In UP's Hathras, four upper caste men raped a 19-year-old Dalit girl, beat her so severely that she incurred multiple fractures and even her tongue was cut off. The girl was later admitted to the hospital but after a struggle of two weeks, the survivor breathed her last on 29th September. But what was the reason behind the heinous crime? A caste-related indifference, in retaliation of which, a group of upper-caste men exploited the “honour” of the Dalit family by raping its woman. This is not the first incident in which the crime against a woman reeked of caste-based violence. Every day six Dalit women are raped in India. This should remind us of a very prevalent yet under-discussed power structure dominating the Indian society- the Brahmanical Patriarchy.
Before delving further, let me remind you that the term Brahmanical Patriarchy is not hate speech against the Brahman’s community or it does not mean that only men of the Brahman community are patriarchal. It rather indicates the patriarchy in Brahmanical texts that dominate women based on their gender and caste.
While women are fighting patriarchy against their families and society, it becomes worse when caste-hierarchy is introduced into it. The caste-based social structure (Varna system) and even the violence based on caste is deep rooted in Indian society and prevalent even when there is violence against women. Women who are already considered as the subordinate gender are hence further restricted by the class and caste boundaries and sanctioned violence.
Take a look at some of the reference texts in Hinduism such as Manusmriti, written years ago and still upheld as a basis of social norms. These portray woman as subordinate to men and without any agency and individuality of her own. She is projected as pativrata, the honour of the family, someone whose sexuality needs to be protected and controlled or just as a medium of reproduction. Manusmriti, for instance, represents women as the field while men as the seed. As a result men of upper caste are the most powerful people of the society who become the major upholders of Brahmanical patriarchy, both within their caste and outside it.
The term was first coined by historian Uma Chakravarty in her work Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy In Early India. She writes, “The purity of women has a centrality in Brahmanical patriarchy, as we shall see, because the purity of caste is contingent upon it.” In other words, women embody the honour of the men and their caste and so any attack on her body and sexuality is ultimately seen as a rupture in the honour of the caste she belongs to. A woman’s body therefore is reduced into the ground of state, caste and patriarchal control and violence.
Although the Brahmanical patriarchy oppresses women of both upper and lower caste, it is worse for the women of Dalit or marginalised communities. Because they are doubly discriminated on the basis of their subordinate caste and gender.
In the present context, there are ample cases of familial and caste-based disputes that have ended into abduction, murder and brutal rape of women. Rape and abduction of Dalit women are often used as a tool by upper-caste men to suppress or punish the Dalit family or the woman herself who tried to cross the boundaries of the Brahmanical caste difference and patriarchy.
In 2014, two minor Dalit women were gang-raped and hanged by a tree just because they demanded an increase in their salary of Rs 3. According to NCRB data of 2018, 10 per cent of the 33,000 rape cases reported in 2018 were those of the Dalit women. Not only rape, but Dalit women are subjected to other atrocities like stripped and forced to walk around naked.
Violence on women of lower caste is often used as a means of domination to maintain caste and gender inequality in society. By raping Dalit women, upper-caste men control a woman's agency and shame Dalit families for not being able to protect their own women. The stigma around a rape survivor further demeans the dignity of the family. Often women of upper caste are involved in perpetuating the caste-based violence on Dalit women by discriminating against them.
But what is even sadder is the fact that the conviction rate of this caste-based crime is low. According to research, the conviction rate of the rape of a Dalit woman is as low as 2 per cent while the average conviction rate of rape cases is 25 per cent. This is because the police, law and politicians are known to take the side of the men of the dominant caste and try to blanket the case. Dalit women and their families do not have the economic source or social power to continue to fight for justice.
Consequently, a women’s sexuality, mobility and agency over her life is controlled beforehand by the men of the caste she belongs to. She is not allowed to move around, seek education and employment, or to marry a person of another caste. A woman’s body is either seen as the honour of the family or the medium to advance the caste’s progeny. She is seen as the entrance or gateway to a particular caste community, as Chakravarti points out. So her sexual encounter or marriage with a person of different caste, or worst, with a person of a lower caste, is seen as blasphemous as it infiltrates the caste’s blood running inside her. There are many instances of honour killing in which women of both upper and lower caste have been restricted or murdered for marrying a man of another caste.
The caste-based violence against women has seen no dip in past few years. Often, the intersectionality of caste and gender violence is ignored because the reality of caste-difference in India has been normalised. Recently, the Black Lives Matter movement became a trend on social media with people from India raising in support of it. But why is there a choking silence on caste-based violence within India? Why isn’t caste-difference being acknowledged as national issue inciting brutal violence in society? Why is smashing Brahmanical Patriarchy still not a part of every feminist agenda? What is stopping us?