An Insider’s look into Casteism and Privilege

By Pragya Munshi, 

Most of us know that a truly horrible incident took place a few weeks ago in a small city in Aligarh, Hathras.

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On 14 September, a Dalit girl was gang-raped by four upper-caste men in Hathras district, Uttar Pradesh. Although she fought for her life for 2 weeks, she couldn’t survive the injuries and died.

The story doesn’t end there.

The victim’s family has said that despite their appeals to the District Magistrate for permission to take the body home for last rites, the police burnt her body with petrol (destruction of evidence?) while most of her family members were away.

As it usually happens after a horrific incident happens in the country, the Hathras rape became a top trending topic on social media with nearly 56 thousand tweets made about it, at last count.

Instagram feeds are filled with posts about feminism, rape, victim shaming etc.

How long do you think we are going to talk about it? A week more, maybe? Two more weeks at the most?

We get shocked by a terrible incident. We repost 50 posts on our stories for a couple of weeks on our Instagram, get into a few comment battles and then go back to our sheltered protected life.

Because once our “trustworthy: media finds another breaking news topic to cover such as, ‘What was Ranveer Singh’s reaction to Deepika Padukone’s questioning,’ this horrific incident will once again be swept under the carpet. Our attention will be diverted. We will once again go back to sharing pictures of our lunches, memes and whatnot.

Because this is what happens. Again and again. Every story loses its momentum, some sooner than others. And the most insignificant issues become hot topics once again while the victim’s family members scream themselves hoarse trying to grab our attention.

Our attention span is limited to what affects us directly or what gives us entertainment.

This is a privilege.

With regards to this specific incident, I found a lot of my peers talking about casteism.

I believe that each person should do a little bit of research before putting out their opinions in big bold capital letters on their story.

I found a lot of people saying that this rape is not a caste issue, that it’s purely a crime against women and that caste should not be brought into this issue at all because ‘Caste doesn’t exist anymore!! Nobody cares about Caste.”

A look at the facts of the incident will tell you that it is a casteist crime.

The victim belonged to the Dalit Valmiki community, which is located outside of the Varnavyavastha ladder, according to Manusmriti. The four rapist-murderers arrested in the case were upper-caste Thakurs. Ravi, one of the rapists, allegedly had a history of violence with the victim’s family, founded upon the caste-based power differential. In an incident going back nearly two decades, the Thakur family had attacked the victim’s grandfather, as the latter had proposed that the Thakurs take their cattle elsewhere for grazing, as the cattle had destroyed crops on the latter’s land.

A look at the social structure in the place where the crime takes place is integral to form the basis of the motive. This rape was a crime of power. A way to show lower caste women their place in society.

The use of rape as a tool against Dalit women is not new.

I recommend reading this article by Anika Kumar because it clearly explains why Dalit women face oppression largely in the form of rape and torture.

Going back to talking about privilege, most of us are blind to what is happening outside our immediate surroundings. Casteism is still very much prevalent in our society. We just refuse to acknowledge it.

Casteist untouchability is more explicit in rural areas since it is blatant and direct. In urban areas, it is more polished and much easier to neglect and unsee.

There have been innumerable caste crimes in recent years which most of us don’t know about because the Savarna narrative has forced us into conversations on reservations for years when we need to be acknowledging and talking about caste-based discrimination and violence. I am sure names like Rohith Vemula, Savitrimai, Devji Maheshwari, Phoolan Devi, Soni Sori don’t ring a bell as is the case with most of us reading this.

Even when cases of Dalit oppression have caught national attention, we feel that caste and religion have been brought into the issue to make it “political”.

This simple refusal to accept these atrocities and view them as they are, signify our historical casteist mindset. We cannot be spending time deliberating on why crimes against Dalit men and women are caste crimes. It’s a given. Our focus has to be on justice because people are dying.

It is a known fact that India is not safe for women. In the social hierarchy, lower caste or Dalit women have been at the bottom rung for centuries.

India has a long history with casteism, the Dalit community has faced extreme forms of discrimination in the forms of untouchability, honour killings etc.

In addition to that, Dalit women have been targeted by the upper castes as well as within their caste due to the combining forces of casteism and patriarchy.

Gail Omvedt, a feminist sociologist has called Indian Dalit women “Dalit among Dalit.”

A New Indian Express report said that according to the 2016 National Crime Records Bureau data, of all crimes committed against the members of the Scheduled Castes, the highest is against Dalit women. A lion’s share of all cases against Dalits include assaults on SC women to outrage her modesty, rapes, attempts to commit rapes and insults to the modesty of SC women.

The data also suggests that over four Dalit women are raped every day. The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, an NGO, revealed that more than 23% of Dalit women report being raped. Many of them have reported multiple instances of rape.

Caste rapes are not new. In 1992, Bhanwari Devi, an OBC woman tried to stop a child marriage of a girl of 9 months from happening in her village. Angered by an “illiterate and low-caste woman,” who dared to defy the prevailing social norms, the upper caste Gurjar community in the village ostracized her family.

The societal pressure wasn’t enough. On September 22, 1992, during the darkness of the night, Bhanwari was gang-raped by her neighbours after her husband was beaten until he fell unconscious.

Although the couple took the case to court and fought valiantly, the Rajasthan government abandoned her and the trial judge in 1995 acquitted all the five accused. The trial court acquitted the perpetrators stating that upper caste men could never rape a Dalit woman.

Justice was not served.

The Vishakha case that gave this country its law to tackle sexual harassment at the workplace emerged because of Bhanwari Devi’s rape. The petition bore no mention of caste. This is a classic example of caste erasure where the casteist angle of discrimination and crimes is not acknowledged. This is rampant in urban areas as castes have been erased to a large extent and this is the reason we are apprehensive of accepting caste as a factor in obviously casteist crimes.

I started writing this blog on 4 October. By now, the UP police are claiming to have busted an “international conspiracy” to foment caste conflagration in the state to defame the Yogi Adityanath government over the Hathras gang-rape and murder case.

I implore you, if you are upper caste, affluent reader, use your platform to amplify Dalit activists. Open your eyes to your privilege. If you are reading this blog on a smartphone, you are more privileged than 80 per cent of our country’s population.

Our victim isn’t here with us today. Her family will fight but their future is uncertain.

Don’t let their suffering be in vain.

Listen to their voices.

And don’t forget.

I am an upper caste, privileged girl living in a metropolitan city. I wrote this blog after conducting research and rechecking facts.

I acknowledge my privilege.

To my fellow privileged readers, use your platform to amplify Dalit voices. Do not steal their stage, pass the mic on. Do not give your opinions without proper research. Support Dalit artists, bloggers, speakers.

I will end it with this quote by Babasaheb Ambedkar, “Educate, Agitate, Organise.”