(This was first published on 9 October 2020 in connection with the Hathras rape case. It has been republished from The Quint's archives in light of alleged rape and forced cremation of a Dalit minor in Delhi.)
The brutal rape of the Hathras victim and her consequent death has once again brought out the inadequate understanding of social reality within Indian feminism. While Dalit movements and anti-caste activists have been condemning the inaction of the police, the failure and complicity of the State, the political nexus that protects the Thakur perpetrators, there was another painful and exhausting discourse emerging among prominent feminists, journalists and the social media – ‘don't bring caste into the issue and politicise it’.
True, gender-based sexual violences are committed against women of all castes.
However, looking at the Hathras case as solely gender-based, wilfully and violently erases the caste underpinnings of the crime and social reality.
Why Was The Elected Village Panchayat A Mute Spectator?
The facts leading to the Hathras case show that there was an issue already existing between the perpetrators and the victim's family, that is, the belief in the caste order that depends on Thakur supremacy in Uttar Pradesh. Let us look at how this belief worked out in this issue.
Beyond the well-reported denial of registering the case and the illegal burning of the victim’s body, the entire machinery of the state came together in support of the caste order by implementing Section 144 in the Dalit neighbourhood, blockading the victim’s family from vital support from concerned citizens and non-State actors; and provided police protection to the convening of caste (khap) panchayats, which issued statements in support of the Thakur rapists in contravention of the rule of law.
Why was the elected village panchayat a mute spectator?
The structures enabling the Thakurs to organise, is the same structure that is interested in maintaining caste order, and it is the same structure that simultaneously declares that this is not a caste issue.
Caste is just out there; it is for all of us to see. When they say ‘don't bring in caste and politicise it’ (after they criticise me for making this debate personal because of my anger), I am tired but I want to ask: why do Brahmins and the dominant-castes become so angry when the truth is told?
How different is it from the collective anger of the Thakur caste panchayats?
Why Caste Matters In Rape Cases: Examples Of Dominant Caste Outrage
Let us talk about collective anger in three similar incidents from the recent past. First, Swathi, a 24-year-old Brahmin software professional was murdered at the Nungambakkam Railway Station in Chennai on 24 June 2016. There was huge outpouring of anger, primarily led by dominant caste groups. The entire State mobilised and Ramkumar, an engineer belonging to the Scheduled Caste from Thirunelveli was accused of the murder and arrested in a week. He was under judicial custody in the Puzhal central prison and on 18 September 2016, the police informed that he had died by ‘suicide’ in the jail after biting a live electric wire. We do not know if he was killed and it was passed off as suicide.
But even if it was suicide, what made him take his own life when he did not even face trial?
Second, a 26-year-old Reddy veterinary doctor was gang-raped and murdered in Hyderabad on 27 November 2019. Her body was found the next day.
Four persons were arrested in the case and all four were killed in a police encounter on 6 December 2019 while in police custody.
Nirbhaya & The ‘Caste Factor’
Third, on 16 December 2012, Nirbhaya, a 23-year-old Bhumihar physiotherapy intern was gang-raped. She was transferred to a hospital in Singapore for treatment but she died. Five adult men and a juvenile were arrested. One accused died in police custody on 11 March 2013. The police claimed this to be a suicide. The juvenile was convicted with three-years' imprisonment and was sent to a reform facility. The other four men were hanged on 20 March 2020.
What’s significant here is, rape laws were amended, stringent punishments were introduced and the Juvenile Justice Act was amended to treat the accused above the age of 16 as adults in the court of law.
Nirbhaya’s mother was able to hug her daughter’s photograph and told her “we finally got justice”. But the mother of the Hathras victim could not even hug her daughter’s dead body one last time.
Sexual Violence & Caste: Why Are Feminists ‘Afraid’ Of Intersectionality?
In all these three cases, sexual violence is deeply tied to caste. In the first case, even with the ‘flimsiest’ evidence, the State comes together to find a Dalit body to be the scapegoat. In the second, the honour of the dominant caste community is preserved when the four arrested persons were killed in encounter. And in the third, the entire machinery changes laws and locates the problem in law rather than in the social system we all occupy.
What change in law can address this difference between the treatment for the dominant caste woman and the Dalit woman?
When I rage over this reality, they call it ‘personal’ and label it as ‘Dalit anger’. For them, sexual violence does not stem from the caste system, that is, from the notions of honour and purity. They can subscribe to that notion only if they believe they are ‘casteless’.
This is where intersectionality comes into play. It recognises that oppression does not work on only one axis.
That is, Dalit women are not just violated because of their gender, but their caste as well. Moving away from ‘castelessness’ and embracing intersectionality will bring forward the unique experiences of Dalit women in everyday life, and during extreme violence which are otherwise invisible.
In this way, it is only intersectionality that will dismantle the patriarchal structure by uprooting the root cause of women's oppression, which is the aim of feminism. Why, then, are feminists afraid of intersectionality?
(The author is a Dalit lawyer practising in the Supreme Court of India and the founder-executive director of Legal Initiative for Equality. She tweets @kirubamunusamy. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)