In yet another blood-curdling incident of violence against the oppressed castes, two Dalit sisters were found hanging from a tree in a village in Uttar Pradesh's Lakhimpur Kheri district. The two girls, aged 15 and 17, were allegedly raped and murdered before being strung up on a tree in a sugarcane field about a kilometre from their home in Nighasan police station area on Wednesday. Following the outrage, police have arrested six men, Junaid, Sohail, Hafizur Rehman, Karimuddin, Arif, and Chottu, in connection with the case.
The incident echoes the 2014 Buduan case in which two Dalit cousins, aged 14 and 15, were allegedly gang-raped and murderd and their bodies found hanging from a mango tree in Katra village. Moreover, it is yet another shocking reminder of the increasing instances of violence or atrocities against Dalits, tribals, and other oppressed sections of the country.
Spike in violence against Dalits
Even amid outrage against the Lakhimpur rape-murder, PTI reported on a Dalit man was allegedly beaten up with iron rods and sticks by a group of men for drinking water from a pot meant for people from upper castes in Rajasthan's Jaisalmer district. The incident took place on Tuesday.
Earlier in September, a Dalit man in Uttarakhand was brutally murdered by his in-laws for marrying an upper-caste girl. The couple had previously written to the administration, requesting security.
In 2021, a Dalit youth was beaten up by a group of men on allegations of stealing a goat in Rajasthan's Bhilwara. In March this year i similar incident occurred din Bhilawada where a healthcare worker belonging to the Scheduled Caste community was allegedly killed by two upper-caste men for sporting a moustache. Police later denied any connection between the killing and the victim's moustache or choice of lifestyle.
Such incidents of violence against the SC community, however, have become increasingly common across the country.
The recent data by the National Crime Records Bureau noted a significant jump in violence against the SC-SC communities in India with six crimes being reported an hour against Dalits in 2021. Overall, the new NCRB report shows that the total number of cases have jumped from to 50,900 last year from 50,291 in 2020.
The National Coalition for Strengthening SCs and STs (PoA) Act (NCSPA), a consortium of 500 Dalit and Adivasi civil societies analysed the NCRB crime data against SCs and STs and found that the communities continued to suffer the worst form of violence and repression in India despite legal and constitutional safeguards. According to a report NewsClick, the body found members of the community to be victims of institutional discrimination and social discrimination.
Sexual crimes against Dalit women
The brutal 2020 gang-rape of a 19-year-old Dalit girl in Uttar Pradesh's Hathras led to countrywide protests. And yet, sexual violence remains one of the biggest problems for Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi women.
Last year's NCRB data found a 45 percent increase in reported rapes of Dalit women between 2015 and 2020. The data said 10 rapes of Dalit women and girls were reported every day in India, on average. Activists working with survivors of caste-based sexual violence report lack of institutional support from police, local authorities and fear of action by upper caste communities, making it harder for them to seek redressal for the crimes. But what makes rape a caste-based crime?
JNU scholar Dipsita Dhar in 2020 had argued that "bringing in the feudal concept of ‘honour’ and applying it on Dalits suffices to kill all birds with one stone—it satisfies society’s patriarchal yearning, as if this was some natural law, and it helps the old ruling ethos maintain itself".
"Dalit women’s bodies can be made an easy site of violence: there’s no risk, no price to pay, the perpetrator is confident about the impunity, the social-political protection he gets by virtue of being from a ruling caste," she wrote.
Following the Hathras case, upper caste groups reportedly led protest marches in support of the accused.
According to Bijayini Mishra, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Maitreyi College, University of Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University scholar Harsh Vardhan, "The increasing number of caste-based violence both physical and symbolic is an outcome of the resentment that the upper castes hold towards the Dalits for losing their power and pursuit of egalitarianism and social leveling". Mishra and Vardhan argue that indirect forms of violence such as violence against reservation policy or attacks on Dalits for 'cultural symbols' such as keeping moustaches or riding horses, are also responses of the economically dominant upper caste aimed at preserving their superiority.
"The neoliberal economic policy has snatched away the security enjoyed by several upper-caste middle-class families as access to quality education and dignified employment has become difficult. When an ‘upper-caste’ person who takes pride in his/her caste finds a Dalit/Adivasi/OBC in better socio-economic condition, they tend to see it not as a failure of the Government or of the economic system but as a ‘theft’ of what ‘rightfully belongs to them," Mishra and Vardhan write.
The Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, meant to provide protection and justice from caste-based crimes, continues to suffer from low conviction rates. In October 2021, the Supreme Court noted that the low convictions in the SC/ST Atrocities Act is not due to "falsity of charges but because of shoddy investigations". The court also noted that apathy from police and fear of repression form upper caste communities also prevented many SC victims of violence from speaking up or reporting the crime.
(With inputs from PTI)