Updated: Feb 27, 2021
On September 29, 2020, a 19-year-old woman from the Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh died after being gang raped in her own neighborhood. She was a Dalit, or a member of one of India’s lowest schedule castes. Her mother had found her two weeks earlier, lying in a millet field, “…battered and bruised, barely conscious and naked from the waist downwards.” Although the victim filed multiple complaints with local police and identified her attackers, the authorities made no record of her allegations. In fact, the officers responsible for the case attempted to deny that a rape occurred at all. Though the Hathras Superintendent of Police blamed this lack of redress on “negligence and lax supervision”, the events that followed suggest a cover up. They reveal the brutal intersection between caste discrimination and misogyny that continues to impact Dalit women.
On the very night of her death, after barring her family members from paying their respects, the police cremated her body without the family’s permission, preventing an autopsy that could have confirmed the cause of her death. After the victim’s death, the case received significant media attention, forcing the local police department to turn over the case to federal law enforcement.
The Police Cover-Up
Though the case made international headlines for a few weeks, the police made significant efforts to silence the media. Local law enforcement prevented reporters from entering the victim’s neighborhood and from speaking to her family. Though the family was eventually given legal redress and compensation, the national and local governments took no legislative action to prevent such acts of violence in the future.
This is not an isolated incident. In fact, sexual assault and rape are rampant in Uttar Pradesh. One could easily conclude that widespread sexism and victim blaming were the sole reasons for this delay in justice. However, in 2012, when a 23-year-old upper caste woman was similarly gang raped and killed, her murder sparked a wave of feminist activism along with stricter sentences for rapists. Indeed, Dalit activists describe caste discrimination as an apartheid; upper caste individuals often hold the highest positions of power and make significant efforts to maintain the status quo. The Hathras gang rape could simply be an example of upper castes attempting to put Dalits in their place. However, caste alone cannot explain the unmistakable gender dynamics at play. Thus, we must understand the Hathras rape case as layered, with dimensions of both sexism and casteism. Understanding how caste discrimination and the patriarchy intertwine comes down to understanding izzat, or the Indian concept of honor.
Caste, Izzat, and the Patriarchy
Izzat plays a vital role in Indian power and gender dynamics in both Hindu and Muslim communities. It is gained by acquiring status symbols, such as money or positions of power, and is maintained through endogamous, or intra-caste marriages. Improper or inappropriate behavior will cause a family to lose their izzat. This could mean partaking in an inter-caste marriage, behaving “immodestly”, or transgressing some other social norm. Because a woman’s “purity” weighs heavily on a family’s social standing, mothers and daughters are the vessels of a family’s izzat. They carry the responsibility of upholding the family’s respect in the community, even if they belong to a lower caste. When they do not, they disgrace the men and patriarchs of the family, who in society’s eyes failed to maintain control over their women. When the Hathras perpetrators decided to rape the victim, they were sending a message to the Dalit men in the community about their place in society. They were asserting their power to take away what little respect the Dalit men had. By raping her within her own community, they demonstrated their territorial authority as well as control over the Dalits’ few repositories of izzat. This power dynamic is replicated by law enforcement in their choice to silence the victim’s family and ignore the circumstances of her death. It is worth noting that both the perpetrators and the majority of the Hathras police force belong to the Thakkar delineation, a dominant upper caste group in Uttar Pradesh. The Hathras case shows that the caste system is supported by a patriarchal structure, in which lower caste women carry the dual burdens of oppression at the hands of upper castes as well as men.
How has the Indian government addressed the struggles of Dalit women?
After the Nirbhaya gang rape shocked and enraged Indians in 2012, the government responded by imposing harsher sentences for rapists; the men involved in the 2012 rape were hanged. However, capital punishment fails to address the root causes of the problem as well as the disproportionate burdens of sexual violence on Dalit women. It also neglects the heavy influence of caste leanings within local government and law enforcement. Protections that do exist for Dalit rights, such as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989, are weak or diluted. Though women grow more active in Dalit rights movement, the Indian feminist movement continues to marginalize Dalit women. A brighter future for Dalit women will require holistic social and systemic change, starting with a reevaluation of the notion of izzat.