The Hathras case that has set off nationwide protests is one among many incidents of Dalit women being the targets of sexual crimes.
In an exclusive interview with India Today Magazine Deputy Editor Kaushik Deka, noted sociologist Sukhadeo Thorat talks about the growing sexual crimes against Dalit women in India.
The professor emeritus in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), who is also the chairman of Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, asserts that the alleged gangrape and death of a 19-year-old girl in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras reflects a disturbing social trend that has seen a spike in recent years.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q. Are sexual crimes against scheduled caste (SC) women increasing or are we witnessing more reporting of these cases, helped by media attention?
A. Indeed there is an increase in the absolute number of cases of sexual violence against scheduled caste women since BJP came to power in Uttar Pradesh. In the state, the number of cases of sexual violence against SC women increased from 1,188 in 2014 to 1,568 in 2019, with high of 2,026 in 2016. The average number of rape cases between 2011 and 2013 was 1,735 which increased to an average of 2,490 cases between 2014 and 2016. What’s even more disturbing is that at least 13 per cent of the women victims in the last six years — between 2014 and 2019 — are minors. In one of these years, the share shot up to 21 per cent.
Q. What are the factors behind the increasing brutality associated with sexual violence against Dalit women?
A. The brutality against rural Dalit women has worsened in the last decades or so. The hatred, contempt, dislike and antagonism towards the “untouchables” culminate in high caste sadist desire to humiliate them. The incidences of physical violence are often combined with the sexual assault on women, sometimes rape of wife in full view of the husband, or rape of a daughter in full view of parents. The purpose is to hurt the victim where it hurts the most and derive sadistic pleasure. The assault doesn’t end with sexual violence only but leads to inflicting extreme pain and harm such as disfiguring private parts. This contempt and brutality is the result of some of the obnoxious systems developed by Hindu culture, aimed at exploiting the Dalit women. Systems such as Devdasi and Jogini, in which young girls are married to gods, were created by high castes only to sexually exploit these girls. In certain parts of the country, Dalit girls were not allowed to cover the upper part of the body. We, who take pride in Hindu culture, rarely feel it necessary to express a public apology to the untouchables for these obnoxious practices and the wrong done for so many years.
Q. Is there a connect between these crimes and the political environment of the country or a particular state?
A. These crimes have been there in the past, but there is a qualitative difference since 2014. Whether it was the public flogging of the Dalit boys in Gujarat’s Unna or parading Dalit women naked, these crimes got a boost from a tolerant political and ideological environment. These age-old brutal tendencies which earlier used to be suppressed in the minds of individuals are now getting a public opening in encouraging social milieu.
Q. Tougher laws have failed to act as a deterrent as poor implementation, bad policing, lack of forensic infrastructure and slow judiciary have not helped. What’s the way forward?
A. The laws are necessary to convey that caste discrimination is something which is illegal and immoral, and will not be tolerated. But laws by itself do not bring social changes; the social conscious supportive of equality does. The caste biases which are deeply rooted in religious values cannot be reformed by laws. The high castes must change their social values supportive of caste. Ambedkar argued that high castes’ actions are shaped by Hindu religious texts. The attitude of the children and youth is shaped in family and society through the process of socialisation. They can be changed by moral education and anti-caste movements. But there is no moral teaching in education institutions against caste and untouchability. On the contrary, the new trend is to indirectly encourage these caste biases by quoting Manusmriti or by erecting the statue of Manu — the epitome and symbol of inequality — in front of Rajasthan High court, or by propagating the Hindu religious books such as Gita, Ramayana and Mahabharata as books of moral religious value without rejecting the teaching of Varna and caste system by these very books. In such milieu, there is no hope of anti-caste movement by high castes. On the contrary, there is increasing consolidation of caste consciousness by new caste organisations, which promote antagonism against the scheduled castes in the form of violence and opposition to reservation. Therefore, Ambedkar who was aware of this, argued that scheduled castes, who are in minority in a village and depend totally on high castes for living, had no hope of getting equal rights. The only solution, he suggested, is to have separate settlements or villages for the scheduled castes away from high castes with independent sources of income. Ambedkar suggested a complete economic and demographic disconnect from the high castes in the villages, following the principle of ‘equal but separate’ – the way it is followed in Black and White in several spheres.