Hundreds of people gathered at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on Gandhi Jayanti for a candlelight vigil to mourn the gruesome death of 19-year-old Dalit girl, who was allegedly gang-raped and murdered by four men from the Thakur caste in Hathras. The stage was almost a prototype of the outrage by common citizens after the Nirbhaya incident in December 2012. It’s a cruel irony that the Hathras incident happened just after six months of the hanging of the Nirbhaya convicts. Such emotionally charged public outrage captured the national imagination of the common citizen against atrocities that infringe upon women’s lives in general and Dalit women, in particular.
The outcry was exceptionally intense as it decried the culpable connivance of the state in protecting the perpetrators, the unfettered unleashing of state-led violence on the family, media persons and opposition leaders and gross violation of the rights of Dalits. The abhorrence that shocked the world was the clandestine performance of last rites of the rape victim by policemen depriving her right to dignity in death. The burden of the brutality and bestiality on the fragile conscience of the nation will remain for many years to come. It can neither be forgotten by public memory nor be forgiven by humanity.
Hundreds of people gathered at Jantar Mantar in Delhi for a candlelight vigil on October 2. (Photo: PTI)
Candlelight vigil marches have an intrinsic symbolic value. They dispense message about the boisterous reclaiming of public spaces to protest injustices. They bear the torches of public dissent. However, they are not sufficient means in themselves to combat state excesses. In this case, citizens groups, civil society organisations, women’s organisations and political parties joined hands to express their grave discontent against aggravated caste-rape crimes against women in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere. The intersecting pivot of vulnerabilities and discrimination that plague women’s lives are many but prominent among them are caste, gender and religion. Each of these axes has pushed women to extremities in terms of its subjection to systemic oppression.
Sexual violence against women of lower castes has been an obtrusive phenomenon of Indian society. The linkage between rape and caste has been rather intimate. Rape and violation of women’s bodies have been routine in both urban and rural contexts in India. Women’s bodies are primary sites to contest ideas about the honour of community and also assert hegemony in one form or another. Within this framework, Dalit women’s position continues to be more precarious and greatly marginalised. Raping Dalit women has been a familiar feudal practice in rural India largely as a measure of punishment meted out to poor peasantry whenever they defy or confront existing power relations. The neoliberal context has only escalated the tension between upper castes and Dalits in many rural pockets of India. In Hathras, the upper caste Thakurs organised panchayat in support of the accused to showcase the caste solidarity against the Dalit family and to vilify the rape-narrative of the victim.
The NCRB report estimates crime against women increased 7.3 per cent from 2018 to 2019, and crimes against Scheduled Castes also went up by the same percentage in the same period. A total of 4,05,861 cases of crimes against women were registered in 2019, showing an increase of 7.3 per cent over 2018 (3,78,236 cases). Majority of cases under crime against women under IPC were registered under ‘cruelty by husband or his relatives’ (30.9 per cent), followed by ‘assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty’ (21.8 per cent), ‘kidnapping & abduction of women’ (17.9 per cent) and ‘rape’ (7.9 per cent). The crime rate registered per lakh women population is 62.4 per cent in 2019 in comparison to 58.8 per cent in 2018. An austere reading of the NCRB data shows that there has been an escalating incidence of sexual violence against Dalit women in the last decades. There is an abysmally low rate of conviction rates in rape cases. Rape as a symbol of impunity is an engaging question for all of us. Silence renders these grotesque sexual acts invisible. Therefore, it is important that the political elite bespeak caste-provoked rapes and bring it onto the conspicuous agenda of the state.
The Hathras rape incident has evoked a nation-wide unity amongst various groups to come together to express solidarity against caste and gender-based atrocities. The Aam Admi Party (AAP) and Left parties have shown rare comradeship with the cause in Jantar Mantar. Both the political parties have stood for compassion rather than riding roughshod over the citizens. For the first time in six years, CM Arvind Kejriwal has joined any massive citizen’s protest at Jantar Mantar. His presence itself added a political meaning to the struggle. There was a huge presence of cadres, ministers, councillors and leaders of AAP at the protest site. Organised mobilisation by AAP was seen across the length and breadth of the country. While expressing grief over the incident, CM Kejriwal argued for moral grounds to stop rape atrocities anywhere in India. He catalysed introspection in the society regarding the high incidence of rapes and its growing proclivity in recent years. The call was for the recognition of the specificities of vulnerability and disentitlement of Dalit-Bahujan groups while strengthening the movement to root out authoritarian response to such acts against women. It brings hope that the political elite in Delhi will not be oblivious to the demands of women’s groups for a violence-free environment in public spaces that establish gender equality. AAP’s rallying point for intervention could be the Mohalla Marshall model that integrates women’s safety with gender-sensitive networking amongst communities to stop crimes against women in city spaces.
The larger question that has intrigued the collective conscience is whether justice would be done? Political leaders of Congress, Bhim Army, Left groups and AAP have visited the victim’s home to express their anguish and their support to the fight for justice for the victim. In Hathras, due process of law was a suspect as there was rampant criminal intimidation and alleged tampering with evidence as medical reports of the victim are being construed as inconclusive for proving rape. Thankfully the Allahabad High Court took suo-moto cognisance of the matter in the light of the high handedness of the state in “perpetuating the misery of the family and rubbing salt in their wounds” after the death of the victim. It is a pointer towards the fundamental nature of public institutions in perpetuating inequality. AAP MP Sanjay Singh in his visit today has spoken voluminously about the need to have faith in the veracity of the dying statement of the victim and calls for a Supreme Court judge monitored inquiry into the incident. This debate brings to the forefront the urgency of insulating law enforcement agencies from political and other commitments.
What would be proportional punishment for the heinous crime? Many agitating citizens groups have demanded capital punishment for the accused. The threshold question remains whether capital punishment can be an effective deterrent to such crimes. Largely, the death penalty is seen as a populist offensive that seeks to quick-fix punishment. As a deterrent punishment, it has not been competent as the crimes against women have been spiralling even after the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment, 2013. A more vigorous campaign that challenges tacit sanction for rapes, that challenges women as subordinate to men and that dismisses the idea of public shame of women’s bodies will cease subversion of justice.
When rape becomes a political power play, every woman in this country has ostensible reason to fear, not just the rape-victim. It becomes certain that the impunity of the crime shadows the lives of all women in this country.