The Hathras case has driven several mice out of their holes and into the national consciousness. Among the top things under the radar right now are the centuries-old caste hierarchy, crimes against women, media freedom, and administrative action that is highly suspect. While all are imminent, the issue of caste perhaps deserves due address, since it is exclusive to India and despite years of knowledge about the kind of vicious oppression it exercises against Dalits, its stronghold in our society has remained intact. The concept of caste is far from new – it has existed for ages and been fought against actively by Dalit leaders, the most prominent being Babasaheb Ambedkar. The incident in Hathras of four upper-caste men allegedly gangraping and brutalising a Dalit woman, which ultimately resulted in her death, has only brought the caste conversation into the mainstream.
Reformation and reparations for the damage caste has caused up until now cannot be brought overnight. They will be a long time coming, and only if collective action is employed. And the first step towards bringing change lies in acknowledging that caste is very real and it exists. It is an uneasy truth, an ugly reality that requires us to look at it directly in the face. It requires us to dig it out from every corner, every crevice it still thrives in, and confront it. Which is why it becomes important to recognise caste in cases like Hathras. But as always happens, a counter-narrative has emerged following the incident.
Talking Caste Creates Extra ‘Fuss’?
After the castes of the rapists and victim were highlighted in the Hathras case, many people on social media said that it was creating an extra fuss. They advised people to stay on track on the real issue – crimes against women. Because they are of the belief that specifying caste in crimes or unnecessarily giving them a caste colour helps in endorsing caste.
NO. It’s quite the opposite. Talking about caste, in fact, means that you are acknowledging the existence of the caste system. It means you are ready to see how the caste of certain communities still affects their existence. It means also that since you are pointing out the role of caste in the crime, you are automatically making conversation on how the caste hierarchy is a dangerous thing, which will help in the long fight of dismantling it.
Closing our eyes to it will not make it go away. Wishing it stopped existing will not make it stop existing. Denying caste by ignoring it will not remove it from society, only from our consciousness.
Caste Is Not Being “Brought In”, It Was Always There
Vijayashanthi Murthy, who is a teacher from the Dalit community at St. Joseph’s College, Bengaluru says “To bracket it into one kind of violence, is erasing the other narrative. Saying why are you bringing in caste every time or why are you bringing in gender every time is not how it works. It did not happen all of a sudden… it has its past. Even in Hathras, it’s not like the men just one day went and did it. The families there have had a certain history (with caste).” Murthy was speaking at a SheThePeople panel discussion on caste violence.
Journalist Namita Bhandare also weighed in saying, “Any attempt to deny caste in the case is insidious.”
If you refuse to see a caste-based crime for what it is and view it simply as a crime, you are exercising a privilege not many have. If you are unable to distinguish the caste angle in a case and feel it is deliberately being “brought in” to create a social divide, again, it’s your privilege talking. That social divide you feel is being created now has existed all your life – your privilege has just kept you shielded from it, in all probability, because you belong to the advantaged lot.
Dalit women in Hathras do not have the option of not seeing caste. It is what will now make them cautious of their own movements, their own vulnerability. One was raped, now any of them could be raped. They do not have the privilege to ignore their caste and just “generally” live in fear of attack. They know if they are attacked, chances are, it will be by virtue of their caste and then their gender. Double jeopardy.
Data Shows Large Number Of Rapes Against Dalit Women
Not seeing caste in a caste-based crime, by writing it off as a generic incident, translates into an erasure of Dalit experience, their voices, and history of oppression by power structures that have existed for centuries. And when the crime is against a Dalit woman, it becomes doubly imperative to acknowledge that intersectional identity of her as a Dalit+woman, for it indicates multi-layered marginalisation by patriarchy.
Moreover, mentioning the caste will aid in pinning down facts and figures to draw conclusions and serve as the evidential basis of just how disadvantaged a particular community/section of society is. And this is true for any marginalised community – be it women or Adivasis.
Ask yourself this: Why do we specify a man assaulted a woman instead of simply saying one person assaulted another?
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB)’s latest data notes that crimes against women in India have gone up 7.3 percent. 2019 recorded an average of 88 rape cases per day, with a total of 32,033 cases. Out of this, 11 percent were against the Dalit community.
If these specifications of identity aren’t mentioned, how are we to gauge which section of people suffer oppression? Without considering caste or gender, can we even begin to think of introducing safety laws that fit best? Or those which will be most effective?
How Caste Is Playing A Major Role In The Hathras Case?
While it is unethical to compare two crimes, especially two instances of rape, many on social media have noted how different the treatment has been in the case of the 2012 Delhi gangrape case and the 2020 Hathras gangrape case. Jyoti Singh’s family was given monetary compensation and treated with due dignity. The Dalit family in Hathras is being served threats and gaslighting. If this is not a differentiation basis caste, what is it?
It can be appreciated even in the way the case is being handled by the authorities. The Uttar Pradesh police, by use of hyper-masculine force of their khakhees, cremated the body of the young woman in the dead of the night, reportedly without the family’s consent. Further on, a video of the Hathras DM speaking to the victim’s family, in what is being claimed was no less than a veiled threat, asking them if they would like to re-assess their stance in the case, has been shared by journalist Tanushree Pande of India Today group. It is also being alleged that her phone has been tapped.
Wah re DM saheb. pic.twitter.com/dwZcUD0Z30
— Brijesh Pandey (@brijeshpandey27) October 1, 2020
We must ask ourselves and our administrative leaders: Would authorities have dared to take this heavy-handed approach in a case where the victim’s family had possessed economic and social capital or belonged to upper caste?
Caste is alive and well in India and recognising it draws a clear picture of just how various socio-economic power structures work. In the Hathras case, it was one Dalit, Valmiki woman versus four upper-caste Thakur men, and now it is her Dalit family in Hathras versus the administration. There is not one but several ways in which the dynamics of this social relationship is at work right now in Uttar Pradesh. And denying to see caste in it is as good as turning your head away from the entire event altogether.
Views expressed are the author’s own.