Four upper-caste men allegedly gang raped a Dalit teen in a village in northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The victim died in a hospital in New Delhi on September 29, 2020, triggering a wave of protests across the country. Photo courtesy Sajjad Hussain/AFP.
HATHRAS, India—In Hathras district, located in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), there’s an eerie silence in the household of a Thakur family. Last month, four members of the family were arrested within a span of a week for allegedly raping a 19-year-old Dalit woman from their village. More outrage followed after the victim succumbed to injuries two weeks after the assault, and the state police cremated her without the permission of the family.
Thakurs hold a dominant position in the Hindu caste system. Dalits are at the bottom of the caste hierarchy.
As national and global media throng the house of the Dalit teen in Hathras, the Thakurs sit in their courtyard, next to the Dalit family’s house, in defiant silence. They’ve been neighbours for several decades. But centuries of social conditioning and imposition of the Hindu caste system means that they’re not equals—in celebration, daily lives or even mourning.
In this case, the Thakurs deny the crimes their sons have been accused of. “They [Dalits] are not well-off as us, and they want government compensation,” a member of the Thakur family told VICE News on the condition of anonymity. “Maybe the family itself killed their daughter to get benefits.”
The family also layers this allegation with a belief that they’ve lived with almost all their lives: That they do not share the same caste privilege.
“And why should they be equal to us?” a woman from the family of one of the accused men, told VICE News at her home in Hathras. “It’s been a tradition that they’re lower than us. That means it stays this way.”
Over less than a month, the Dalit teenager’s death, and the subsequent protests, reopened India’s bloody and ongoing chapter of caste violence, especially on lower-caste women.
In the small Hathras village of around 600 families, Thakurs are a dominant populace. The Dalits, known by their surnames of Valmikis, are just about 15 people.
Even today, untouchability, a product of Hindu caste system’s segregation, is practiced openly, mostly abrasively, by the upper-caste people.
“If one of our family members are getting married, they cannot enter the village from the same route that the Thakurs are using,” the aunt of the Dalit woman, who did not wish to be named, told VICE News. “The upper-caste families think we will make that route impure.”
Mention caste divide and more stories come out. If the Valmikis go to a shop and give money to buy something, the upper-caste shopkeepers sprinkle water on the cash before accepting it. If the Thakurs have a wedding, the Valmikis are allowed to come so that they can clean up after the celebrations are done. Ask if the Valmikis can break bread with the Thakurs, and the Thakurs will meet that question with an incredulous, “How can they?”
Members of the Thakur family said the Valmikis would occasionally leave pigs on their farms out of spite. The pigs would destroy their crops. When asked how they know if it was the Valmikis, one family member told VICE News, “Only the Valmikis keep pigs. Pigs are filthy animals. Who else will keep them?”
In many parts of India, the caste system continues to allow some social groups more privilege, opportunity and even impunity in case of a crime, than the rest. Thakurs are one of them. These fault lines have led to several cases of violence by the upper-caste people against the Dalits. In many cases, upper-caste perpetrators get away, mostly with the help of local police.
In the latest case too, there’s an active effort to downplay or deny the alleged rape of the Dalit teen by the upper-caste accused. The Thakurs maintain their son’s innocence, and yet, when asked if they visited the deceased’s family, they said, “We will never step inside their house.”
Crimes against Dalits are endemic in India. A recent report titled ‘Quest for Justice’ by the National Dalit Movement for Justice-National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights found that crimes against Dalits increased by six percent from 2009 to 2018, with over 391,000 atrocities reported.
“In the last five years, out of total 205,146 registered crimes against scheduled castes, more than 20 percent were related to violence against women,” the report said.
India’s National Commission for Women had once said that violence against Dalit women shows that the offenders are trying to “establish their authority and humiliate the community by subjecting their women to indecent and inhuman treatment, including sexual assault, parading naked, using filthy language, etc.”.
The aunt of the Dalit victim told VICE News that the kids in their families face the same discrimination in schools as well. “Sometimes the teachers would reinforce this segregation into our children’s minds,” she said. “Most times, it would be the upper-caste children treating them differently.”
Pradip Bhandari, director of Safai Karmachari Sangh, a coalition of sanitation workers, primarily consisting of Dalits, told VICE News that while the caste divide is starkly visible in small Indian villages, big cities and towns also experience it. “It will be subtle in comparison to the villages,” he said.
Sanitation workers in Aligarh city, just over 100 kms (62 miles) from Hathras, are mostly from the Valmiki community. They told VICE News that no matter how educated a Valmiki is, they’re almost always relegated to the profession of sanitation workers in the city. “If we open a shop to uplift ourselves economically, nobody will enter our shop, let alone buy from us,” said a Valmiki woman who did not want to be identified.
Activists such as Bhandari work for the upliftment of the Valmikis in the city. “Sometimes we get death threats for trying to help out the Dalits. The upper-caste people strongly believe that Dalit voices should not rise,” said Bhandari.
Over the last two days, sanitation workers in some UP cities have been protesting in support of the gang rape victim. They even dumped the cities’ garbage on the streets and other facilities such as hospitals, to show how cities can be disrupted if not for the Valmikis managing upper-caste people’s waste.
A member of the Thakur family in Hathras told VICE News that there’s nothing wrong with untouchability and the day-to-day caste divide. “If it’s been happening for so long, it must be for a good reason,” she said.
A Valmiki from Hathras related to the gang rape victim told VICE News, “All it takes is one surname to make sure we never get the respect or dignity of life, whether we’re alive or dead.”
The names of the family members of the victim and the accused are not mentioned for privacy reasons.
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Via Vice News