“Because of the ascendancy of lawlessness, Krishna,
The family women are corrupted;
When women are corrupted, O Krishna,
The intermixture of caste is born.
Intermixture brings to hell
The family destroyers and the family, too;
The ancestors of these indeed fall,
Deprived of offerings of rice and water.
By these wrongs of the family destroyers, Producing intermixture of caste,
Caste duties are abolished,
And eternal family laws also.”
When the Nirbhaya rape case happened in December of 2012, former Chief Justice Leila Seth was bewildered by the gruesome nature of the crime. The doctor involved in examining the victim admitted she had never seen anything so ruthless in her entire career. The case was considered “rarest of the rare” in the court of law since it had shocked the collective conscience of the people owing to “the manner of commission of the murder, the motive for commission of the murder, anti-social or socially abhorrent nature of the crime, magnitude of the crime and personality of the victim of murder.” The death penalty was sanctioned for the convicted, believing this would deter similar crimes and deliver justice to Jyoti Singh’s family. Two years later, a mentally challenged woman’s naked body was found in a field near the highway in Haryana’s Rohtak, half-eaten by animals, with key organs missing. The police said sticks, stones, and condoms were stuffed into her private parts.”I have never seen such a horrific case in 30 years,” reiterated SK Dattarwal, who headed the post mortem examination. “Rarest of the rare” cases was starting to lose meaning, becoming more and more frequent. But worse things had happened in the country, which no one knew about. Like Arundhati Roy wrote in The God of Small Things, “In the country that she came from poised forever between the terror of war and the horror of peace Worse Things kept happening”.
On 29 September 2006, four members of a Dalit family were murdered in Khairlanji, a village in Bhandara district of Maharashtra, close to Nagpur. Surekha Bhotmange and her seventeen years old daughter Priyanka were stripped, battered, paraded naked, raped several times and killed by a mob led by Hindu men of the Kunabi-Maratha caste in the presence of the entire village. Roshan and Sudhir, Surekha’s sons, were also beaten, tortured, and murdered for trying to save their mother and sister. Only Surekha’s husband, Bhaiyalal Bhotmange survived, watching the lynching and rape hiding behind a bush. “I saw the attack from a distance”, he said in an interview. “I saw my wife, daughter, and two sons being beaten while being abused: ‘You Mahars, dheds, you have chadhle [things have gone to your head]’! They were stripped naked and carried to the village square. A dead body was brought to the Mohadi hospital. ‘You identify the dead body.’” He broke into sobs before continuing. “There was not a single piece of cloth on the body. There were wounds on the body. It was a bad assault. I was not able to see it. Similarly, Sudhir, Roshan, and Surekha also had marks of severe beating on their bodies. Surekha’s blouse was torn. Her petticoat was also torn. She had also been severely beaten. Even her skull was broken. Her brain had spilled out from it. She had even lost one eye.” It had started over a land dispute which was concluded in the favour of the Bhotmange family and this wasn’t just an act of revenge, but also a blatant display of hegemony. An act of terrorism. A typical case of Dalits being shown their place by the majority population. The mainstream media did not cover this incident for two months, even though October saw two major congregations of Dalits in Nagpur, commemorating Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism and another mass conversion which he had led. The judges ruled that Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 was not applicable to the Khairlanji case because, according to them, there was no caste angle to the crime, but only “vengeance”. The High Court commuted the death sentence of six of the accused on the grounds that it was “not the rarest of the rare cases” warranting the death penalty. The appeal court later modified the sentence on these six persons and the two others, who were given life terms by the lower court, to 25-year imprisonment. Mr. Bhotmange was dead by the time the trial ended. He had succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 62.
Previously, in a press conference, he was asked about the number of people who were involved in the incident. “The entire village was involved, sir. Entire village. I just named 60 to 70 people, but the entire village participated in this incident.” The act of stripping the women of this Dalit family, parading them in broad daylight, raping them brutally is not equal to a rape in secrecy. Crime as a public spectacle is intended upon reminding the victimized community about their powerlessness and inferiority. The caste angle was the entire point of the act since it was facilitated and encouraged by the complicity of the entire village.
But they were right, this isn’t the rarest of the rare cases. This is a tradition. A year before the Nirbhaya rape case, the nose and limbs of a 17-year-old Dalit girl were cut by therapists for resisting rape. In 2016, a 30-year-old Dalit woman had her intestines pulled out after a gangrape in Kerala. In 2017, a skull of a girl in Rohtak was crushed and objects were found in her private parts after rape. In October the same year, a 12-year-old Dalit girl was found with her genitals and face mutilated after rape. March 2019, a 12-year-old girl in MP was gang-raped beheaded and dumped. Same year September, a 14-year-old Dalit child was raped and her eyes were gouged out. Early this year in North Gujarat, a 19-year-old was kidnapped, sodomized, and murdered, hung from a tree. Her genitals were torn apart and her rectum had prolapsed. In fact, if we look at the average number of rapes in 2012, Nirbhaya was just one of the 68 victims that day. But she was different because she was relatable. Portrayed in the media as a woman living in urban India, neither a Dalit nor a tribal, raped by a bunch of poor migrants instead of the army, the paramilitary or upper class powerful men. Similar pattern emerged in the rape of a young veterinary doctor in Hyderabad last year. Of the 33,000 rape cases recorded across the country in 2018, about 10 percent of the victims were Dalit or tribal but the conviction rate for rapes of Dalit women is under 2 percent, compared to the national conviction rate of 25 percent.
The use of sexual violence as a form of caste-based vengeance was elaborated upon by Carole Sheffield in 1989. Sexual terrorism is the system by which men intimidate women and by intimidation, maintain male hegemony. It mostly manifests as rape threats or rapes, sexual violence of any other kind, domestic harassment, blackmailing, etc. According to Sheffield, there are five components of sexual terrorism: ideology, propaganda, indiscriminate and amoral violence, voluntary compliance, and society’s perception of the terrorist and the terrorized. First, ideology, it is a united set of beliefs about the world that explains the way things are and provides a vision of how they should be. The focus of patriarchal ideology is the superiority of men and the inferiority of women, which at the same time provides the justification for sexual terrorism. Second, propaganda, it is the systematic distribution of information for the purpose of promoting a particular ideology. The propaganda of sexual terrorism can be found in films, television, music, literature, advertising, pornography, and also in the ideas of patriarchy conveyed in science, medicine, and psychology. Third, indiscriminate and amoral
violence. Every woman at any age, at any time and in any place is a potential target of violence. In order to make sure the continuance of sexual terrorism, the fourth component that is voluntary compliance, is used as a strategy. Sexual terrorism is maintained by a system of sex-role socialization that in effect instructs men to be terrorists in the name of masculinity and women to be victims in the name of femininity. The last component is society’s perception of the terrorist and the terrorized. So far, this final component is what differs sexual from political terrorism. In sexual terrorism, society blames the victim and excuses the offender. The offender is believed to be either ‘sick’, and therefore in need of consideration from the society, or is acting out normal male desires.
Convicted sex offenders are much more likely to have assaulted strangers, held previous criminal records, and used a weapon, or deployed unnecessary violence against the victim. They are almost never people who hold high regard or social position in the community. Sandra Browner’s Essay and Tara Kaushal’s book, both titled Why Men Rape, had some surprising similarities when they tried to speak to “undetected” rapists or unincarcerated men who would admit to being rapists. Browner found that” As long as the word ‘rapist’ didn’t appear in the questionnaire, men were comfortable answering ‘yes’ to questions such as: ‘Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force?’ It turned out that respondents somehow didn’t realise that this was a description of rape”. They knew their victims were unwilling but could not make a connection between non-consensual sex and rape. These men were not monsters or “psychopaths” or totally distinct from normal men. They were just extremely misogynist as expected; emphasizing their victims’ moral failings, lying about their crimes to make it sound less violent. They represented rape as normal if the woman was not a virgin, was known to be promiscuous, or was previously involved with the rapist. But the most significant observation was that most men did it because they knew there would be no repercussions. They were confident the victim won’t report for social/personal reasons or can be easily intimidated to prevent any attempts to seek justice or had more to lose by exposing this than the rapist himself. Rapes are conscious, rational decisions that were executed because the men enjoyed the privilege of keeping women constantly terrorized and hence, under control. This also means the death penalty or long prison sentences do not effectively deter rapes until and unless there is a radical change in the fundamental structure of the society. Till then, every rape is an atrocity. And much more so, for Dalit women.
Ants among Elephants
Anand Teltumbde writes in his book The Persistence of Caste, about an incident from 2002 in which five Dalits were lynched by a Vishwa Hindu Parishad mob and then set on fire in the compound of the police station in Haryana’s Dulina. In this case, much like the Khairlanji Murders, the court did not apply the Atrocity Act stating that the perpetrators did not know the caste of the victims.”It implied that the courts expected a rapist of a Dalit girl to shout loud enough to be heard by a witness that he was raping the girl because of her caste”, he says.
Victims or witnesses who are Dalit and Adivasi face obstacles at every level while seeking justice for atrocities committed against them. They are threatened and intimidated not to speak about the incident or lodge the initial complaint. Police officials refused to write the complaint and if they do, it’s in favor of the accused. The officials don’t behave in proper decorum, no immediate relief or protection is given to the victims and instead, counter and false cases are registered against the victims. At the time of registration of FIRs, victims are forced to compromise the case for money or the police are bribed from perpetrators to drop the complaint. If the police do register, they refuse to specifically register under PoA Act or compromise on necessary details in FIR (facts, figures, words, names of the accused, weapons used, list of other others accused, and their details). They often mislead the victims by registering a case in the Station Diary instead of in FIR, don’t issue a copy of FIR to the victims, delay investigations, and arrests. In many cases, some of the victims or witnesses are intentionally skipped during the investigation process or it is carried out sitting in the dominant caste locality. In violation of the directives of the POA Act, statements are collected by lower-level officials instead of the DSP who only signs the charge sheet. There is often no corroboration between the statements collected and the content of the charge sheet, and there is no mechanism in the judiciary to monitor the same.
The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act passed in 2015 met some changes suggested by the International Dalit Solidarity Network though a few others were left out. Actions which are now to be treated as offenses include garlanding with footwear, compelling to carry human/animal carcasses or do manual scavenging, abusing SCs or STs by caste name in public, imposing or threatening a social or economic boycott, non-consensually touching an SC or ST woman in a sexual manner or dedicating her as a devadasi to a temple. Preventing them from using common property resources, entering any place of worship or education or health institution will also be considered offenses. The court shall presume that the accused was aware of the caste or tribal identity of the victim if the accused had personal knowledge of the victim or his family unless the contrary is proved. A public servant who neglects his/her duties relating to SCs or STs shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term of six months to one year. Addition of certain IPC offences like hurt, grievous hurt, intimidation, kidnapping, etc., attracting less than ten years of imprisonment are now punishable under the PoA Act. Establishment of Exclusive Special Courts and specification of Exclusive Special Public Prosecutors which will exclusively try the offences under the PoA Act to enable speedy and expeditious disposal of cases.
Offences which were left out are tonsuring of the head, mustache, or similar acts which are derogatory to the dignity of Dalits and Adivasis, fabricating false evidence regarding ownership and use of land, roads, water source, refusing to pay just and equal wages, preventing candidates from filing nomination to contest elections or forcing to withdraw such nomination, filing counter cases against Dalit/Adivasi victims and witnesses relating to atrocity cases, ransacking and destroying houses and household items, farm or non-farm produce, landed property, etc. The scope of the definitions given in the Act should have extended to those who are left out from it: all Dalits who have changed their religious affiliation to Christianity or Islam but still face persecution and workers who migrate to other states.
In her poem titled “Wasteland”, Virila Chirappad writes,
“chandrika chechi of the Wasteland
talks about the homes one enters
only through the back door.
of the flats
where one enters
through the front door —
the ones with the porch light on.
returning daily from the marketplace
both the fish and she share
the same path —
the one through the back door.
entering through the very same route,
while hearing the television
blare the pledge aloud on August 15 —
all Indians are my brothers and sisters.”
Dalit women are India’s illegitimate daughters. They know it, but they won’t take it anymore.
Bijaya Biswal is a doctor and social activist working for LGBTQIA rights in Odisha.