Away from the din of ‘dehati aurat’ and ‘escape velocity’, 45 Dalit women are talking about the daily humiliation that is their life. The women and, in some cases men who are deposing on their behalf, have come to Delhi from eight states across the country, and to them it doesn’t matter if it’s the Congress or the BJP or a regional party or some new-fangled alliance that is in power. For them the story never changes.
From East Champaran, Bihar, not far from where Mahatma Gandhi launched satyagraha, a landless labourer tells of how his wife was beaten to death for asking for Rs. 400 that was due to her as daily wages. From district Dausa, Rajasthan an educated Dalit woman, an elected member of her village’s panchayat, tells of how she was not allowed to sit on a chair on a podium during a Republic Day function because ‘upper caste women in the audience were sitting on the ground’.
From district Patna, Bihar, a husband talks of a squabble between two nine-year-old boys, one Dalit and the other upper caste, and its consequences when the family of the upper caste boy decides to ‘teach them a lesson’. They do this by stripping the mother and dragging her through the village.
When the grandmother and younger daughter intervene, they are thrashed. The mother runs from house to house, naked, begging for help. Nobody comes forward; they are too frightened. Finally, the village sarpanch steps in and a bystander offers the woman her shawl. A first information report (FIR) is registered, but the accused get bail. “My wife lives in the village, knowing that her tormentors are free, that nobody helped her and that they have all witnessed her shame. But what choice does she have?” asks the husband.
In Gujarat’s Mehsana district, cooperatives won’t buy milk from women who own ‘Dalit’ cows. In Bihar, a young bride is beaten up by priests after being denied entry into a temple. And in Haryana the gang-rape of minor Dalit girls by upper caste men is now so routine that in some districts girls are being pulled out of school and kept home.
Rural Dalit women face a double whammy: discriminated by caste as well as patriarchy; poor and illiterate; ignored by city-based feminists and non-government organisations; often singled out for rape by upper caste men as a way to ‘humiliate’ the entire community and keep it in its ‘place’.
If they try to assert themselves by going to school or asking for wages or contesting panchayat elections, they become vulnerable to what Asha Kowtal of the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM) calls ‘backlash violence’.
The national conversation, dominated by temples, toilets, has no patience for these stories. Given measly column centimetres, if at all, in newspapers, they cause no outrage or candlelight processions. Complicit in this conspiracy of silence are the police, loath to file FIRs against politically connected and economically influential criminals. The legal system grinds along with notorious delays.
Medical reports are botched up by compliant doctors. And victims of the worst crimes are liable to ‘compromise’ since they depend on the dominant castes for their livelihood.
To come forward and fight a system so loaded against you requires incredible, boundless courage. Seated in the audience is a young girl. When we get talking she tells me she was raped last year in August by 12 upper-caste Jat men in village Dabra, Haryana.
The police filed an FIR only after her father committed suicide.
She tells me that four of the 12 were never arrested while another four have been acquitted. Still she fights on. A year after she was raped, the girl from Dabra is doing her BA, studying music, art and Sanskrit and says she wants to become a lawyer.
“I am the first Dalit girl to fight against the upper castes in my village,” she says. “And I will fight for all the other girls so that this never happens again.”
At stake is not financial compensation or vengeance but dignity.
The views expressed by the author are personal