Trigger Warnings: Caste based violence and sexual assault/rape

On 14 September, four upper caste Thakur men brutally raped and assaulted a 19-year-old Dalit woman in the Hathras district in Uttar Pradesh (UP), India. This paralyzed the woman, and she was transferred from in-state hospitals to Delhi when her condition deteriorated. During this, the woman gave clear statements to the authorities, identifying her accusers. She succumbed to her injuries on 29th September. Throughout the ordeal and after, the UP government and police, supported by the ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), continued to deny justice for the woman, demonstrating how the accused enjoy systematic impunity due to their caste position. 

The UP Police cremated the woman’s body without her family’s consent, enforced a lockdown on her village barring reporters and activists from entering, and threatened the family to retract their accusations while slandering them, all under the protection of the state. Propelled by disinformation campaigns spearheaded by BJP IT cells, they refuted the woman’s own testimonies and medical records. Instead of holding the police and District Magistrate accountable for violating human rights, authorities re-traumatized the woman’s family by interrogating them, insinuating that they were culpable. 

The woman belonged to the Valmiki caste, a historically oppressed group in UP. In Hathras, the dominant Thakurs wield political influence and terrorize lower caste groups like the Valmikis. UP’s Chief Minister and BJP member Yogi Adityanath is a Thakur. Under his administration, caste-based violence has escalated in the state. While Hathras was under lockdown, upper caste BJP leaders held rallies supporting the accused Thakur men

People across India and the world are mobilizing to protest the atrocities. However, mainstream upper caste Brahmin-Dvija Feminists have downplayed the significance of caste in this case. To them, Hathras is a manifestation of patriarchal societal and state structures. Such claims are narrow and ignore caste privileges of the accused: think white Feminism savior complex.

Dalit women leaders and activists have argued for years that sexual violence against Dalit and other Bahujan women is a modality of casteism and caste violence, and gender justice cannot be separated from the call to dismantle institutions of caste apartheid. If rape is about power, caste-based sexual violence is about the forceful assertion of the state-sanctioned power of dominant castes. This doesn’t diminish the gravity of rape. Instead, an anti-caste demand for justice contextualizes and identifies the caste hierarchies that enable the atrocity. This intersection of oppressive caste and gender hierarchies exploiting caste-oppressed women is called Brahmanical patriarchy.

Dalit is not a monolithic category, and diverse groups constitute the caste-oppressed demographic. The modern anti-caste movement uses the term Dalits for the constitutionally designated Scheduled Castes (SC) and Adivasis for Scheduled Tribes (STs) or indigenous groups. These, along with Other Backward Classes (OBCs), are collectively referred to as Bahujans. 

Caste apartheid has been embedded in Indian Hindu society and scripture since ancient times. For centuries, Dalit and other Bahujan communities have faced the tyranny of upper caste rule in all sectors of society. Today, millions of caste-oppressed people in India face debilitating conditions, and are excluded from healthcare, education, and employment sectors. Addressing the root causes of this discrimination, decolonial anti-caste movements have demanded the annihilation of caste over reform, as laid out by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Followers of his anti-caste philosophy call themselves Ambedkarites.

According to Dalit women’s rights activist Dr. Ruth Manorama, poor Dalit women face “triple alienation” in society because of their caste, class, and gender. In 2019, while an average of 87 rape cases occurred in India, an average of 10 cases of rape of Dalit women were reported, which was roughly 7% of all registered crimes against Scheduled Castes. Such cases are also underreported because of societal discrimination. Hours after the Hathras victim’s demise, another Dalit woman was raped and fatally injured in Balrampur district, UP

It is ironic that while India’s sexual harassment law came into being after the resistance of a Dalit woman who was raped in 1992, justice is still inaccessible to thousands of caste-oppressed women. Despite constitutional provisions like the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (PoA Act), upper caste dominated governments and the criminal justice system lack the political will to enforce laws, and conviction rates remain low. Upper caste leaders continue to deny caste privilege and threaten the bare minimum constitutional provisions for empowering Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi communities.

Resistance against Brahmanical patriarchy has to be intersectional. Here are some tools, resources, and critical perspectives for cultivating principled allyship. This list is not exhaustive and is meant primarily for readers who need context, and/or are caste-privileged South Asian Feminists:

Dalit women are movement leaders.

It is disrespectful (and ahistorical) to view Dalit women as passive victims. For years, Dalit and Bahujan women leaders have organized and built movements against caste-based sexual violence and other crimes, despite oppositions from mainstream upper caste Feminism and the Indian state itself. They’ve raised concerns before the United Nations and built inclusive campaigns for justice. Organizations like Trans Rights Now Collective, founded and led by activist Grace Banu, have also advocated for Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi trans folks and queer persons. Instead of trying to insert our political perspectives into the movement, we must pay attention to the vision of movement leaders. 

Read and endorse this comprehensive statement on the Hathras case by an autonomous collective of Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi-Vimukta women and queer persons, including  grassroots activists, scholars, lawyers, artists, and more. The collective identifies the structures of caste-based impunity enabled by the UP state and police, and lists specific demands for justice.

Follow:

All women don’t suffer the same. Acknowledge caste privilege. 

Dalit women are specifically disadvantaged under Brahmanical patriarchy, and activism should to focus on dismantling it. This starts with the uncomfortable but necessary steps of acknowledging our complicity and upper caste privilege.

Solidarity is not asking Dalits how they are victims of discrimination, it is about questioning how members of our own caste background are oppressors. We have a choice in wielding our caste privilege as allies. If we feel unfairly called out, we must recognize why. The terminologies are meant to challenge caste pride and denialism, and discomfort should be a productive place to start (un)learning.

Don’t appropriate the struggle of Dalit and Bahujan women as this centers us in the narrative. For instance, slogans like, “Today, I am a Dalit,” falsely obscure power dynamics and patronize Dalit voices. ‘Dalit’ is not a label that can be taken off at will, it is a marker for lived experiences and should not be appropriated by allies with a savior complex. 

Don’t expect Dalit women to show us the steps. The onus of this education is on all upper caste people aiming to be allies. 

Watch: Why Savarnas Rape – A town hall of caste-based sexual violence

Read: This article on intersectional Feminism by Prof. Rashmi Nair. 

Use privilege critically

Privilege gives us access to resources, which we must use to support the movement. Redistributing wealth is just the start. Donate to Dalit-led organizations in the media and arts, policy and legal aid, community fundraisers, etc. Counter misinformation campaigns by nationalist media sources by researching, referencing, and amplifying critical media perspectives. Defer to movement leaders for clarity on mission and demands. Challenge casteism in your families, including casteist comments on social media. Look at your own work and social circles and figure out how you can make a difference. Read and cite anti-caste scholarship, particularly those by Dalit-Bahujan scholars, and call out overwhelmingly Brahmin and upper caste composition of South Asian scholars in academic departments.

Write to national and international authorities demanding justice in the Hathras case, using the email drafted by Dalit Women Fight!

Sponsor sessions at The Blue Dawn, a mental health services facilitator prioritizing Bahujan communities.

Amplify critical voices

Follow, support, and amplify Dalit and other Bahujan writers, artists, activists, and educators. This isn’t about gleaning some sort of authentic truth- that’s merely another form of reductive categorization – it is about directing our attention to counterculture intellectuals and creators, divesting from mainstream cultural productions which erase and/or exacerbate caste-based violence.

Writers and activists like Christina Dhanaraj, Yashica Dutt, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, and Divya Kandukuri have consistently foregrounded critical conversations about Dalit and Bahujan representation in society. While Supreme Court advocate Kiruba Munusamy empowers communities with her insights on constitutional law, anti-caste rapper Sumeet Samos hosts discussions with Dalit and Bahujan intellectuals and creators, and artist Rahee Punyashloka creates powerful and moving Ambedkarite art. Online collaborative  spaces like Dalit Camera, Dalit Feminist, Dalit Queer Project, and Begumpura Collective  create community resources and chronicle marginalized stories.

Check out Ambedkarite ally @ambedkarite_activist for accessible posts on allyship and caste apartheid

The goal is annihilation

Decolonial anti-caste movements have clearly demanded the total annihilation of caste – this is inseparable from the demand to dismantle Brahmanical supremacy in society. Instead of dismissing this as a radical position, understand the sociopolitical critique in the identification of oppressive structures, and the subsequent calls to overthrow these structures. It is also counterproductive to stress reform and mere legal solutions. Law enforcement institutions have failed to do their jobs for years and mere reform is not enough.

Read: “The annihilation of caste,” a speech by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.

Caste exists in diaspora too

From rural UP to Silicon Valley, caste discrimination is thriving. Brahmanical organizations like the Hindu American Foundation, which has ties to Hindu supremacist groups, advocate for revising histories of Hinduism in textbooks. It is critical to challenge the positioning of caste-privileged diasporic Hindus who practice caste solidarity yet deny that caste exists in their world. 

See: the pioneering work of transmedia organizations Equality Labs which researches caste in the US and casteism in the US tech sector. Also the International Dalit Solidarity Network which advocates for Dalit human rights worldwide.

Believe women targeted by caste-based sexual violence

Mainstream media coverage replicates the violence of invasive investigations led by state authorities by focusing excessively on the women’s private lives, graphic descriptions, etc. Social media feeds off of this, leading to public trials questioning women, particularly Dalit and Bahujan women. Challenge this and focus on what’s important: justice and rehabilitation of survivors and their families. Believing women should be our default response.

Ultimately, any meaningful support for the movement means welcoming discomfort as a part of learning/unlearning. Reading and following the lead of voices that matter, confronting  complicities, and agitating at home and beyond – these go hand-in-hand.

The writer is an upper-caste Indian person located within the diaspora, and the article is written based on interviews and consultation with Dalit and Bahujan women activists.


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Priyanka Sen

By Priyanka Sen

Editorial Fellow