21 October 2020 04:18 PM



The Farce of ‘Casteless Modernity’: How Rape is an Apparatus to Show a Dalit Her Place

Rape is invariably a reaction to the growing assertion of Dalit identities for a dignified life

Manisha Valmiki met a harrowing fate not just in life but in death too. Not only did she suffer from brutal sexual and physical torment, her body was unceremoniously burnt by the police without the permission of her parents, without allowing them to bid her goodbye and perform the last rites for her.

The news of the assault on her became public only after she succumbed to her injuries two weeks later on September 29, 2020. The country is condemning the crime against her, but evading any conversation around caste. The woke population of the country denies the prevalence of caste in contemporary society.

Nirbhaya’s rape case triggered a country wide outrage forcing the government into motion and immediately medical attention was provided and she was flown to Singapore. All news channels reported the incident day and night, covering every detail of the case. The State machinery was made active and the Justice Verma Committee was appointed. The issue was kept alive until the rapists were sentenced and hanged. The rage that we felt at the barbarity of the crime necessitated the demand for quick action and rightly so.

Similarily, in the case of Priyanka Reddy, no stone was left unturned to highlight the issue and details of every moment of the day were reconstructed in the media inciting rage in people’s minds. The Telangana police killed the accused without even putting them to trial satisfying the “collective conscience” of the people.

It is noteworthy that another rape of a Dalit woman was committed around the same time in the same area which couldn’t find mention in the national headlines.

The outrage of people and the response of the State in Manisha Valmiki’s case is a sharp contrast. When the family found her lying moribund in the fields, they rushed to the police station. The response of the police was that she is being dramatic and lying there. She must be taken away.

The FIR that was filed was for attempt to murder. The doctors were apathetic towards her and refused to mention that it was a case of sexual assault while Manisha had given a statement in the hospital accusing the culprits of rape and violence. After she died, the police barricaded her family and burnt her body in the dead of the night. The police have now claimed that she was not raped.

We need to deliberate on why there is a stark difference in the treatment of the rape cases. It must compel us to acknowledge the bias towards the marginalised. On one hand, where the whole machinery is put to action, on the other, the victims and their families are subjected to torment at the hands of the State. Even the burden to prove that the crime occurred is put on the victim; let alone ensuring moral and material support.

In the present case, the stakes are high as the perpetrators belong to the so-called upper caste. The savarna sabhas have openly come in the support of the offenders. The panchayats of 12 villages in the area have declared them innocent and resolved to campaign for their release. The possibility of access to justice across the institutions is hard as these are controlled by the same men (and some women) who advocate caste hierarchy. Additionally the imposed notion of Dalit girls being of loose character further decreases the gravity of crime. Historically, Dalit women have been made devdasis, forced into prostitution, raped, paraded naked.

I am reminded of Nangeli, an Ezhava woman living in the early 19th century in Tavancore who cut off her breasts as a resistance against caste-based breast tax. Phoolan Devi was subjected to such brutal sexual and physical violence in response to which she took to arms. Bhanwari Devi had to go through a similar ordeal just because she was working against child marriage and she is awaiting justice to this day. These are just a few examples.

Caste matters: not only of the victim but of the perpetrators too. The upper caste men feel privileged and entitled to incur wrath on Dalits. The response of not just individuals but the institutions of power coaxes one to contemplate and question the whole structure that has contributed to the culture of sexual and physical violence against women and men of the marginalised sections.

Despite the history of oppression and humiliation that Dalits have undergone, why is there a sense of discomfort in acknowledging the caste cleavages in the society and subsequent violence on the marginalised sections at the bottom of the caste pyramid?

One may argue that since caste is not colour coded, it is invisible to the naked eye and therefore difficult to acknowledge and address. The case is not so. It may seem blurred in the urban areas, but the areas in villages are divided on caste lines, rather named accordingly. Moreover, caste is not merely understood as an oppressive structure. It is shamelessly argued as a system of organisation in the community bound by interdependent social relations based on complementarity. Even the likes of Gandhi have justified Varnashramdharma.

The denial of objectivity of caste relations usher from the fancies of calling oneself modern. We may assume a casteless modernity but our social relations, the people we choose to marry or even dine with suggest otherwise. All structures of power are indiscriminately led by upper castes men and women who normalise it. The systemic and structural violence on people from Dalit and other marginalised communities go unnoticed and fail to seek our attention until a gruesome act of caste cruelty hits us in our face.

In classrooms there is a compartmentalisation of social structures and social change. There is a blurring of our understanding of the relations between social and structural fabric and contemporary change in the institution of caste. Thus we may be aware of the sociological aspect of caste but caste in our society persists and is practiced implicitly and explicitly.

Caste bound all toilers to specific professions in the caste matrix that segregated human beings not into mutually dependent relations but rather divisive on a scale of caste hierarchy structured on the notions of purity and pollution legitimised by brahmanical values. The matrix of purity situates us at the margins. The honour that is fundamental to the existence of the upper caste is an entitlement that you live with.

Even today, there is no radical alleviation in the economic and social conditions of Dalits. There has been a growing resistance in the dominant caste communities against the democratisation of social relations. Any assertion by the Dalits is seen as transgression and the reaction is indiscriminately violent. From social boycotts, to village panchayats issuing resolutions against Dalits, to torturing and murdering them, raping Dalit women to dishonour the families are some ‘methods’ employed ‘to teach them a lesson’. The experiences of unrelenting humiliation that a Dalit woman undergoes are unimaginable.

The upper caste feminists bombast at the patriarchal structures in the society; how it has rendered women on the margins and how it has normalised violence on women. But their feminist discourse addresses the category of women in terms of ‘casteless gender’ and ‘genderless caste’. Caste identities are largely subsumed in conversation about gender assuming that Dalit women would conveniently be able to identify patriarchy in their household and ignore caste discrimination they experience at the hands of woke-ists.

The feminist perspectives of sexuality fail to accommodate the sexual violence that women of marginalised communities encounter on a day to day basis. For instance, when a woman is humiliated and violated when she cuts grass in the fields of an upper caste landlord. Such narratives do not come into the purview of movements like #MeToo. There are a few notable exceptions but we still need to interrogate the complex histories of intersection of caste and gender oppression and how it is prevalent today.

The burden of caste weighs heavy on the shoulders of the Dalits while the upper castes decry reservation policies embracing a secular façade while at the same time failing to reflect both at the personal and political levels. Any such crime is reduced to an act of a deranged maniac who committed the crime because “sex is like food” which implies women are to be consumed. Rape is a political tool to instil fear in the minds of the marginalised to curb their voices against the injustice they have borne over the ages.

Rape is an apparatus to show a Dalit her place in the so called ‘casteless modernity’ that the liberals boast to be living in. Rape is an exhibition of power; a vindictive act. It is not because “women ask for it”; but because men want to assert their power over women. It is invariably a reaction to the growing assertion of Dalit identities for a dignified life.

The recognition of the prevalence of caste not just as an oppressive historical presence but reproduced in contemporary society as well -- therefore recognition is the first step. We need to acknowledge the fact that our complacency to recognise our privilege and entitlement has played a significant role in our dismissal of atrocities as caste based. The structural violence on the basis of caste and gender and the responses of the state apparatuses must be understood in consonance.

If we are demanding justice for Manisha we need to take into consideration the caste relations involved. Recognising it merely as gender violence will do injustice to the large number of women including Manisha who are victims of caste violence. We need to demand justice and hold institutions accountable. We need to express rage and anger to this insurmountable horror.

We need to say it out loud: The victim was a Dalit woman who was raped by four so called upper caste men! And rather than defending the offenders, they must be put to justice.

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