On September 14, a 19-year-old Dalit woman was brutally gang-raped by four men in Hathras village in India’s largest state, Utter Pradesh (UP). She clung to life for two weeks, suffering from multiple gashes on her tongue and fractures all over her body, but finally died in a hospital in Delhi. 

To make matters worse, the local police refused to cooperate with the victim’s family when they asked to see her face one last time. Instead, the police hurriedly cremated her body in the dead of night in the millet fields in her village without allowing the family to perform the final rites. 

Protests erupted across the country, and the police violently arrested people calling for justice, including Rahul Gandhi and his sister, Priyanka Gandhi, both leaders of the opposition Congress party. The party leaders were en route to meet the victim’s family when videos emerged of the police manhandling party workers and Rahul Gandhi until he dived to the ground, and then they dragged him to a police vehicle. 

On top of India’s leading pandemic agency announcing that more than 60 million people may have contracted the virus that causes Covid-19, 10 times what official state figures suggest, a spate of sexual violence and crackdowns on activists have fueled fear and rage in marginalized communities.

“When Dalits stand up for justice, their mothers and daughters are raped. The idea is to show down the whole community – tumhari aukat kya hai? What’s your worth?” says Ram Kumar, a Dalit rights activist based in Lucknow, UP.

He also drives home the point about the oppressive caste system, that had the rapists been Dalit or Muslim and the victim from a privileged caste, the outrage from the higher-ups would come sooner. 

The ‘untouchables’

Cultural writer Aditi Murti drives home the point that “the victim’s caste identity matters because it shines a spotlight upon India’s uncomfortable position as a casteist state and society that repeatedly terrorizes individuals deemed lower caste with violence, rape, and murder, while its justice system often looks the other way.”

The Dalit class is labeled with a derogatory term: “untouchables.” The topmost privileged and upper-class Brahmin caste emphasize the “impurity” of the Dalit people because to them, they taint the hierarchy of the caste system as the Brahmins occupy the very top honorary position in India. The Dalits comprise less than 20% of the whole population, live under the poverty line and have subpar control of resources and services. 

The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights has said that more than 23% of Dalit women report multiple instances of rape in their lives, which explains the abysmally low prosecution rates and the justice system looking the other way. 

This is a clear indicator of how the male-dominated class’s virtue-signaling continues to have spillover effects in both caste and religious systems of power. That’s because the Brahmanical hierarchy brands the Indian society as patriarchal, and anything flying in the face of it – aka feminism – is anti-Indian, anti-Hinduism. 

Patriarchal power politics

“Sexual violence committed against Dalit women and girls is perpetrated by men from dominant ‘upper castes,’ who use sexual violence as a tool to assert power and reinforce existing caste, social and gender hierarchies,” Divya Srinivasan, a consultant for the women’s rights organization Equality Now, tells The Guardian. 

Often, scant respect is afforded to women, particularly menstruating women, who are forced to live in isolation. Maintaining ethnic and gender purity is the cornerstone of beliefs within the Brahmin-led caste system, which has indirectly impacted key judicial decisions. 

In 1972, two policemen raped a 14-year-old girl named Mathura in a police compound in Maharashtra. Instead of locking up the perpetrators, the courts acquitted the men, claiming that Mathura had a history of sexual intercourse – ergo, the rape was consensual.

And worse still is the ongoing streak of sexual assaults on Dalit women that go unchecked and give attackers a horrifying sense of impunity. As writer and activist Sajukta Basu succinctly puts it, “Dalit women face double patriarchy and violence, one for being women at the hands of their own community men. Two for being Dalit women at hands of upper caste men who think it is their entitlement to sexually exploit Dalit women.”

Even within the Dalit rights movement that dates back to the 1920s, there are gaps between class, caste and gender. What’s missing, writes scholar Anand Temtulbde, is the intersectional lens through which sexual crimes have never been examined. The oppression of Dalit women shouldn’t be lumped together with the experiences of Dalit men, which has further marginalized internal narratives around the intersections of gender and caste. 

“The same could be said of the mainstream feminist movement vis-a-vis the Dalit women’s movement. If mainstream feminists had taken a grassroots approach and focused on the plight of Dalit women, there may not have been need for poor Dalit women to organize separately,” Teltumbde explains.

Against the national backdrop of caste hegemony and the spate of sexual crimes in India, the time to delve deeper into the root causes and contexts violence against Dalit women is now. The Dalit people live in a constant state of fear.

As the 19-year-old victim’s father laments, “Our daughter’s rape has laid bare the caste inequality and the discrimination that the Thakurs [men of upper castes] practice in this village. Because of this, we are not safe. We must be given security, or we will have to leave this village for good.” 

Fatima Qureshi

Fatima Qureshi is a Pakistani-Turkish journalist born and raised in Hong Kong. Currently based in Malaysia, she is a communications program officer for Musawah, a global Muslim women's movement. She has written and produced stories on current international affairs and under-reported social issues with a sharp focus on feminism, power politics and immigration.