in your bedroom.

There was the crime and there was the horrifying aftermath of cremating her without her family’s permission. Do the authorities think they can do this because the family is Dalit?

Yes. The state will not protect them. The police will not come and help them. The police will take bribes from upper castes. Many Dalits do not have land. They go and work in the land of the upper castes. If they stay quiet and don’t protest, they will get work and be allowed to work. It is a horrifying situation. Even if they have land, the upper castes won’t let them grow what they want. The endless poverty of the Dalits really lets their subjugation continue. Giving women Rs 500 (every month) through the Jan Dhan Yojana scheme is not the solution. They need real schools, real jobs and real wages. Then only can they come up and break the vicious cycle of poverty.

The endless poverty of the Dalits really lets their subjugation continue.

Then, there was news of another Dalit woman raped and murdered in Balrampur. How did you process it?

It has been going on for years to terrorise Dalit people. There are instances after instances. It goes on and on and on. Impunity prevails. The cases go on and on. And like Ayodhya, the Babri Masjid case, they are acquitted. The government needs to ensure swift justice. The dereliction of duty under the Atrocities Act — The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 — is punishable under law. When Mayawati was Chief Minister (Dalit CM of UP), the violence really went down. A woman was able to control violence against women. But there should be people committed whether you are Dalit or not. You are bound by the Constitution that there will be no discrimination on the basis of caste, class and gender. But for justice, the systems have to work. What we are facing is structural violence and historical oppression that is getting repeated. That needs to be broken. People should be ashamed to treat women, any woman, like this. When women are powerless, the marginalised women are more powerless.

People should be ashamed to treat women, any woman, like this. When women are powerless, the marginalised women are more powerless.

How do you fight back?

We are people with dignity. We know what is happening to us. We are protesting. We are filing cases in the court. They want to make us powerless. But Dalits are rising everywhere and that irritates them. So, they are getting more violent.

Why have things not improved for Dalits in more than 70 years?

Because there is no political will to treat people equally. It is an abdication of state obligations to its own citizens. The officials and politicians serve the better off, serve the people with the higher caste and class. They need to be blamed for this. It is a fight between the powerful and the powerless people. If justice is not given, what will happen? The struggle will be intensified. I don’t know what form it would take. Let’s leave that to people’s imagination.

Why is there no formidable Dalit political movement?

The caste society is so strong that they crush us. Even when Dalits go and represent their political parties, they will not be allowed to talk. They are also crushed within their own parties. Casteism really prevails in the political arena even if you are elected. A formidable political movement must be built up. What we have now is not enough.

People say Dalits have reservation in education, jobs and politics, the government is appeasing them, there is a Dalit president, so what is the problem? People should understand the vulnerable situation of the Dalits. That they have no land, no proper education, they have no jobs. If you see social indicators, they are very very backward. India is living in villages and every village is divided into an upper caste village and lower caste colonies. That is the reality of India. Let them change this. If 17% of this country is Dalit, how many IAS, IPS officers do we have. We are not in the decision making roles.

Casteism really prevails in the political arena even if you are elected.

Mayawati was a formidable force that has withered in the past few elections.

Mayawati joined the upper castes for politics and you see what happened. We need to enable political leadership. But for that, you need muscle, money and power. We need that. If you ask the Prime Minister (Narendra Modi), he might speak of the Dalit MPs who are elected. But the thing is that caste is so entrenched in the Indian spine that even if you have law, even if there is a Constitution, people will treat vulnerable people in a wretched way. Even if there are protests, they dust it off. If there is dust on your sari or kurta, you dust it off, like that.

Caste is so entrenched in the Indian spine that even if you have law, even if there is a Constitution, people will treat vulnerable people in a wretched way.

Why did this case spark such outrage?

In this case, it was the police that became the perpetrators. They burnt her body. That was a real horror. During the pandemic time, the police have more power than before and it is unnecessary. The police wield their guns and lathis over people. I’m very angry in the sense of why this is happening. We have been fighting for years and I’m wondering what the solution is going to be. We are also at a crossroads. What needs to be done. Earlier the Supreme Court used to play a vital role in changing situations, now little hope is there.

I think all our voices should be louder. I think the international press should say we are watching what is happening in your country. Do you remember when Modi was not allowed to enter into America (the then Chief Minister of Gujarat was denied a visa to enter the United States in 2005 on religious freedom grounds following the Gujarat riots in 2002), I think that kind of shaming is necessary for people who do not adhere to constitutional values.

We have been fighting for years and I’m wondering what the solution is going to be. We are also at a crossroads.

Is it worse under the BJP? Or it does not matter which political party is at the Centre?

I think the new kind of untouchability forms, you should not eat this, and you should not eat that, have definitely increased in a Hindu regime. Tolerance is a very important part of our Constitution. They cannot seem to tolerate others. I don’t know why. People who claim to have a base in Hindutva are becoming more cruel to other people. It is not regular Hinduism. It is a vulgarised form of Hinduism. Our society should be equal. That is why we got independence.

Do you feel the outrage in this Hathras case is widespread among savarnas?

I don’t know. Maybe a handful of savarnas are thinking that what has happened is very unjust. But when it happens, they think it is happening to all women, and they put it in one basket. They don’t understand that the baskets are different. If you are a poor Dalit woman, the vulnerability is more. I think people need to understand that.

How have you felt the oppression?

Until my daughter was with me, she didn’t realise the caste system. When she went on her own into the world, she realised how the caste system really works. People have asked my daughter, ‘Oh you are Dalit, but you are speaking very good English.’ In college, she volunteered her time to teach English to other women students. A girl asked her about her caste. She replied, ’I’m a Christian and also Dalit.′ This girl replied, ‘I never thought Dalit could speak English, dress well. You must be bluffing.’

There is some change.

Some Dalits have come up, yes. The educated Dalits today are able to raise their voice. They are able to talk. They are able to mobilise. But savarnas need to understand that there is historical oppression. Leaders of the African American community said that they need relief, rehabilitation and restorative justice. I think we have to demand that humanity prevails.

Dr Ambedkar said that our struggle is not for wealth or for social status. Our struggle is to see that humanity prevails. We are struggling for our lost humanity. It is a long struggle. I think the Dalits, blacks and indigenous people in the world are suffering in the context of fascist governments and globalisation. As Nelson Mandela said — this is a long walk to freedom. I’m confident that we will overcome the oppression that we are facing one day. I’m confident that women will lead the struggle.

(Editor’s note: This interview is part of The Idea of India, HuffPost India’s monthly newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here).

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost India and has been updated.