Conflict Alerts # 172, 8 October 2020
In the news
On 6 October in one of the most populous states in India, a gruesome rape of a 19-year-old woman saw the country's apex court, the federal government and several institutions get into a heated debate over how to keep the women in one of the largest democracies in the world safe. The state government in Uttar Pradesh sought Supreme Court-monitored time-bound CBI inquiry into the rape that has yet again shaken the conscious of the country.
On 14 September, the victim, belonging to a lower caste, was assaulted and allegedly gang-raped by the high-caste men in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh. Following the brutal assault, the young woman's body was mutilated, her tongue chopped off and choked with a cloth in an attempt to keep her from filing a police complaint. After her death, several attempts were made by the district administration and local police to cremate her body without the presence of her family hurriedly. Questions have been raised whether a rape has indeed occurred; reluctance deterred a timely lodging of a complaint and above all protests broke out across India when attempts to protect the higher caste accused unfolded.
What started as a rape of a woman has now entered a public debate over caste, sexual violence and socio-political marginalization in India.
Issues at large
First, the convergence of gender, caste and poverty. The beginning of the rape does not start in the millet fields of Hathras, but in the discrimination, women like her have repeatedly faced on account of coming from a lower Dalit Valmiki caste. The rape of the women puts in focus the sexual violence faced by the Dalit women; many are yet to receive above primary education and face a "triple burden" of gender bias, caste discrimination and economic deprivation. The violation of a women's body has become preposterously easy when she comes from a lower caste. Rape then becomes a tool for higher-caste men to assert hegemony in one form or another. The turning point came in 2006 when four members of a Dalit family in Maharashtra were brutally murdered by upper caste men when police complaint was lodged by the mother against a land dispute. As more and more women become assertive, rape has become a tool of control; but if a woman has a marginalized caste identity, sexual violence is rampant.
Second, the politicization of the caste identity. The rape of the women quickly unfolded into a singular narrative of caste domination in the State where caste politics dictate the everyday life of the people. Hathras is a reserved constituency and forms the bedrock of lower-caste votes. Besides, the administration and the police with high caste officers lacked the maturity and humanity to handle a volatile situation, thereby giving space for several political parties to politicize the issue.
Third, memories from the 2012 Nirbhaya rape tragedy. The protests in the aftermath of the rape stoke memory from a similar outrage the country say in 2012 when four men in the capital city brutally raped a woman from Delhi. The cruel irony remains that the country's women have to sit for another candlelight vigil just six months after the hanging of the convicts in the 2012 Nirbhaya tragedy. Asha Devi, the mother of Nirbhaya, has rightly said, "nothing has changed in these eight years." What changed has been the deteriorating state response to this rape tragedy. While the Delhi rape tragedy saw swift arrests, extreme public outcry, political pressure to change the law and after a long drawn legal battle punishment of the accused. In Hathras, the superintendent of police, the station house officer has been swiftly transferred after arresting the accused, and the village was cordoned off to stem the free flow of information.
Since 2012, India had registered more rape cases, yet some incidents have the capacity to jolt the country of its slumber and ignorance towards its women's rights. The ghastly incident, which has led to a political slugfest, highlights the plight of women in the state and the country. Continuing caste-based discrimination, and lapses in administration make the fight for women safely difficult. When rape becomes a political power play, every woman in this country has ostensible reason to fear and not just the rape-victim. It becomes certain that the impunity of the crime shadows the lives of all women in this country. The tragedy in Hathras will become another forgotten story; can we afford that any more.