It has been 3,000 years since the caste system established Hinduism hierarchy in India and 68 years since it was outlawed. Yet, Dalit women face an increasing amount of sexual violence on a daily basis.
When the police arrived at the crime scene, their underwear was found discarded by the bushes.
The women had both been stripped naked, beaten and slapped, and then brutally gang-raped until they lost consciousness.
“First they slapped me a lot, and then they dragged me. And when I tried to run, I was also pregnant at that time with a baby girl, and then they kicked me in my chest, near my heart,” Rukanksha* told TRT World.
“Even till now it hurts a lot in my heart.”
One day in December 2017, Rukanksha and seven other women had gone into the forest to collect firewood a few kilometres away from their village in Haryana, India. They were accosted by five men – a sweeper and four landlords – from a caste higher than their Dalit status. Dalits are members of Hinduism’s lowest hierarchy. Two of the women, Rukanksha and Sukriti*, tried to save the other six, but were instead captured and raped.
Her baby was born two months later, but the incident has left its scars.
These violations are part of a growing problem in India, where caste and gender-based inequality are rampant. The discrimination of Dalit women is two-fold – because they are born both Dalit and a woman. Rape has long been used as a tool to maintain power and discrimination and this has been clear as violence against Dalit women has been on the rise in recent years. Between 2007 to 2017, crimes against Dalits increased by 66 percent, while rape against Dalit women doubled, National Crime Bureau statistics show. Six Dalit women are raped every day.
“Crimes against Dalits are often not properly registered or investigated, conviction rates are low, and there is a large backlog of cases. Police are also known to collude with perpetrators from dominant castes in covering up crimes by not registering or investigating offences against Dalits,” a report by Amnesty International said.
Over the past few decades, India has gained a reputation for rape. The brutal 2012 gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey on a moving bus sparked widespread outcry and a call for change. The ensuing debate and activism advocating for strict laws against rapists translated into a legal amendment in 2013, tightening up the anti-rape laws, even pronouncing punishments to acts such as stalking, which have been shown to lead to physical assault, rape or even murder.
Adding to that, is the caste system – a deep-rooted part of India’s culture. Dating back 3,000 years, it can be used to dictate someone’s job, the education and opportunities they receive and their dietary requirements. Whatever caste one is born into is the one they will stay in until the day they die; they cannot marry out of it.
The Brahmins are at the top, nestled comfortably and followed by the Kshatriyas and the Vaishyas. The Shudras are at the bottom. And the Dalits are out of the pyramid, deemed so low that they are called the ‘untouchables’ – and they make up 16 percent of the population.
For a long time, Dalits were relegated to demeaning and degrading practices – like bonded labour, the banning of their bodies from the sanctity of temples and carrying human waste and dead animals. These practices still exist.
Though India moved towards abolishing the caste system after Britain left the sub-continent and enacted the Scheduled Castes/ Scheduled Tribes act (SC/ST) to protect the marginalised, the divisive attitude remains deeply entrenched in India today. The people who are hit the most are the Dalits. And Dalit women are worse off.
“After the incident, I always feel dizzy. Even the other day, I fell and fainted,” Rukanksha said.
'Untouchable' but violable
For Manisha Mashaal, a Dalit rights activist, life in India is not easy.
“When I was in class 3, I did not know what my main wish is. And that time, the teacher had told me that I’m a Dalit. She made me stand in the classroom and said, 'you should tell that you are a Dalit',” Mashaal told TRT World.
Dalits are discriminated against from a young age – from not being allowed to enter the house of a person from an upper caste or even drink from the same water source. They can be singled out for their caste within the walls of their classroom, workplace or court of law.
And at the very worst, they are raped, sexually harassed, assaulted, stripped and paraded around naked. If that is not enough, they are then ostracised by their own community.
If the rape is committed by someone of a higher caste, they are ostracised by the police and upper-caste members.
If they are raped by someone from their own caste, they are shunned by their own community, like with Priyanka*.
Thirteen-year-old Priyanka was at home in Ladwa, Haryana on a February evening in 2015, when four Dalit men forced their way into her home and raped her. She was beaten with a wooden stick and her knees were fractured. She was admitted to the hospital for six weeks.
Her family desperately went to Haryana’s Ladwa police station to file the First Information Report (FIR). It is legally mandated for a police station to file an FIR and they cannot commence an investigation without one. The police, according to Mashaal, refused to register the case. The family then appealed to the Magistrates Court to order the police to file the report.
Access to justice for Dalit women in India is an uphill battle, with the police and justice system weighted against those of lower castes. In the aftermath of an act of sexual violence, the blame pivots to the woman.
It was when the case was taken to court and three of the four men were put on trial, that the mud-slinging began. Priyanka was called a Randi – a derogatory term for a prostitute – by the accused.
“After she was raped, they cursed her, swore at her. Rajev’s [the accused] family told her that she should die,” Priyanka’s grandmother, Radha*, told TRT World.
“She was really sad all the time. She was like, 'look at me, I’m all gone. Mum and dad just look at me. Just leave me alone'.”
Then her alleged rapists set her on fire and burned her to death.
Rukanksha and Sukriti did not face this level of victim-blaming.
Their community has been supportive. After the assault, they were carried on motorcycles to receive medical attention.
“I remember when I undertook a case of a Dalit girl who was gang-raped 14 times, multiple gang rapes,” said the executive director of the Navsarjan trust, a Dalit rights organisation, Manjula Pradeep.
“I remember the community was angry at me to some extent because, among the accused, two of them were Dalit professors. They were also telling me that the girl whose case I had been defending is 'a loose character girl and why should I support her?' See, this is our own community.”
Pradeep argues that when intra-caste rape occurs, the community pins the blame on victims, pushing them to give in to social pressure.
“When it comes to caste-based sexual violence, the community gets more stronger to address the issue, to take up the case. When it is not caste based but intra-Dalit sexual violence, where a Dalit man has raped a Dalit woman, there are more chances of compromise out of those settlements and lack of community support, which I have seen, experienced, and it’s so much visible,” Pradeep told TRT World.
200 million strong
Yet, some believe there is little the ruling BJP government has done to tamp down on caste-based discrimination let alone sexual violence committed against Dalit women, although figures show rising rates.
“We have a government now run by a fascist political party with all the intentions of turning a democratic secular India into a theocratic state run only by Hindus and for Hindus and when they say Hindu, this is upper-caste Hindu. They want to establish that. And the attacks have grown many fold on Dalits, on minorities, on women,” social activist, Shabnam Hashmi, told TRT World.
In April 2018, thousands of Dalits took to the streets to protest what they see as the dilution of the SC/ST act, the very bill that is meant to protect the 200 million Dalits in India from discrimination in the first place. As a form of protest, they have also converted to Buddhism in an attempt to escape discrimination.
“The issue has gotten worse. Before people felt like there is a legal procedure, but now it seems that this is over. The people from the Dalit community in India and the world are now in the streets,” activist Mashaal said.
Various grassroots movements have sprung up out of frustration with the status quo. These movements aim to make Dalit voices heard, to provide support to those affected by sexual violence by providing more economic opportunities and to flip the narrative around from victimhood to empowerment.
But the human cost remains high. It has been three years since Priyanka was killed and the case is still ongoing.
“My life is just blank. I don’t feel like doing anything, not work, nothing,” said Priyanka’s grandmother.
It has been six months since they were raped, but for Rukanksha, the pain is now a persistent ache, that has pushed her to question life.
“The nerves of my brain, I don’t know what’s wrong with them. I feel like just eating something and killing myself,” said Rukanksha.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
Additional reporting by Hajira Maryam Mirza.