My heart bled as I read the news of a 19-year-old Dalit Valmiki girl gang raped and brutally killed in Hathras of Uttar Pradesh. The civil society and political parties in opposition are up in arms against the government and law enforcement agencies. I don't want to go into the details of how the girl was raped and killed - it's too traumatising to write every detail of this incidence about which almost everyone knows by now.
The intention of this piece is to point out the silencing of atrocities against the Dalit women for long. It is an elephant in the room. How can you eradicate a crime from the society without acknowledging it? Upper caste-dominated civil society - Right, Left or Center - reacted as if this is the first time a Dalit woman was raped. They should acknowledge that our Indian society is casteist to its core and women are the worst victim.
As a historian working on the Dalits in general, and Valmikis in particular, I want to intervene with the facts that upper caste men for centuries have been treating Dalit women as objects of sexual pleasure. Dalit women did not have the right to deny them sex. Moreover, unlike upper caste women, the Dalit women do not have 'dignity'. It is a truth often denied, silenced or excluded by the scholars.
During my research , I came across a case in which Dalit women were forced to sexually 'entertain' the upper caste men in the name of social and religious customs. The people who did not allow shadow of Dalits to fall over them, did not eat with them and excluded them from their society would feel it their social duty to rape Dalit women.
Dalits were not given access to sexual freedom and dignity. While upper caste women were suppressed through purdah (veil) system and their bodies were used to protect the honour of the upper caste men, Dalit women were used to 'dishonour' their communities. They were forced into sexual acts. The sexual subjugation was sanctified through social and religious customs with tacit support of the ruling classes.
Harijan Sevak Sangh (HSS) was an organisation formed by Mahatma Gandhi in 1932 and was a part (in practice) of Indian National Congress to eradicate untouchability from the society. In one of its survey reports of 1934, an issue of a social custom was raised. It was pointed out that in several villages of Uttar Pradesh, there was a practice that during the Hindu festival of Holi, upper caste men entered the Dalit colonies singing obscene songs. They would visit Dalit houses and sing songs calling women out with sexually suggestive songs. Dalit women, would then be taken with the force of sticks into secluded corners for the 'entertainment'. Before leaving these men would give the women money for 'amusing and entertaining' them. The 1930s was a time when Dalits started asserting their right to self-respect. Periyar and Ambedkar were campaigning among Dalits to fight for self-respect. As a result, at times Dalits would object to this derogatory and criminal custom. And these objections were met with violence by the upper caste men, which included beating up Dalits and destroy their houses.
The upper caste-dominated Congress and its arm HSS acknowledged this custom and tried to remove it. Even with Gandhi's popularity and network of Congress workers, upper Caste men did not stop this custom. The report pointed out that in only one of the several villages, where HSS campaigned against the practice, this custom could be eradicated.
We live in a country where a Dalit woman, Bhanwari Devi, was gang-raped in front of her husband by Upper Caste men for doing her duty as a worker of Rajasthan Government's Women Development Program (WDP). The judge during trial noted that "rape is usually committed by teenagers, and since the accused are middle-aged and therefore respectable, they could not have committed the crime. An upper-caste man could not have defiled himself by raping a lower-caste woman." Local politicians organized public rallies in support of the rapists.
It is a country where economic well-being, education, or even ascending to high political posts does not make a Dalit woman immune to the sexual assaults. Mayawati, former Chief Minister of U.P, was attacked by the MLAs a day before she took oath as the first Dalit woman chief minister in the country. The fact that she was an MLA, leader of the third largest party and was going to swear in as the chief minister, did not deter the upper caste MLAs from attempting a physical assault on her.
The thing to note here is how civil society, media and activists react differently to the rapes of upper caste women and Dalit women. After the infamous Nirbhaya rape in Delhi almost nobody disclosed her real name. People were sensitive enough that they would not disclose the identity for societal and legal reasons. In a complete contrast, from the first day media, activists and all the so-called sympathisers have been disclosing the name and identity of the Hathras rape victim. Why? The answer lies in the age-old social conditioning which led them to believe that a Dalit woman has no honour, and hence no right to privacy, unlike her upper caste counterparts.
Whatever has happened in Hathras is not a simple law and order problem as civil society and politicians want us to believe. The shit is deeper. The problem is the 'Manuvadi' mindset of upper caste men. They are unable to let go of the culture in which their ancestors used to rape Dalit women at will. Acknowledging the problem is the first step to the solution. If upper caste activists are serious and do not want a repeat of such rapes they should strike at the core of the problem, i.e, casteism.
The author is a PhD scholar at the Department of History in University of Delhi. She has received Post-graduate degree in Modern History from Jawahar Lal Nehru University. Her current field of research is Dalit history.