On 14 September 2020, a 19-year-old, belonging to a Dalit community, from Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh, was gang raped by four upper caste men from Thakur community. The violence left her paralyzed with a severe spinal cord injury. After fighting for life for two weeks, she succumbed to her injuries at Safdarjung hospital Delhi. No arrests were made in first ten days of the incident. After her death, the victim was surreptitiously cremated by the police at 2:00 am, without the consent of her family.
The government, the administration and the police have not dealt with the case fairly, because of the age old biases of caste. Many officials, BJP leaders organized rallies; organizations like RSS, Karni Sena, Bajrang Dal, Kshatriya Mahasabha, Rashtriya Savarna Sangh came out in the support of the accused. The family of the victim wasn’t allowed to meet the media personnel. This is absurd, that in a heinously violent act like this, some people are supporting the accused and not the victim or her family, this absurdity is explained by the caste system in India. The Uttar Pradesh government claimed a “deep rooted conspiracy” and an “international plot” to incite caste based riots in Hathras and to defame the Yogi government. As many as nineteen FIRs have been filed by the Uttar Pradesh police after the alleged gang rape. The charges listed by police on the main FIR include inciting caste based divides, religious discrimination, doctoring electronic evidence, a conspiracy against the state and defamation. Yogi Adityanath had earlier asked his party workers to “expose those who want to incite caste and communal riots”. Ironically, FIR has been filed against four Muslim men.
The prime accused, Sandeep Thakur, who is in jail along with the three others, has written a letter to the police in Hathras, claiming that he and the 19-year-old girl were “friends”, who “apart from meeting, used to speak on the phone once in a while”; further claiming that her family was against their friendship, and they killed her. The UP police have claimed that call records show that the woman’s family knew the main accused, Sandeep Thakur. As per the Call Detail Report released, around 100 phone calls were made from a phone number registered in the name of the girl’s brother and the main accused Sandeep Thakur between October 2019 and March 2020.
Regarding the above mentioned letter, we have two questions: One, even if the girl was his friend, which law permits him and his friends to torture the girl. Second, if all the right wing organizations are claiming that a person from Thakur community doesn’t even look at anyone from the Valmiki community, how were they friends? How does the boy claim that her family was against their friendship?
The caste system is so deep-rooted in our society that we tend to overlook the basic human rights of the people belonging to Dalit community. According to a BJP leader, Ranjeet Srivastava, the accused are not guilty of a crime. He further questioned that, “Such girls are found dead in only some places. They will be found dead in sugarcane, corn and millet fields or in bushes, gutters or forests. Why they are never found dead in paddy or wheat fields”? What he meant perhaps is why they are found in shady places not where actual farming is done in cleaner and crowded areas. Another remark that drew fierce criticism came from BJP MLA, Surendra Nath Singh that “Sanskar should be instilled in girls to prevent incidents of rape”.
There was a huge outrage when this case caught media attention, but unlike Nirbhaya Case ( calling her Nirbhaya of Hathras is an erasure of her Dalit identity and willful ignorance of caste violence in this case), there were varied opinions on this case. There are people who condemned the sexual violence but refused to categorize this as caste violence using an argument ‘rape is a rape’ doesn’t matter the woman belong to which social category. It does matter because we cannot ignore the social reality of our country. In Urban India, most of the people have turned a blind eye towards the existence of caste system, it is a willful ignorance, and it is a deeply rooted phenomenon in their sub conscious mind. Also, people tend to avoid discussion about caste system because they have embraced the social demarcations. The Hathras case and other such cases of sexual violence on Dalit women are a way of oppressing the community. The caste system prevalent in rural India especially Uttar Pradesh is clearly visible in the demographic pattern of the village; the upper castes live in the centre of the village while the marginalized communities live in peripheries. The victim and the perpetrator do not exist in a vacuum, isolated from their social and political milieu, but they are very significantly rooted in it.
The attempt to erase the Dalit identity from Hathras case is a sign that, still, we, as a society are not ready to give up the caste system and say that ‘ Dalit lives matter’. The victim of Hathras case is doubly oppressed because she belongs to the Dalit community and is a woman. To deny the violent atrocity of caste in the case of the Hathras gang rape is to deny the continued oppression of Dalits through force and abuse.
Note that, caste is a symbol and sense of superiority for so-called upper castes, conversely the lower castes or dalits suffer from a hangover of years of persecution. In such mindsets, the upper castes tend to harass, haunt and hound the dalits. One of the modes of exploitation is rape and mutilation, as was pathetically seen in this case. The caste system embodying inequality, social-power disparity and consequent atrocities has to be fought. If we cannot transcend our caste identities and treat others as dignified human beings, we should give up such identities. The mental emancipation is the need of the hour. The thinking will precede action in eliminating caste from our social-psychological structures. Let Hathras be the turning point.
Ms. Maria Khan is a member of Association for Democratic Socialism (ADS) New Delhi