On February 17, three minor Dalit girls were found lying unconscious in their family farm in Unnao district of Uttar Pradesh. Two of them died by the time they were taken to the local hospital while the third girl luckily survived the ordeal. The family alleged that the girls were found tied up in the fields; the forensic report revealed traces of poisoning and the police claimed that the motive behind the crime was revenge by the accused for facing rejection of his unwarranted advances towards one of the girls. Several activists and journalists foregrounded the Dalit identity of the girls as being crucial to understanding the nature of the crime as was the case with the Hathras rape incident and the Unnao rape incident previously. This narrative of caste-based violence received immense backlash from the state. On the face of it, the February 17th incident did seem like one of plain vengeance. However, the shame of rejection stemming from the difference in the caste identities should not be ruled out as an integral cause of this crime.
Law, as a tool of governance, has attempted to legislate against the patriarchal and caste structure that has existed since thousands of years. However, the law and its machinery do not exist in a vacuum. The law is brought to life by the human hand that upholds and implements it. If the human hand continues to be governed and conditioned by these structures of patriarchy and caste, then it is impossible for the law to be effectively applied in letter and spirit. How can such a law ever be just and fair?
From police authorities who investigate caste and gender crimes to the state governments that sanction such investigations and the judiciary responsible for adjudication – the positions of power and authority in all of these systems are over-represented by the upper caste heterosexual men. As the direct beneficiaries of a patriarchal, casteist polity, men in such positions of power operate with deep rooted biases that tend to maintain the status-quo of their privilege and dominance. Legal authorities deliberately refuse to label crimes like the Unnao incident as caste violence and instead look to other explanations that are blind to the intersection of gender, sexuality and caste. As a result, violence against marginalized genders and caste is not simply afflicted through crimes in the society but also through the passivity of the legal mechanism.
While we have dedicated legislations like the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 for protection of Dalits and Constitutionally mandated reservations for representation of Dalits, we cannot mitigate systemic caste and gender violence without proper implementation of such laws. It is imperative that there is space created for marginalized voices to appear in local panchayats, police, judiciary and state governments. It is only when Dalits are adequately represented in the public sphere, the role of the caste identities in gender crimes will find space in public discourse of justice.
It is no secret that crimes against women in the country have been rising consistently over the years, especially towards scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) (Crime in India Volume I, NCRB 2019). The burden of honour and shame placed upon women’s bodies and sexualities becomes the very reason for the violence against them. In this, the Dalit woman, who is the most vulnerable and silenced member of the society, is further condemned to an inevitable fate of violence by the upper caste men. From crimes of kidnapping, murder to sexual abuse and rape – dominant castes, with the aid of state impunity, exert their caste hegemony over Dalits in the society.
In cases like the Unnao poisoning incident, we dwell upon the particularities of facts to recreate timelines, motives and scene of crime to ensure that the accused is proven guilty without a doubt. The State and the society make unequivocal calls to clear the collective conscience of the society and speed up the process of justice. Yet, there is never a discussion on the collective guilt of asserting the dominant caste privilege. The intent of the accused is broken down to its finest point while the audacity of the accused is never questioned. As the patriarchal and caste structure stands unwaveringly strong, no Dalit woman ever gets to live or die in a just manner.
The question of the hour then is what we, as privileged individuals who condemn the inadequacy of the legal mechanism, make out of such horrendous incidents. For decades and especially after the Nirbhaya rape incident, we have been amplifying the need for more inclusive laws instead of stricter punishments against sexual violence. We demand for gender neutral laws, inclusion of marital rape and acknowledgment of rape in communal violence. We also point out the paternalistic and moralistic views of such laws and the lawmakers. We even recognize the intersection of gendered violence with caste. But we don’t go as far as to acknowledge that caste encompasses gender in the Indian context. One’s caste is assigned even before their birth with no possibility of deviation from the norm. Whereas, genders that deviate from the heteronormative impositions have managed to create some space for themselves through their ongoing struggles. The apathy towards such caste and gender complexities necessitate that Dalit woman and Dalit queer folx be at the forefront of our conversations on legal reforms. For inclusive justice to initiate, our fight against the violent structure of patriarchy cannot be won without speaking of the violent caste structure in the same breath.
Shreyashi works as an Assistant Manager at CSGS. She is trained as a lawyer with litigation experience on issues of gender violence. Prior to joining the Centre, she studied as a Young India Fellow. She continues to volunteer with Just Justice, a Teach for India initiative to increase legal literacy among the underprivileged communities. Alongside other things at the CSGS, she is enthusiastic to focus on the questions raised by the entanglements of law with gender and sexuality. Most of her free time is spent running after her mischievous pup, Orwell.
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