On the morning of 14 September 2020, a teenage Dalit girl and her mother entered the fields of a landowning, upper-caste family in the district of Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, to gather fodder for their cattle. The woman heard her daughter scream and rushed over to find her injured and covered in blood. In a video shared on social media, the girl, slipping in and out of consciousness, says: ‘They strangled me, because I did not let them force me.’ According to her family, the police delayed filing a First Information Report for the crime. The assault was a clear case of caste atrocity, under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, but the police did not record it as such. A close look at the legal system reveals that the police and courts routinely erase the question of caste from criminal proceedings.
The girl was taken to hospital. Her injuries included a broken spine. Four days later she issued a statement that led to the arrest of an upper-caste man. He was booked for attempted murder and using criminal force against a woman. There was still no mention of caste. The girl named three more attackers. Forensic analysis apparently showed no evidence of rape, but the samples weren’t collected until 11 days after the attack. On 29 September, the girl died. Chandrashekhar Azad led a protest outside the hospital, which quickly spread across the country. The demonstrators called on both the state and society at large to acknowledge the atrocity as a consequence of the caste system.
In the early hours of the following morning, videos and photographs began circulating on WhatsApp and social media, showing Uttar Pradesh state police crowded around a makeshift pyre in a deserted field; logs soaked in kerosene were set ablaze. They had, without legal cause or warrant, taken possession of the victim’s body and set it on fire. When the grieving family remonstrated with the police, they were placed under house arrest. The horrifying footage made plain the amnesty that the caste system grants to those who exercise violence under its aegis. ‘They burnt her to remove the stains on their own khaki aprons,’ the artist Siddesh Gautam wrote.
Caste underscores every aspect of Indian life: from the ownership of resources, to the systemic, routine marginalisation of lower-caste and indigenous people, which denies them access to healthcare, education and employment. The rigours of upper-caste endogamy mean that people from lower castes are rarely able to have relationships, or even friendships, with those outside their caste.
Earlier this month, Devraj Anuraji, a 25-year-old farm hand in the state of Madhya Pradesh, went to a small party. He picked up a plate to serve himself some food, and two upper-caste men took offence. They cornered Anuraji, beat him senseless and dumped his unconscious body outside his family home. Two hours later he died. A few days after his murder, a member of parliament from Madhya Pradesh publicly reiterated the sanctity of the caste system, as adumbrated in ancient Hindu texts, and admonished lower-caste people for protesting against the word ‘untouchable’. The pattern is clear: as soon as the anti-caste movement gathers momentum, the Hindu-Brahmin establishment rallies to undermine, penalise or destroy it.
It’s more than three months since the rape and murder of the teenage girl in Uttar Pradesh. The four suspects have now been charged. But still the public conversation circles around whether or not it was a caste-based crime. Dalit activists and feminists are publicly gaslighted for saying the caste system still exists, even though the fact of it is indisputable. The failures of the judiciary are flagrant; even the Supreme Court dodges negotiating the particularities of caste. As the Dalit feminist legal scholar Santvana Kumar has written, it is the duty of the law ‘to ascertain the space, location, land equations and caste politics under which the incident has taken place’.
The casteist blindspots of Indian feminism are glaring. ‘We are guilty of the fact that the Hathras victim was not able to speak for herself,’ in the words of Diya Malhari, a Dalit feminist, anti-caste activist and teacher. Indian feminism urgently needs to admit its complicity in the caste system, and centre the work of Dalit feminists.