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Delhi Gang-Rape Protests: What About The Sex Crimes Against Untouchable Women?

Saturday 12 January 2013

By Palash R. Ghosh | January 05 2013 1:36 PM

The gang rape of a young Indian medical student on a bus in Delhi — and her subsequent death — has unexpectedly galvanized a huge protest movement calling for a complete overhaul of the nation’s attitudes toward and treatment of women.

In a country where rape and the sexual assault of girls and women are so routine that they typically do not even merit mention in the media, the outrage over the horrific rape and beating of the unidentified woman in Delhi on Dec. 16 has taken on a life of its own. It has sparked a continuing series of protests by activists demanding not only the death penalty for the six men accused of the crime, but also requesting the police and the courts to guarantee the safety of females in public, something they haven’t done so far.

But what would be an issue of public safety and gender equality in the West is intimately linked in India with ancient patriarchal attitudes, the stigmatization of unescorted women in public, and the traditional preference for male offspring.

Further complicating the problem is India’s ancient caste system, which remains firmly in place despite legal efforts to dismantle it. Indeed, for females at the very bottom of India’s rigidly stratified society — the Dalits (or Untouchables, as they are known in the West) — rape has long been used as method of oppression and terror by higher-caste men.

Incredible Impunity

In September, three months before the much-publicized Delhi incident, a 16-year-old Dalit girl was gang-raped by at least eight drunken higher-caste men for three hours in a village in the northern state of Haryana. The men even videotaped the assault on their cellphones, and eventually the images were shown to the girl’s father, who committed suicide shortly thereafter.

That rape hasn’t been prosecuted. It rarely happens in India when the victim is a Dalit, due partly to the silence of the victim and her family, partly to the authorities’ indifference to the plight of low-caste people. In some cases, rapists kill the victim to prevent any investigations.

This assault was one in a series of rapes recorded in Haryana this year — some of the victims were children under the age of 16.

Before the unprecedented coverage surrounding the recent Delhi gang rape, the reaction to the epidemic of rapes in Haryana ranged from indifference to accusations by local village elders that the victims sought consensual sexual relations, which, in conservative India, amounts to committing the unforgivable sin of adultery.

“I think that girls should be married at the age of 16, so that they have their husbands for their sexual needs, and they don’t need to go elsewhere,” a local village council leader named Sube Singh told news channel IBNLive . “This way rapes will not occur.”

Other elderly male authorities across India have blamed rapes on the adoption of Western behavior by youth, pornography, the pernicious influence of Bollywood films, even the widespread use of cellphones.

In Haryana, a particularly backward rural region deeply steeped in ancient patriarchal feudal codes, rape victims frequently commit suicide, to spare their families shame and to avoid the frustrations of coping with an uncaring police force and sluggish legal system.

“If you are a poor woman who is raped, you cannot even imagine a life where there will be justice,” columnist Kalpana Sharma wrote in the Hindu newspaper. “If you are a poor woman and a Dalit, then the chances of justice are even slimmer.”

Shefali Chandra, assistant professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis, pointed out that Dalit and other low-caste women have always been considered sexually available to higher-caste men.

"Their mobility, and presence as laborers, has signaled sexual availability," she said. "Moreover, caste hierarchies themselves have always relied on staking distinctions between the women whose sexuality was secured (the upper-caste, chaste, wife/widow) on the one hand, and the women who were sexually available on the other. The entire edifice of caste required this."

’The Broken People’

According to official statistics, Dalits represent about one-sixth of India’s vast population, some 190 million people, comparable with the population of Brazil. Dalits — meaning “the broken people” in Hindi — occupy the bottom of Hinduism’s strict social hierarchy, relegating them to the worst jobs, such as street sweeping and toilet cleaning, and a life of unyielding poverty, rejection, and social exclusion.

Dalits are so despised and marginalized that they do not even belong to the caste system: They are trapped outside the structure, which also prohibits marriage or even personal contact with higher castes. Dalits also face severe restrictions in housing, education, and access to social services.

Dalits have theoretically benefited from the Indian government’s legislation, similar to affirmative-action laws in the U.S., that largely bans caste discrimination and sets aside some state jobs and school placements for them, including the Civil Rights Act of 1955 and the Scheduled Castes and Tribes Act of 1989.

However, laws written in parliament have done little to change peoples’ attitudes and are often ignored by local authorities. To the contrary, Dalits remain vulnerable to an avalanche of abuse — including myriad transgressions all the way up to torture, rape, and murder — by both higher-caste people and the police.

Dalits enjoy virtually no legal recourse for their many grievances.

According to Human Rights Watch , or HRW, a Dalit activist in the state of Punjab named Bant Singh went to the police in 2006 to seek justice after his daughter was gang-raped. He actually was able to secure the conviction of those responsible, but their supporters then beat him so badly that both his arms and a leg had to be amputated. Such tragic incidents have been repeated across the breadth and width of the subcontinent.

And that’s just what we know about. According to Mridu Rai, a lecturer in Indian studies at Trinity College Dublin, sexual offenses against Dalit women are underreported.

“And that is in line with the fact that violence against all Dalits is underreported,” she noted.

Six years ago, the Dalits appeared to have gained a voice at the highest reaches of Indian government — Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is not Hindu but Sikh, explicitly linked untouchability to South Africa’s system of apartheid, calling it a "blot on humanity" and noting that “even after 60 years of constitutional and legal protection and state support, there is still social discrimination against Dalits in many parts of our country.”

An HRW report in December 2007 lamented that India has “systematically failed to uphold its international legal obligations” to ensure the fundamental human rights of Dalits, and emphasized the use of rape and sexual abuse to maintain caste oppression.

HRW documented incidents where rape was employed as a method of terror by landlords and other authority figures to crush dissent and labor organizing by impoverished Dalits in Bihar in the north and Tamil Nadu in the deep south.

In the most horrific cases of sex abuse, Dalit women have not only been raped, but mutilated, burned, paraded nude through villages, and even forced to eat human feces.

“[The] rape of Dalit girls by the powerful ... upper-caste men is an instrument of caste oppression,” wrote Ananthapadmanabhan Guruswamy, director of Amnesty India. “[Dalit] women are often the targets of widespread and systematic rape.”

William Gould, senior lecturer in modern Indian history at the University of Leeds in England, agrees: “I think vulnerable sections of the [Indian] population are more likely to be victims of this type of violence, since rape is an obvious means of demeaning other communities — we see it in instances of communal violence, where rape is used as a weapon of terror and subjugation.”

Not all Dalit women take this without a fight. Perhaps the most high-profile rape of a Dalit woman involved the saga of Phoolan Devi, popularly known as the Bandit Queen, who led a Robin Hood-like campaign of violence against feudal upper-caste landowners in rural Uttar Pradesh. In 1981, she ordered the massacre of 22 landlords in retaliation for her rape and the murder of her lover. She was arrested in 1983 and spent 11 years in jail, inspiring a film based on her exploits.

After her release from prison under pressure from politicians of various stripes, the illiterate Devi composed an autobiography — dictated to a writer — entered politics and even visited, in 2000, the United Nations in New York. There, she said that “Dalit women continue to be oppressed at will in India.”

But even the celluloid and literary immortality she achieved failed to ignite any significant social movement to alleviate the sufferings of the Dalits — nor could it save her life. She was shot in 2001 by three masked gunmen outside her Delhi home, presumably in retaliation for the massacre she perpetrated 20 years before. Only one of her killers has been caught. What would Phoolan Devi, the poor, illiterate, rural renegade, think of the new wave of anti-rape protests in India?

The Middle Class Gets Involved

Phoolan Devi might note that we don’t know whether the recent Delhi gang rape was prompted by caste hatred. The still-unidentified 23-year-old medical student came from a poor, remote village in Uttar Pradesh, and therefore is presumably of low caste. However, her assailants on the Delhi bus — who were reportedly intoxicated — likely neither knew of her caste status nor cared.

“I cannot imagine a caste dimension to this incident of rape and violence,” said Trinity College Dublin’s Rai. “The aggression was perpetrated by a few men drunk and functioning within the permissiveness of patriarchal norms to the communities to which they belong.”

The larger issue of rape in India, particularly in Delhi, is that women of all castes, ethnicities, and income groups have been victimized. Middle-class, upper middle-class, and wealthy women in Delhi and elsewhere, all members of the higher castes, have been raped with impunity for years.

As a medical student, the Delhi rape victim could herself be considered part of India’s emerging middle class. Indeed, India’s buoyant economy has thrust tens of millions of women into the workforce and universities, making them visible targets for resentful men who have been left behind trapped in poverty and ignorance.

And it appears that it is these women — urban, college-educated, ambitious, liberal, and middle class — who are leading these protests. India’s FirstPost newspaper described the crowds assembled in Delhi as “the young middle class, the social-networking and smartphone-wielding youth.”

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, a female Indian blogger, seemed to confirm the relatively bourgeois nature of these demonstrations, when she opined at Vice.com : “This incident has become a rallying cry for the issue of women’s safety — something long-ignored in India. And perhaps because this happened to ‘people like us,’ India’s long-apolitical middle class has taken notice.”

One has to wonder now whether the anti-rape protests sweeping across India will include empathy for those who have suffered the brunt of rapes in the country — rural, poor, Dalit females.

The University of Leeds’ Gould is highly skeptical this will happen.

“I think it is probably a bit unlikely that the movement will focus heavily on Dalit or other low-status women,” Gould said. “What has helped to create protests on this scale is a new kind of public confidence that the government might react positively, which, in turn, is partly generated by other recent large-scale movements, including the anti-corruption campaign of politician Anna Hazare.”

According to Gould, these political movements were largely driven by urban middle-class interests. They did not reflect the needs of the rural poor, like the Dalits, who have very different concerns.

"I do not think the movement galvanizing India is in any way a movement that protests the problems faced by Dalit women," agreed Washington University’s Chandra.

Thus, even in the heady atmosphere of a protest campaign that may change history in the world’s biggest democracy, the Dalits are again locked out.

See online: Delhi Gang-Rape Protests: What About The Sex Crimes Against Untouchable Women?