Written by Pranali Yengde
On a usual morning in 2019, a notification flashed on my mobile. It was about the gangrape and murder of a veterinary doctor of my age in Hyderabad. A sudden lightning of fear rushed through my body as I was also in Hyderabad then. My mother called me to express her concern. I tried to convince her (including myself) that I am safe.
On Wednesday, I received a similar notification about the alleged gangrape of a 19-year-old Dalit girl in Uttar Pradesh. I was disturbed again, but a little less concerned. This time, I did not receive calls from anyone. It caught my attention when my brother brought up the different reactions from my side to the two cases of brutal assaults. I was more disturbed by the first incident. Was it because I was in the proximity of the incidence and that I could relate with it personally?
The reason is not as apparent. It is about how the issue is presented by mainstream media and how society prioritises its reaction to rape victims of different social backgrounds. Cases of rape against Dalit or tribal women are portrayed as unexceptional by the media. More often, narratives of such events tend to emphasise on the ‘gender’ aspect by disregarding the ‘caste’ identity of the victim. According to Ranjana Kumari, Director of the Centre for Social Research, although these incidents take place on a daily basis, there is no substantial caste-based data on sexual violence in India.
Yet, the victim’s caste becomes inevitable, especially when rape, sexual assault are among the most common forms of violence used against marginalised castes. Culture writer Aditi Murti argues that “the victim’s caste matters because it shines a spotlight on India’s uncomfortable position as a casteist State and society that repeatedly terrorises individuals deemed lower caste with violence…”. The way in which the 19-year-old was cremated by the UP Police is a testimony to how cases concerning Dalits are treated as opposed to dominant caste ones.
Psychologist Noam Shpancer detailed evolutionary psychological reasons for rape. Men rape women because they tend to be physically stronger by genetic design; therefore, they rape because they can with impunity. He further outlined five types of rapists, in which opportunistic rapists are the kinds who rape because they can, with low risk of punishment. There is a pattern of impunity in the attacks on Dalit women. On the one hand, Dalit women are regarded as impure, while at the same time, their bodies are used as a medium of rage/punishment against the community.
Every time such an incident takes place, we rush to add more measures to the existing laws. The Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955, was changed to the Protection of Civil Rights in 1978. Due to its inability to curb atrocities against SCs and STs, a new Act called the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities), Act, 1989, was passed by Parliament. In spite of this, UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues Rita Izsák observed that massive underreporting of cases occurs due to society’s tendency to blame the victim, especially when she belongs to a lower caste.
The latest NCRB data reveals that every day 10 Dalit women are raped. These are merely reported cases and there is a spike in atrocities against SCs (7%) and STs (26%). The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, an NGO, revealed that over 23% of Dalit women report being raped.
When I see as a woman, the scope of my view towards rape and allied crimes is limited. It’s merely psychological. However, being a Dalit woman, my understanding and relation to it goes much deeper. Attack on a Dalit woman from rural parts of India becomes an attack on myself. Her pain becomes my pain. My identity as a Dalit woman makes me a victim of a social construct that encourages the use of rape as a tool to punish and silence Dalits.
As a poet, I break disorganised worlds and let the words sink in my heart.
Who am I?/ My consciousness/ makes me human/ and my thoughts build my identity/ until ‘that’ news in the newspaper/ calls out to the Dalit identity in me/ The ‘woman’ in me is shaken/ by the wounds created by breaking the ligaments of her body/ The casteist beasts cut out her tongue/ and here I feel helpless silence/ My liberating thoughts fall apart in that moment/ They are tainted by the cage of caste/ and the helplessness of my femininity/ And here I keep on asking,/ Who am I?/ An oppressed Dalit, a suppressed woman,/ Or a human with free will?
Pranali Yengde, first generation Dalit woman journalist, is a writer and poet
Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column