Why crimes against Dalit women are rising in India

India Today Editor-in-Chief talks about the curse of caste in India and the state’s inability to protect our weakest and most vulnerable citizens, in the October 19, 2020 edition of the India Today Magazine.

 |  5-minute read |   09-10-2020
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It has been seven decades since Independence, yet India has been unable to purge the curse of caste from its society. It permeates our electoral politics, our social lives, our jobs and even marriages. The ones who suffer most are those at the bottom of the caste ladder. These are the Dalits, who comprise 17 per cent of our population. This means the same medieval beast of casteism stalks 200 million of our countrymen despite many laws being passed to protect them and raise their status. This was highlighted recently when on September 14, four upper-caste men allegedly gang-raped and brutally assaulted a 19-year-old Dalit girl in a village in Uttar Pradesh. Her tongue was cut and her spine broken. She died after a fortnight of unbearable pain and a life lived at the intersection of three burdens: of caste, gender and economic status, a poor Dalit woman. The Hathras rape and murder, as the case is now being called, is not an isolated incident, nor are such horrors restricted to any particular state. An estimated 3,500 Dalit women were raped in 2019, which means 10 Dalit women are raped in India every day. A third of the cases are from Rajasthan and UP.

The National Crime Records Bureau’s latest report records an alarming 159 per cent increase in the number of reported rapes of Dalit women in the country between 2009 and 2019 — from 1,346 cases to 3,486 cases. These numbers, as sociologists caution us, do not reveal the true extent of the horror. The reality is that men of the dominant castes see Dalit women as a fair game. It is not only sexual violence but an instrument of humiliation and domination. A sense of impunity also drives them because, most often, the police tend to be manned by those belonging to the same caste groups that dominate the ruling party of the state and are inclined to turn a blind eye to the atrocities against Dalits.

main_cover_100920024722.jpgIndia Today October 19, 2020 cover, Rising Crimes Against Dalit Women.

A closer look at what unfolded in Hathras is a test case for what Dalit women endure. The UP police tossed aside the rule book on how a rape complaint must be handled. They were reluctant to register an FIR even though failing to do so is a punishable offence. Medical attention to the victim was delayed. Forensic evidence was collected 11 days later, rather than within four days as mandated by government guidelines. When the young woman eventually succumbed to her injuries on September 29, her body was not handed over to the family but instead cremated by police in the middle of the night, without their consent.

When law enforcement officials look away, harsh legislations like the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, meant to protect Dalits, become toothless. At nearly 42 million, Dalits make up 21 per cent of the population in UP, more than in any other state. But they lack proportionate representation in the administration, particularly in the police force. This makes them vulnerable to abuse, despite being a large section of the population.

Our cover story, ‘Rising Crimes Against Dalit Women’, put together by Deputy Editor Kaushik Deka with inputs from bureaus across the country, looks at India’s continuing legacy of shame, the state’s inability to protect our weakest and most vulnerable citizens. Sadly, as you can see from our past covers, the story isn’t new. Our first cover story on the issue was in 1978. This situation still prevails despite recent modifications to the law, like designating as crimes acts such as preventing a Dalit from riding a horse at a wedding procession or tonsuring their heads to humiliate them and restoring the mandatory arrest under the SC/ ST Act. Political parties of all hues court Dalits for electoral gain.

The political landscape for Dalits has also changed. While, on the one hand, the electoral fortunes of Dalit leader Mayawati and her party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, have declined; on the other, younger and more militant leaders like Chandrashekhar Azad of the Bhim Army are filling the vacuum left by the BSP. He is making Dalits more aware of their rights and fighting for them. The growing statutory concessions to the lower castes only heighten the hostility of the upper castes.

However, the problem goes beyond conscience-salving legislation that doesn’t get correctly implemented. It is also about their economic status. Based on the country’s consumption expenditure, more than 50 per cent of the SC population belongs to the poorest two quintiles, as revealed by the NSSO data from the Indian Labour and Employment Report, 2014. The corresponding figure is 20 per cent for upper-caste Hindus. The latter own 41 per cent of the country’s total wealth as against 7.6 per cent owned by SC Hindus, according to a joint study conducted by the Savitribai Phule Pune University, the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, Delhi, from 2015 to 2017.

Increasing urbanisation would greatly reduce the stigma of caste as people are forced to live and work together. This leads us to another gigantic problem: the pathetic state of the infrastructure in our towns and cities. Seven decades ago, the Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar called the Indian village a ‘sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism’. Not much has changed since then, except that our population has quadrupled. Dalits, and especially Dalit women, are the worst sufferers of our unjust society.

(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, Rising Crimes Against Dalit Women, for October 19, 2020 issue of India Today Magazine)

Also read: How Dalits will shape national politics in the run-up to 2019 general elections


Aroon Purie Aroon Purie @aroonpurie

The writer is chairman and editor-in-chief of the India Today Group.

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