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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Kerala rape: Why the ‘Dalit’ identity can’t be parked outside

Rape and molestation and subsequent murder are crimes that don’t just violate another person’s body but essentially represent the power that the aggressor has over the victim.

Written by Tarishi Verma | Updated: May 8, 2016 12:22:15 pm
Kerala rape, perumbavoor rape,Jisha, jisha rape, kerala rape murder, dalit rape, dalit murder, violence against dalits, india dalit rape, dalit woman raped, news, india news, Does she have to leave her identity — of being a Dalit — outside, to be a legitimate rape victim? Express Photo/File

The country was rife with outrage. There were candlelight marches all over. Every resident felt the pain of the girl in the bus. More than three years later, we are at another similar case, but, this time, the country doesn’t resonate with anger. There was a long, cold silence which is only beginning to flicker now.

It took a week for the girl raped and murdered in Rajasthan to feature in ‘breaking news’. She was gone as quietly as she had come.

It took a week for the Kerala law student raped and murdered to feature in ‘breaking news’.

Many other have gone unreported, featuring in 1 by 3 inch columns of newspapers. Gone, without a trace.

A question often comes whether ‘Dalit’ is important to be featured in the headlines of a news story or whether a victim’s identity is really being paraded by news reports and is not relevant to the story. Does she have to leave her identity outside be a legitimate rape victim?

Rape and molestation and subsequent murder are crimes that don’t just violate another person’s body but essentially represent the power that the aggressor has over the victim. In crimes against women that involve violating her body, it represents how the culprit is showing where he wants the victim to belong to – under his/her power. So when rapes happen outside the home, in public spaces which the women are now freely accessing, it is a message from the offender that they don’t belong in the space.

Consider a simple example of eve-teasing. When a passer-by whistles at a woman or cat calls her, he clearly knows the woman wouldn’t come to him and fall in love with him instantly! It is a declaration that she shouldn’t be in the space because the space belongs to him (or an upper class, upper caste, masculine user). One often, subsequently, hears that if you want to stay away from the eve-teasers, take another route or better yet, don’t access the space at all. The power equation is very clear – the space is not yours. If you try to access it, you will pay for it.

(Although if the eve-teaser thinks that’s how women fall in love, one has to blame the ‘activist’ Pratigya from Mann Ki Awaz Pratigya for marrying, living, and dying for the boy who used to tease her on the street. Really, Pratigya. What were you thinking?)

Jyoti Singh or ‘nirbhaya’ is the epitome of this battle where she tried to access a space at a time where both weren’t ‘supposed’ to be hers. She was made to pay for the space she seemingly didn’t own. And the nation broke into outrage.

The recent case of a 30-year-old law student, is absolutely not the same as Jyoti. The crime done to her happened inside her own home. She was in the space she was ‘supposed’ to be at. Many reports have described her to be a quiet girl (again, a desired quality in women). There is no clear idea as to who could have done the deed and why. And this is exactly where it becomes important to ground her identity as a Dalit.

Before delving into her case, also look at the case that barely made it to headlines, that of Delta Meghwal. Delta was a bright student, studying in Rajasthan. She was called by the hostel warden for some cleaning up work at the PT teacher’s office. The call to clean itself is what marks the fractures of equality in a modern educational institute. It finally became an institutional rape and murder, with all authorities trying to cover it up as best as they could.

It was only when the website The Ladies Finger broke the news to the Internet that it got picked up. But it was out of the purview of the media sooner than it was caught. She wasn’t one of ‘us’. Delta was one of ‘them’.

The law student’s case, also, similarly, took a week to be featured in national media. Only feminist websites and social activists began with a campaign for her justice, very unlike Nirbhaya which picked momentum in only a couple of days. People could relate to Jyoti much more, as an upper caste (also Delhi) victim, one of ‘us’.

The victim lived in a neighbourhood where she was socially and economically backward. Everyone else around her was well-to-do. They had to defecate on newspapers. Her family (which included her mother and an elder sister) was discriminated against not only because of their social or economic backwardness but also because her mother’s psychiatric disorder which often resulted in fights with the neighbours.

Her neighbours didn’t come to her funeral.

It is imperative here to understand that Dalit women come at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. They are Dalit as well as women. This double curse changes the way or even at some level increases the intensity of the power exerted on them.

When as a minor, Mathura was raped by a police officer in 1972, her caste identity came to play a big role in the way the case was handled and in the judgement that was passed. It marked the beginning of a reform that changed the way rape cases were handled but much to the dismay of sensibility, it didn’t change mindsets very much. Rapes of Dalit women are still being misreported or just outright not reported.

Another way of other-ing this lower caste is by simply using their names. Ironically, it was the Mathura case that brought about the amendment. Not using rape victims’ names is a concept that reeks of the very patriarchal notion of where a woman’s honor resides – in her body. If that body is violated by the patriarchy, the patriarchy comes to the rescue of the body – they shall not name you and protect your honor. Their blindness to the irony is barely surprising.

In Dalit victims’ case, however, names are tossed around carelessly. Even now, Jyoti Singh is being referred to as Nirbhaya while the Kerala and Rajasthan victims’ names are being used freely. This again reflects the callousness of the representation of these cases. Their ‘honor’ doesn’t seem to be as necessary or worthy of being protected, as the one of the upper caste victims.

When rights of a group are being fought for, one can’t focus singularly on one angle of oppression. Intersectionality is what makes a movement more grounded, a people stronger. Her identity of the Dalit is not vicitimising her more. Her identity of a Dalit is screaming that she too is a victim and it is as bad for her as it was for someone else who was not a Dalit. It can only prove to be divisive if the ‘us’ and ‘them’ narrative continues to exist and that divide will continue to exist and grow wider if her case dies out without leaving behind embers. It is important to understand her Dalit identity to understand her double whammy — her being a Dalit and a woman — to understand how power can function and how power can’t possibly be uni-dimensional.

Views expressed by the author are personal.

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