Around a week ago, a 29-year-old female Dalit law student was raped and murdered in Kerala.
In the days that followed the incident , national outrage over the case has grown, especially over allegations that police ignored previous complaints by the family. Political parties have rushed in to cash in on the Dalit vote bank in poll season. People have organised themselves into campaigns with street protests and marches in several cities, including Delhi.
But a disproportionate amount of attention has been fixed on the gory details of the case: The student was brutally gang-raped, she had 30 injuries on her body, her intestines were ripped out. Newspapers and social media are calling her #Nirbhaya2, a reference to the 2012 gang rape of a medical student in Delhi that triggered massive protests in the Capital and inspired changes in India’s rape law.
In contrast, commentators have paid little attention to her caste, a crucial factor that might have determined not only how she lived but how she was killed and how much impunity her killer enjoy.
Caste is endemic in both rural and urban India, even in relatively progressive societies such as Kerala that have strong communist parties ruling the state.
The influence of caste extends right from the kind of water we drink to the kind of behavior we receive from teachers on the first day in school. It influences the kind of friends we have, the movies we watch, the education we get and determines if we get any respect for our achievements or whether we get mourned after our deaths. Caste also decides whether our deaths and crimes against us get reported and acted on, or whether such acts are seen as regular.
Dalit women are often at the bottom of this caste power pyramid because of their gender and caste identities. Any attempt at assertion is brutally suppressed and their bodies become the site of caste wars and violence is meted out with impunity to silence them.
They are not allowed to study, compelled to do menial domestic work and unpaid labour, denied health access and financial freedom and wantonly subject to violence, even by men from their own castes.
Their knowledge and stories don’t get recorded, even in progressive feminist circles where their narratives are either invisibilised or studied by a upper-caste scholar for research.
The Kerala law student’s story is another in this sordid saga, one that counts numerous similar assaults on Dalit women that go unnoticed. The same week she was assaulted, Kerala reported the gang rape of a Dalit nursing student. In Telangana, a Dalit student was raped for two weeks by her batchmates. In Rajasthan, the death and suspected rape of a bright Dalit school student triggered outrage.
Last month, a Dalit woman on her way to a wedding was abducted and raped allegedly by upper caste men in Haryana. On Holi, a Dalit woman in Agra was allegedly raped by a policeman. And these are just the reports that made it to the newspapers.
Though a sexual crime, rape is often an expression of power. This is why Dalit women’s bodies become the target of violence as perpetrators are expressing their gender and caste privileges while taking advantage of the impunity that comes with assaulting lower caste bodies.
We must care about the rape and death of the Kerala Dalit law student because of the crime itself, not because it is gory and shocks us. We must stop comparing it to the Delhi gang rape because the similarities exist in their horrific death and not in the lives lead. We must acknowledge that our motivation at the comparison is to drag the Kerala woman’s life into a setting that we are comfortable in – urban, upper caste – and not confront the realities of caste violence across India.
The Kerala rape follows a long list of prominent cases of violence against Dalit women in India. From the 2006 Khairlanji massacre – where Dalit women were paraded naked before being raped and murdered and the 1992 Bhanwari Devi rape case in Rajasthan to the 2014 Bhagana rape case in Haryana, Dalit women have been subject to unmentionable violence. In each of these highly publicized cases, the victims are awaiting justice, underlying the fact that sensationalism does little to ensure dignity and respect.
Instead of the comparisons, the victims will be better served if we started acknowledging the vicious effects of caste and start working against it; if we see that recent violence against Dalit people has come on the bodies of people trying to assert themselves and breaking free of caste shackles: a law student, a nursing student, a bright school student, a PhD student; if we admit caste is present everywhere in our lives.
India is in the midst of a churning about nationalism and patriotism. Zealous political leaders tell us everyday we must be proud of the country, must speak no ill of it and chant slogans of its glory.
But a country cannot be great when she is ravaged by a disease such as caste, one that inflicts humiliation and pain on people at the bottom of the power pyramid. Forget Bharat Mata ki Jai or #Nirbhaya2, we have to start talking and working against caste and caste-based violence if we truly care about India.
Views expressed are personal. The author tweets as @dhrubo127.