Why the need to identify the Hathras rape victim as Dalit?

In the wake of the brutal gang-rape and murder of a young Dalit woman in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, many of us have found ourselves feeling embarrassed at the society we live in; wondering how low humanity can stoop; raging over the unscrupulous and unethical conduct of the authorities in handling the case; and taking to social media to rant or simply protest against this heinous act. These reactions are a natural response to such a horrifying crime and the least we can do — reactions of intensity any lower than this would border on inhumanity. However, even as people on social media flinch at the crime and demand for a swift and brutal justice, many of them seem to show almost a similar degree of aversion to identifying the victim as a Dalit, squirming at the very mention of the word.

If you have been following the news coverage of the case or engaging with the story on social media for even a day or two, I am sure you must have come across a few media outlets, anti-caste activists, and other individuals calling the gang-rape an instance of caste-based violence, with the word Dalit making the headlines. Liberal Savarnas (and many non-Hindu liberals) engaging with the news question the need to mention the Dalit identity of the victim. A rape is a rape, right? It is a crime against humanity. If anything the word Dalit does is create rift among Hindus in an attempt to keep casteism alive, so they say.

The idea that caste has nothing to do with rape (and other atrocities) is incorrect and is deeply rooted in liberal Savarnas’ attempt to breakaway from a shameful “past” but without giving up their own identity as upper caste Hindus. In their peddling of the caste-is-dead narrative, they forget (I hope unintentionally and for lack of knowledge) that merely calling caste a thing of the past does little for the people who are still suffering from caste-based violence and discrimination, which is their present reality. It is hypocritical to enjoy the benefits of privileges, including education, social mobility and not having to deal with discrimination on a daily basis, ensured by being born into an upper caste and yet deny the existence of caste. This denial not only continues the facade of meritocracy and sham offerings of equal opportunity (to the benefit of the Savarnas), but also dilutes the chances of bringing the issue of caste-based atrocities to the mainstream.

Years ago, in my English Literature class, we were introduced to Alexander Pope via his mock-heroic poem The Rape of the Lock. Prior to having read the poem and explained to by my teachers, I thought rape involved the act of forcing of a man’s genitalia into a woman’s driven by lust. I was wrong. Lust/carnal desire is not the only factor behind rapes. If this comes as news to you, you are not alone: former SC judge Markandey Katju shares the burden of ignorance with you. Although the IPC definition of rape has been amended with the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013, after the Nirbhaya gang rape and murder in 2012, there is still a lot of room to expand the definition, and remarks like Mr. Katju’s do not help in ensuring a sound awareness of rape among the lay people. (Refer to Section 375 to have a clear understanding of what constitutes rape per the IPC.)

To understand why in cases of rape against Dalits and Adivasis mentioning the caste and tribal identity is important, you need to take into account the fact that Dalits and Adivasis have been and are the most vulnerable population of the society — vulnerable to hate crimes and the most likely ones to face impediments to seeking justice as most of the people in charge of safeguarding rights and ensuring justice are caste Hindus or non-ST/SCs who have adapted to the idea of caste hierarchy. And more often than not they carry their biases and never leave an opportunity to show their superiority.

Rape of a Dalit or Adivasi by non-ST/SCs cannot be judged independent of the 2,000 years of systemic oppression that the people of these communities have been put through by the practitioners of the caste system.The stench of a 2,000-year-old rot cannot be masked by perfumed call-to-actions for humanity when you have documented instances of caste-based and racially-motivated crimes throughout the course of Indian history.

The word rape comes from the Latin word rapio,which means “to seize”. In the poem The Rape of the Lock, an admirer of Belinda (the protagonist) snips off a lock of hair without her consent as a token of affection. Through this seemingly trivial “crime of passion,” Pope highlights the power relation between men and women, which allows men to get away with far serious crimes as long as they invoked love (replace it with honour, morality, justice, etc.) as the force driving there actions. When you do not restrict the idea of rape as a sexual crime, it becomes clear that the problem is not lust alone, it is the idea that a woman’s body is a powerless passive site on which men can play out their depraved fantasies or warped idea of justice and honour. In this light, rape cannot be separated from patriarchy and toxic masculinity.

Rapists take as much pleasure in defiling the body as much as they enjoy exploiting vulnerability and powerlessness to stoke their ego. And what better prey than Dalit and Adivasi women who are doubly vulnerable as not just women but Dalit and Adivasi women. Rape has been used as a tool to make example out of, to mock the men of raped women, to exact revenge, to silence voices. It is for these reasons why women and their bodies feature in so many of our expletives, why army men rape women in war zones and militarised areas (because these are vulnerable women, with no one to hear their demand for justice), and why caste Hindu men have been preying on Dalits and Adivasis. It is not to satiate carnal desire, but to teach lesson, to take revenge, to show us where we belong, to establish and reiterate that they are gods and we cannot go against them. This is the reason why these caste-based rapes are so gruesome in nature. The caste men intend it to be a spectacle.

Not identifying victims as Dalits, Adivasis or from other minority communities only prevents these marginalised communities from making it to the mainstream, thereby effectively taking away any opportunity to present our stories to the world. This is akin to treating us like rubbish on your floors; you cannot shove us under the carpet and talk in your drawing room over a cup of coffee about how far you have come from the days of caste system. Caste is not dead, and as long as it lives, atrocities are committed against Dalits, Adivasis and other minorities, and we are not allowed equal representation to bring our stories of atrocities to light, there will be a need to identify the victims as such. Don’t choke over your sweet talk of equality every time you hear the words Dalit or Adivasi. Get used to it. Or better still, move over and let us speak.