Saturday, May 21, 2022

Hathras Rape: A Caste Continuum

Though the 19-year- old burns in front of our eyes, what's on that funeral pyre are the unkept promises of our Constitution.

Hathras Rape: A Caste Continuum
Representational Image

Speak, memory? Not in a country where tongues are cut off, literally and metaphorically. And capital punishment awaits the offender, by the roadside and in country fields. There’s enough “real life” in India, too much of it—but let us consider fiction. Remember Article 15? Two young girls had asked for a hike in their daily wage, by a mere three rupees. The contractor taught them a lesson. (By raping and killing them. Since you ask, that’s the normal currency in these parts.) How dare a “lower caste” ask questions? How dare these dispossessed people, supposed to sell their labour the way it’s defined in the holy scriptures, demand rights? How dare they speak? The film, noticed, among other things, for placing a do-gooder Brahmin cop in the centre of the frame—was based loosely on real life, the Badaun gangrape-cum-murder case. Remember Paatal Lok? A Dalit mother was raped by a hundred men—it was retribution for her rebel son standing up to dominant caste bullying. The Dalits and oppressed castes have to be terrorised and disciplined in order to ensure dominance, and what could be a more complete way to do it than violating a Dalit woman’s body? It accomplishes real and symbolic violence together. That’s why rape and gendered violence have always been used as a political tool to contain power within the sway of the ruling class/castes for a long time now. From the old “nidan” of a Shudra woman having to produce her first child with the “grace” of a Brahmin man to the horrific Laxmanpur Bathe incident of 1997 where Ranvir Sena militia casually mixed rape with massacre, the Dalit woman’s body has been created and recreated as a site of violence to rip apart the aspirations of the marginalised.

Today, when we shiver with horror at Hathras gang-rape horror and our timelines get flooded with news containing graphic detail about the mutilation wrought on a Dalit girl’s body, why does not even a single headline talk about who the rapists were? What was their caste? Why does this question never cross our mind? Why, even after a thorough search, the caste name of criminals is hushed? What is this fear, or this obsession we have, to make invisible the caste identity of the oppressor, particularly if they come from dominant caste groups? The men who raped the 19-year-old girl in Hathras are Rajputs/Thakurs, the one community that owns perhaps the largest share of land in rural India. Why are media houses that were so comfortable reporting the victimhood of a Dalit woman so chary about exposing the immense power that dominant castes still hold on to?

"A rape is rape, why do you bring caste into it?"

India is primarily a caste society. Neither democracy nor a liberal Constitution has changed that. It’s a caste society that determines your access to resources tangible and intangible (such as knowledge), and ownership of the means of production (such as land), almost exclusively on the basis of the family you are born into. The 19-year-old girl, raped and left brutalised as she was collecting fodder near a bajra field, was born in a Valmiki family. According to the caste system designed by and for the elite castes, Shudras and those “below” are not allowed to own land. She and her kinsfolk are people who have nothing apart from their labour to sell to stay alive. They are the workers of the feudal economy: they plough the fields, build everyone’s houses, clean toilets, cremate the dead. Work that not only requires physical labour but is also deemed “polluted” and “polluting”: dvijas, or those believed to be born of Brahma’s upper body, cannot engage in such activities. So, one whole section of the working class comes from the oppressed castes. The ruling castes maintain a near-immaculate “ritual purity” when it comes to ownership of land, or exclusive rights to knowledge or to the surplus from other’s labour. This feudal caste society is the reality of India, even modernised urban spaces carry its burden. That’s why it’s important that we talk about the social location of the victim as well as the one who is inflicting the violence, since their power to violate someone is drawn from their social relation. That relation is a function of who owns what, where and how—the dyad that ties both oppressor and oppressed in a relationship is based on these relations, which are determined primarily by caste in India. So it’s actually an incomplete picture—a criminal denial, in fact, if one see incidents such as the Hathras rape only from a gender angle, ignoring the inherent structural biases that enable a handful of communities to exploit and oppress a large majority of Indian people.

Caste beyond surname

Many people ask how, even after the incorporation of modern institutions such as a judiciary system, police and liberal democracy, a few people can manage to continue oppressing a majority of Indians just because they own land? That’s because they are unable to comprehend the sheer spread of caste, its collective and modernised being; they tend to reduce caste to something individual and atomised, a relic, a mere consciousness of heritage that goes away with modernity or changes in feudal land relations. India’s caste regime has proven them wrong. Caste capital is not only about owning tangibles, it also entails a huge accumulation of specific cultural and social capital. The ruling caste monopoly over knowledge has helped them insinuate themselves in all modern institutions—bureaucracy, police, judiciary, media. The over-representation of ruling castes in high-paid institutional jobs will produce such lopsided data graphics that the other castes will be difficult to map. From the havaldar of the local thana to the top judge, caste solidarity gets woven and built like a mammoth web, so much so that a Dalit woman will have a hard time even getting an FIR for rape filed.

Four Dalit women are raped every day, there are cases where women are raped inside the police station as they go to file a complaint of sexual harassment, there are also cases where, even if rape charges are registered, the SC/ST Atrocities Act will not be brought it, come what may. NCRB data shows the conviction rate for crimes against Dalits and Adivasis is much lower than the rest. What else is this if not institutional, structural bias built around caste solidarities between criminal, police and judiciary?

That’s why 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. This used to be an implicit bias—a tendency to favour—but now it’s totally brazen and demanded as a right. We even saw a ‘Rashtriya Savarna Parishad’ come out in support of the rapists—the ‘betas’ of the community who can never do anything wrong. Boys will be boys. And Thakur boys will be Thakur boys.

To get back to Article 15, it represented this caste phalanx with the usual dramatis personae: the thekedar, two policemen, a minister, a senior law enforcement officer from a different geography (but similar savarna persuasions). And the two Dalit men, the fathers of the victims, were easily criminalised by proposing that they would kill their own children since they could not take a probable affair between the two girls. 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. That’s why gender cannot be seen in isolation, it cannot be gauged without taking the class/caste element it’s embedded in. To smash patriarchy, one has to smash feudal-capitalist and caste power relationships simultaneously.

The girl’s body was "cremated" in the dead of night, as if by stealth, by police, with the distraught family kept away. While burning into ashes, she didn’t have half of her tongue, her spine and neck were broken, her lower body had been paralysed after the incident. But she fought, she fought for 14 days, and identified the culprits. That 19-year-old girl could be anything but not dead. Though she’s burning in front of all of our eyes, what’s really on that funeral pyre is all the unkept promises of our Constitution. And that fire insists on speaking: it is saying that there will be no peace till there is justice.

(Dipsita Dhar is a research scholar at JNU.  Views expressed are personal.)