Seven decades after Constitution outlawed discrimination, Dalits continue to struggle for basic rights

The recent gang-rape and death of a young Dalit woman from Hathras has once again highlighted their plight in a society where upper caste individuals continue to oppress them with impunity

Photo Courtesy: PTI
Photo Courtesy: PTI

Ashlin Mathew

In the midst of a country that refuses to actively engage with the removal of the oppressing caste hierarchy, Dalit women find themselves the worst sufferers of caste discrimination and violence. The existence and even the marginal prosperity of Dalits, especially Dalit women, is seen as an act of impudence.

On September 14, a 19-year-old Dalit teenager was allegedly gang-raped by four oppressor caste Thakur men. She died two weeks later, after giving a statement pointing towards the accused. The UP police forcibly took her body and cremated it without the permission of the family. They were not allowed near her.

It took more than 10 days for a case to be registered and samples were taken 11 days after she was attacked. This helped the police claim that there was no rape or gang rape involved, though forensic experts have now called them out. The Uttar Pradesh government has been attempting to cover-up the crime and blame the woman for the crime.

Even in terms of numbers, Dalits fare the worst, especially the women. Even in the recently-published National Crime Records Bureau data, there isn’t enough data on crimes against Dalit women. This helps the state to cover-up the connection between caste and sexual violence.

The teenager has now become a statistic; 10 Dalit women are raped every single day. In between these statistics there are many Dalit women who stand up to the daily discrimination against them in the hope of being treated better.

“We still are not. I grew up in a slum and I could not ever say where my house was. This meant I could never have the usual teenager experiences such as bringing friends home or even having a boyfriend. Once a boy flirted with me on the bus, but after he saw which bus stop I got off, he never spoke to me. This became the norm. I learnt to have minimal expectations,” said Kiruba Munusamy, a Supreme Court lawyer and Dalits rights activist. She is one of the few Dalit lawyers in the Supreme Court who identifies herself as one.

Munusamy’s experiences are not isolated and many young first-generation DAlit learners continue to face it. “It took me a while to understand what caste-based discrimination is. We grow up with scorn and disdain around us, so it becomes normalised. My roommate at Hyderabad Central University was a Maharashtrian Brahmin girl. She would expect me to sweep the room, help her carry her stuff to the room. When I asked her to help me, she said ‘I’m not your coolie’,” said Lalitha, who is currently pursuing her doctoral studies at IIT-Madras.

Lalitha, who grew up 15 minutes away from the IIT-M campus, says she didn’t know that the college had humanities subjects. She always thought the campus was for engineering students and research and she had to complete her post-graduation to realise about an institution near her home. “As a first-generation learner, you know only of the science subjects and so I took but mathematics as an under-grad student. It was only in college I became aware of sociology as a subject and even learnt about other colleges. That’s how I applied for the sociology course at Hyderabad Central University. Even at HCU, I could not afford to be average. To be an average student and to be respected is a luxury only general category students have. I have to be excellent to be respected,” Lalitha says. She is a gold medallist from HCU.

In her first job, Munusamy was working with an upper-caste female lawyer, who accused her of stealing a book on criminal law. “I was preparing to take the entrance exam for my post-graduation. My senior had said I could borrow books from the office and believing her words I borrowed the book. One day, when I came back from court to office, I found my bag open. I was summoned to her office where I was accused of stealing the book which she had said I could borrow. She threatened me with dire consequences. I was too young and afraid of what she could do. She was powerful within the bar council and she could have ended my career,” said Munusamy, on the verge of tears.

“There is a privilege that upper-caste women have and several of them can address judges and senior lawyers as ‘uncles’ as they have wide networks. Dalit women hardly have that advantage,” she says.

That is not all. “As a Dalit woman, I am constantly told how to dress, how to even look in court. Once a senior lawyer in Chennai told me to tie my hair. Another time, a judge in Madras High Court said that my hair was attracting him more than my arguments. I had to remain calm and underscore the bar council guidelines regarding our attire. A senior Supreme Court advocate, at whose office I was working, chastised me for leaving my hair open. This is despite his lawyer daughter roaming the halls of the Supreme Court with her hair untied,” explained Munusamy, who is in her mid-thirties. At this advocate’s office, she was fired for taking a day’s leave for severe menstrual pain.

It is well documented that the Dalit women who work in the garment industries are put on pills to stop menstruation, so that they do not take leaves. “Will a Brahmin woman be forced to work 24/7? Who will speak about our rights? Will a company with Brahmins force their employees to work for 365 days?” asked Munusamy.

The oppressor castes have a monopoly in the institutions, so much so that even asking for a hike in wages is seen as an act of defiance. In Uttar Pradesh, two Dalit girls were raped, killed and hung on trees in Badayun in Uttar Pradesh for merely asking for a hike of three rupees. The police officials did not even want to file a case and a police officer was also one of the accused.

In the last two years, there have been several cases where Dalits were killed for sporting moustaches, buying a horse or even riding horses to their own wedding processions. These acts of personal choice are seen by the upper castes or oppressor castes as an affront to their standing.

However, not all oppression can be explained. “These days in urban spaces, the discrimination is subtle. In Delhi University, where I did my under-graduation, you are placed in a hierarchy based on where you come from, what you wear, your surname and your English-speaking skills. All those who didn’t wear jeans would be called ‘behenji types’. My English used to be basic as I studied in regional medium in Bihar,” says Chintu Kumari, who is teaching at Rohtas University and was the JNUSU General Secretary in 2014.

Even after entering such spaces, several Dalit women can’t cope because of family pressure and lack of funds. “Dalit women drop out and suicides are common. When the government doesn’t release funds, how are we to pay? Those scholarships help us immensely and we use it to educate our siblings too. Otherwise, how do we rise? My parents are daily-wage labourers. Even though I am teaching now, other teachers don’t even greet me. There are no basic niceties accorded to me. This is the most basic respect that every human being should get,” added Kumari wistfully.

Like for Lalitha, this awareness came with her politicisation. At HCU, she read and attended several classes on Ambedkar. This led her to want to contest elections to be a part of the Gender Sensitisation Committee against Sexual Harassment (GS-CASH). As she contested as a Dalit Students Union candidate, which was in an alliance with Ambedkar Students Association, she was constantly asked if she even knew the full-form of GS-CASH. “Other women candidates were never asked this question. It was because I was contesting from a Dalit party. Such everyday harassment becomes difficult to document as I have to overlook it to survive, to fight. The way forward is the politicisation of Dalit women. The assertion that comes with it is the only way we will get our rights,” underscored Lalitha.

Gender violence has always been used as a tool to oppress women to ‘keep them under control’. It follows from the general belief that women, especially Dalit women, cannot have an agency of their own. When their experiences are recorded, many of these women get called out for referring to caste.

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