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Hathras: Why caste system is still relevant

(Mohan Yadav, an indigenous activist depicted on the peace march. Credit: Hannah Kirmes-Daly)

By now most of us have read at least one article or seen a post/story on their social media about the brutal rape and murder of a Dalit girl in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh. The stress on her caste has perhaps confused those who have the privilege to make that assumption. To those who were already talking about it in our social circles, let's get real, that in itself is a privilege. In this article, we will be focusing on the caste rather than crime. In no way do we believe that the crime in itself isn't a problem. Of course it is. However, the importance of caste in this case highlights the problem of caste-based discrimination in India and for the first time in years, many are finally recognising this as a societal problem we must get rid of.

India has had an abominable history of caste system and caste-based violence and discrimination. For centuries, a certain section of our society has been looked down upon, ill treated, and might I remind you, that this has been an illegal practice for many decades. Caste-based discrimination is so deeply entrenched in our society that most people fail to notice the existence of it. To the people that are reading this article, I'd like you to ask yourself a simple question - Have you ever had to actively think about your caste and it being a hinderance in your life? If your answer is no, remind yourself that you come from a place of privilege.

There are various intersecting factors such as class, caste, identity and hierarchy that play a massive role in systematic and structural violence. As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) 2019, nearly ten Dalit women are raped every day in the country with Uttar Pradesh recording the highest numbers. This is just the reported cases. Due to fear or backlash from the upper-caste, most cases are not even reported.

In the Hathras case, the police allegedly did not want to register an FIR against the four accused that belong to the Thakur caste. Despite the fact that the victim herself accused the four people of rape before she succumbed to her injuries, a member of the ruling party dismissed the existence of caste-based violence and denied that the incident had taken place. It's a repugnant claim to make. The very fact that a person who has power and influence has outrightly denied the victim's account is, in itself, a gross case of discrimination. The victim was cremated hurriedly by the police at 2:30 am, despite the family's objection, perhaps to get rid of any evidence. The question is - on whose orders did the police forcibly cremate the victim? Perhaps we'll never know.

An analysis of cases of sexual assault and violence against Dalit women reveals a pattern of impunity enjoyed by both state and non-state perpetrators. For instance, in the infamous gang-rape of Bhanwari Devi (1992), the perpetrators were acquitted in 1995 on the grounds that a man from the upper-caste would not rape a woman from a lower caste due to the issue of "purity". The Hathras case has exposed the tenuous nature of the justice system and accountability management vis-à-vis Dalit women. According to Meena Kandasamy, an anti-caste activist, between 2014 and 2018, the cases of violence against people that belong to the lower-caste has increased by 47%. “This is a very dangerous trend if we factor that most crimes go unreported and thereby, un-prosecuted,” she says.

Another interesting fact is that U.P tops the charts for caste-based discrimination and for crimes against women. This makes Dalit women the lowest of the low in a state like Uttar Pradesh. Violence - sexual or physical, is used to teach a lesson to those that belong to lower-caste. People from the upper-castes take the burden, for the lack of a better term, upon themselves to show those from the lower-caste that they indeed belong to the lower caste and hence are dehumanised. Another sexual assault and death of a 22-year-old Dalit woman had surfaced from Balrampur in the same state around the same time.

Sexual violence especially against women has become a way of show-of-power over lower-castes. Members of the upper caste are holding protests in Hathras itself against the arrest of four accused while those protesting in favour of Dalits are being arrested citing Section 144. Many political figures deny the very existence of caste and those who want to show their support are pushed around by the police. Many of us actually believe that caste is no more a social issue in India and ignorant statements such as "I'm nice to my house help" pushes forth the narrative of non-casteist India.

This not only happens in small towns and villages such as Hathras and Balrampur. There is caste-based discrimination is metropolitan cities such as Mumbai too. One instance is of where Payal Tadvi, who belonged to the Bhil community, took her life after allegedly being harassed by three upper-caste colleagues. The fact that we are able to talk about this is a privilege. Hence, I'd like to say, keeping my privilege aside, India is a casteist country. Whether we like it or not, in the smallest of ways, most of us are casteist in one way or another.

How can this stop? Let's try to give as much importance on this issue as any other social issue in the world. Let's talk about it without taking away the voices of those who are truly affected by this and as a community, stop blindly following public figures, and their views. Let's form our own views by educating ourselves. Let's pass on the mics to the ones actually suffering, and amplify their voices to be heard by all. All we can do, is be a better ally to them, and stand with them when they need us the most.


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