CW/TW: Sexual Assault, Casteism
Sexual violence in India has been a rampant issue for some time. In fact, it is the most dangerous country for womxn in the world.
Although the fight for womxn’s safety has gained some momentum in recent years, it is painfully clear that Bahujan womxn are still being neglected by mainstream feminist movements in India.
The recent atrocities and injustice against Manisha Valmiki, a Dalit woman of Hathras, UP, have brought the intersections of gender and caste to the forefront.
However, the emphasis on her identity as a Dalit has led to an uproar, with UP officials denying the crime, and dismissing it as a political ploy.
Some womxn’s rights advocates have also objected to focusing on her caste identity, arguing that it erases her ‘womxnhood’ and detracts from the larger fight for Indian womxn - effectively proving that there is no place for Dalit-Bahujans in mainstream Indian feminism.
A group of Thakurs (upper-caste men) - Sandip Singh, Ramu Singh, Lavkush Singh and Ravi Singh - allegedly brutally raped 19-year-old Dalit woman Manisha Valmiki, who later succumbed to her injuries at a Delhi hospital.
Even after her family reported the sexual assault, they were unable to say their final goodbyes when Uttar Pradesh Police cremated her body without their consent.
Manisha and her family encountered injustice at nearly every turn -- be it medical neglect, or police inaction, all serving as a means of suppressing her story.
However, Manisha had made a dying declaration where she named the four accused =- strong evidence to counter the UP government’s claims.
Bhim Army, activists and advocates have been demanding justice for Manisha and other Dalit womxn who have been denied justice. However, people (specifically from the Thakur community) also rallied at a former Hathras MLA’s residence in support of the culprits, with their relatives in attendance.
Many showed their rage online, specifically on Twitter, where #JusticeforManishaValmiki became a trending topic. However, a lot of this outrage was also misdirected.
Many folks took the #AllLivesMatter route, arguing that Manisha should not be seen as a Dalit, but just as a womxn.
What this criticism fails to understand is that these identities are not mutually exclusive.
Erasing her identity as a Dalit means invalidating the oppression she, and womxn like her have experienced.
Caste and her gender identities mingle to create a unique form of discrimination, leaving her more vulnerable, neglected, and disregarded. The harmful exclusion of caste identities in conversation surrounding sexual violence means that Dalit-Bahujan womxn are left to fight their battles unseen and unheard.
"We are victims of violence because we are poor, lower caste and women, so looked down upon by all," a Dalit woman told researcher Jayshree Mangubhai some years ago. "There is no one to help or speak for us. We face more sexual violence because we don't have any power."
The Relevance of Caste
To understand the relevance of caste to this case, we must first acknowledge that sexualized violence is a weapon founded on power dynamics. Womxn’s bodies are treated as battlegrounds. Their ‘honour’ and their bodies are an extension of their communities, particularly in India and Indian cultures, where honour and pride are central cultural values.
This means that their exploitation is often used to send a message, and as a means of exerting power. As such, in a deeply casteist society with a vicious rape culture, upper-caste men may inflict violence upon Dalit-Bahujan womxn with impunity.
In line with principles of the caste system, upper-caste folk, specifically Brahmins, are considered superior and “pure”, whereas Dalits are seen as fundamentally “polluted”.
This makes the lives of Dalit womxn that much more dispensable in the eyes of oppressors, and those who are meant to carry out justice.
In the past, caste-dominant men have been acquitted in the gang rape of Bhanwari Devi, a Bahujan grassroots worker. One of the reasons given for this was that an upper-caste man cannot rape a lower-caste woman as she is “fundamentally impure.”
Such instances are commonplace. Many often go unreported out of shame or out of fear -- or both. In addition to this, savarna (caste-Hindu) feminists seldom acknowledge the unique power dynamics between upper-caste men and Dalit-Bahujan womxn - making it that much harder for them to seek justice.
In the case of Manisha, her family receives continued threats, including, allegedly from the Hathras District Magistrate.
They have also reportedly been isolated, and were forbidden from meeting with the media or political figures. Emphasis on Manisha’s identity as a Dalit is being written off as a deliberate ploy to sensationalise her case.
Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, casteism and caste-based violence are still deeply enmeshed in Indian society. Manisha Valmiki’s story is not an isolated one. It was not the first of its kind, and it sadly will not be the last.
Dalit-Bahujan voices must be heard and amplified. However, it is crucial that this conversation does not lose momentum. To be anti-caste, one must first learn and unlearn, be mindful of their privilege, step back and let marginalized folk tell their own stories.
To learn more about Dalit womxn, here’s a video of Sujatha Gidla on her experiences for being a low caste individual: