Mary E. John & Satish Deshpande

The caste-rape itself has been brushed aside; instead, the responses to it are being labelled as instigating a caste war

The gang rape that took place recently in Bul Garhi, a tiny village near Hathras in Uttar Pradesh, marks a new phase in the eventful history of rape-as-caste-atrocity in the 21st century. The idea of the caste atrocity is itself a product of the last quarter of the 20th century. The new republic took some time to realise that nothing is changed by granting passive legal rights to people who are actively treated as unequal. This is especially true when the responsibility for the enforcement of these new rights rests mainly upon those who believe that the old inequalities are part of their legitimate caste-inheritance.

Criminalising the ‘legitimate’

A provisional answer to this dilemma emerges through the notion of the caste atrocity, and a new law — the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (https://bit.ly/2SCkW1Q) . The Act highlights the truth that an extraordinary law is needed to criminalise practices that were considered ordinary and legitimate not so long ago. The term “atrocity”, like its predecessor “untouchability”, is not defined in the law, which only refers to a list (under Section 3 of the Act) of practices — ranging from extremes such as being forced to eat excreta, to varied forms of routinised humiliation and discrimination, including economic boycott, social exclusion, sexual violence and political disenfranchisement.

The difficult process of redefining (some) traditional practices as modern crimes is where we must begin in order to understand the place of rape within the larger spectrum of the caste atrocity. In rural society, the sexual “availability” of lower caste women to upper caste men is included in the intangible forms of caste capital that go with tangible forms such as land or wealth. Tensions arise when intangible caste entitlements begin to meet resistance rather than resignation. Upper caste outrage at being robbed of an inheritance is forced to adopt an oblique dog-whistle kind of language that must, paradoxically, deny the relevance of caste and highlight the agency of the lower caste woman, albeit in biased ways. In response, lower caste rage against accumulated humiliations is compelled to insist on the perennial presence of caste and its unique pathology above all other co-morbidities. These reactions are neither equal nor symmetrical.

Patterns of denial

Contemporary thinking on caste-rape was jump-started by the infamous 1995 judgment of the Rajasthan High Court in the Bhanwari Devi gang rape case, which held that upper caste men could never rape a lower caste woman because they would not touch her. By explicitly invoking caste to deny rape, the judgment provided an instructive and stark contrast to the persistent denial of caste in rape cases involving Dalit women, especially after the Prevention of Atrocities Act came into force.

The classic instance of caste denial was the Khairlanji case of 2006. Anand Teltumbde’s (The Persistence of Caste: The Khairlanji Murders & India’s Hidden Apartheid) careful reconstruction establishes the undeniable centrality of caste in the ongoing enmity between Surekha Bhotmange, a Mahar woman, and her Kunbi opponents. Surekha’s assertiveness and the upward mobility of her family had narrowed the social distance between the two castes to a level that was unbearable for the dominant Kunbis. Following the horrific sexual assault and murders of Surekha, her daughter and two sons, the Nagpur High Court judgment insisted that it was a revenge killing that had nothing to do with caste.

The ‘Nirbhaya’ impact

The next phase in the evolution of caste denial arrives with Delhi’s ‘Nirbhaya’ fatal gang rape in December 2012. Between 2012 and 2013, neighbouring Haryana witnessed a relentless succession of rapes, gang rapes, sexual assaults and murders of Dalit women and girls, significant enough to be reflected in National Crime Records Bureau data. Public and media responses to the Haryana rapes were muted in the face of all the attention to the Delhi gang rape, but they were not silenced, as they had been initially in Khairlanji. Haryana did see local mobilisations by Dalit activist groups and support from some Delhi-based Dalit and women’s organisations. Several cases were successfully filed despite opposition from the all-powerful Jat community, to which most of the accused belonged. A common tactic of the accused was to try and turn every rape case into one of consensual sex, and every murder into suicide. This was accompanied by the denial of caste regardless of the identity of victim or perpetrator. When out of court settlements or compromises failed, caste details were invariably removed from the records, and the Prevention of Atrocities Act was not allowed to be applied.

The recent Bul Garhi case seems to be breaking with earlier patterns. In an eerie coincidence, its as yet unnamed victim died on September 29, exactly 14 years after Surekha Bhotmange and her children were killed on September 29, 2006. In continuity with the past, we have a Dalit (Balmiki) young woman allegedly raped, battered, maimed, and left to die by dominant caste (Thakur) men, and the familiar initial attempts at cover-up and denial. But everything else is a contrast.

The State’s response

Instead of acting as passive facilitators for the accused as they have usually done, the police here take on the role of an active accomplice. In what later proves to be a decisive moment, they forcibly cremate the body and do not allow the family to conduct the last rites. This shockingly heartless act triggers a wave of revulsion, and conversely, a surge of support for the dead victim and her family. But the truly stunning performance is that of the State Chief Minister who stands caste denial on its head by claiming that protests against the incident are acts of sedition, part of a foreign-funded conspiracy to foment caste riots, motivated by jealousy of his State’s development record. Cases are lodged against every political party that organised a protest, but public meetings in support of the accused are allowed. Just as the Haryana cases were in the shadow of Nirbhaya, the Bul Garhi case is part of the larger context defined by the post 2019 Modi-Shah 2.0 regime. So it is surprising, but not unbelievable, that the tactics being used against the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests are being deployed here as well.

Some hope

This is a new trajectory. The caste-rape itself is brushed aside without comment, and it is the responses to it that are accused of instigating a caste war. There are, however, some unprecedented positives. An anonymous dead woman has invited mass identification with a Dalit cause for the first time since Rohith Vemula. Moreover, Dalit women’s voices have a prominent place in the protests. And finally, the Bul Garhi caste-rape-murder has triggered the first mass demonstrations since the anti-CAA movement. This is going to be a long and interesting century.

Courtesy The Hindu