Dalit women’s collective

Scaling up the fight

Print edition :

At the UNHCR in Geneva on June 21, (from left to right) Rita Izsak Ndiaye, member & Rapporteur of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, John Fisher, Geneva advocacy director, Human Rights Watch, and Asha Kowtal, general secretary, All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A report presented at the U.N. Human Rights Council signals Dalit women’s resolve to end the silence surrounding caste-based violence and discrimination.

IN rally after rally, Narendra Modi claims to champion the Dalit cause. But on the ground, his government works against the community. On June 21, the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM), a Dalit women’s collective attached to the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), presented a report at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) in Geneva against caste-based violence. For the first time, a Dalit women’s group had a table at a side event at the UNHRC to highlight before the international community the impunity caste violence enjoys in India. By participating in the U.N., Dalit women made a strong call to international human rights organisations to break the silence on caste-related issues and sought support and solidarity from allies towards building a global campaign to end caste-based violence and discrimination. They hoped the event would provide Dalit women with new footholds to actively engage in and build pressure within the U.N. system.

Titled Voices against Caste Impunity: Narratives of Dalit Women in India, the report presented stories of the struggles victims and their families faced in overcoming the barriers to justice. Rita Izsak-Ndiaye, member and Rapporteur of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, reiterated the need for communities to engage with the U.N. and allied human rights organisations to create pressure to influence government policy. In 2016, when she was UNHCR Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Rita Izsak-Ndiaye submitted a report on caste-based discrimination. The Indian government not only rejected it but also challenged the right of the Special Rapporteur to raise questions about caste. Ajit Kumar, India’s permanent representative to the U.N. in Geneva, refuted and objected to the report. In response to the government’s stand, Rita Izsak-Ndiaye explained that though there was a complexity in talking about casteism in a minority-rights framework, minority and caste issues shared certain characteristics such as their non-dominant and often marginalised positions and stigma.

It seemed as if the mere mention of the terms “caste” and “Dalit” was enough to miff the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. Recently, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) told its members to avoid using the term Dalit. Earlier, following an order of the Madhya Pradesh High Court, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment wrote to the governments of all States and Union Territories asking them to refrain from using the term Dalit as it does not appear in the Constitution or any law. While the term Scheduled Caste has sanction in the Constitution, the term Dalit is a political identity popularised by B.R. Ambedkar. The BJP’s relentless denial of the caste problem and systematic refusal to engage with it is not going down well with even its allies. The party’s Lok Sabha member Udit Raj, a Dalit leader, went public with his disappointment with the fact that Dalits were being tortured and hounded after the April 2 Bharat bandh and protests against a Supreme Court order that was perceived as diluting provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. He suggested that the BJP might not be able to hold on to its Dalit supporters in the 2019 general election.

NCRB data

It is not that Dalits have not suffered prejudice under previous governments. But the Sangh Parivar’s ideology is in stark opposition to everything Dalits stand for. Modi often invokes Ambedkar’s name but his government’s actions do not match his words and the condition of Dalits has never been so bad. Ever since the BJP came to power, minorities and Dalits have been facing increased repression and violence. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data on caste atrocities show that in 2016, 40,801 atrocities against Dalits were reported; in 2015 the figure was 38,670. The data show that most of the crimes reported against the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) are crimes against women, including assaults, sexual harassment, stalking, voyeurism and insult to modesty. Over the past 10 years, there has been a 66 per cent growth in crimes against Dalits. Rapes against Dalit women have doubled in this period: in 2006, three rapes of Dalit women were reported a day, while in 2015, the figure rose to six a day. And these are just the number of registered cases; actual figures are likely to be much higher as often such crimes do not get reported for various reasons, including uncooperative police personnel and the fear of retaliation from dominant caste groups.

The worst year in the past 10 years was 2014, the year the BJP came to power at the Centre. The total number of crimes against Dalits registered that year was 47,064, a 19 per cent rise over the previous year’s figure. In 2014, 744 Dalits were murdered; in 2013, the figurw was 676. Further, the NCRB data show that Dalits fared the worst in BJP-ruled States or where the party was in alliance with regional parties. Crimes against Dalits as a percentage of total cognisable crimes was the highest in Madhya Pradesh (43.4 per cent), followed by Rajasthan (42 per cent), Goa (36.7 per cent) and Gujarat (32.5 per cent). Former Union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said that with a Dalit suffering an atrocity every 12 minutes, the last four years had witnessed anti-Dalit and anti-Adivasi bias like never before.

Last year, apart from heinous crimes, Dalits faced violence for seemingly no other reason than being Dalits. A groom and members of his wedding party were beaten up in Chhatarpur, Madhya Pradesh, for “daring” to take a decorated car to the wedding venue. In Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, Dalits were given soap and shampoo to clean themselves with ahead of a visit by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. In a Gujarat village, 30-year-old Krunal Magheria was thrashed for sporting a moustache. While in one village in Gujarat, 17-year-old Dighant Magheria was attacked by two men for supposedly owning a bike, in another, a 21-year-old Dalit man was allegedly beaten to death by Patel men for attending a garba (dance) event.

The report presented at the UNHRC outlined the effects of caste on health, education and livelihood and talked about atrocities, sexual violence and the legal system. According to Census 2011, the total S.C. population of India was 201.4 million, or 16.6 per cent of the total population. This stood at 20.6 per cent of the population as per the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) Round 4 (2015), with 16.8 per cent in urban areas and 22.6 per cent in rural areas. National Sample Survey Office data comparing social groups showed that in rural India S.Cs constituted the highest proportion of households with casual labour as the major source of income (52.6 per cent) but the least (0.8 per cent) for proportion of households possessing 4.01 hectares of land or more. There was a gender gap in literacy across all social groups: 48.33 per cent of S.C. women and 64.21 per cent of S.C. men were literate. Literacy levels were the lowest among S.C. girls, at 24.4 per cent, compared with the national average of 42.8 per cent. While the skewed rates affected all Dalits, women were more vulnerable.

According to activists who work with Dalit women in Rajasthan, Bihar, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, Dalit families are economically deprived and almost always forced to work in the houses or fields of the dominant caste groups. They are dependent on their employers for everything, including loans for marriage or treatment for illness.

“The non-Dalits first take whatever little land the Dalits have and then enter their houses and want the women—whether it is the daughter, or daughter-in-law or wife or mother. Sometimes they make the men drink. When the husband is drunken and asleep, he doesn’t know what is happening to his wife in the meantime,” Suman Devathiya from Rajasthan said.

Upsurge in atrocities

According to a fact sheet created by the Atrocity Tracking and Monitoring System (which came into being in 2015 under the National Dalit Movement for Justice) and the NCDHR, there was an upsurge in instances of atrocities against the S.Cs and the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts), with new forms of caste, class and gender discrimination and violence emerging over the years. This was compounded by difficulties in accessing justice and the inadequacy of existing laws to prevent gross indignities targeted at S.Cs and S.Ts. Often, the police and judicial officers belong to the same caste as the oppressors, which creates caste solidarity. In such cases, there is tremendous pressure on the victims and their families to withdraw the case, and they become the target of further atrocities. While the S.C. and S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities) Act provides for punishment of defaulting officers, these clauses are never invoked in practice. 

Pattern of impunity

Vrinda Grover, an advocate in the Supreme Court, said there was a pattern of impunity in cases of caste-based sexual violence. “The failure of courts to provide justice to India’s most discriminated and vulnerable women compels us to probe the underlying systemic and institutionalised challenges.” At the UNHRC event, she called for stronger action by civil society and U.N. mechanisms to address these gaps.

While all women are susceptible to violence, statistics show that S.C. women are more susceptible. According to the report presented at the UNHCR, rural women aged 15 to 49 experience more physical and sexual violence. NFHS 4 shows that 33.2 per cent of S.C. women experience physical violence from the age of 15 compared with 26.3 per cent of S.T. women, 29.2 per cent of Other Backward Classes women and 19.7 per cent of other categories.

All women are vulnerable, but Dalit women face greater difficulties in accessing support after an incident. Mohini from Haryana explained the difference through her testimony. “When a girl goes out of her house, she is viewed in a certain way. If she wears sleeveless tops or jeans, even within the house there are comments. We can confront people from our own communities because we know them and know about them. When savarna [dominant caste] people in the village comment on us or abuse us, we ignore it because we see that they have power, money and contacts and they can do anything to us. Girls wear dupattas across their breasts. Earlier they used to cover their heads to look like married women. I know that if I make an issue, they can beat my brother and if my brother comes to know [about it], then it will get aggravated beyond control.”

Savita, who is a lawyer in Haryana, said: “When harassment of a non-Dalit girl happens, the entire village will come together, saying ‘it is a girl from our village’. When this happens to a Dalit girl, they will not come together.” She also said that attitudes, language and dominance were taught to non-Dalit women from their childhoods. “She is taught that she is a Jat and from a high caste. We are taught not to complain and not to retaliate since we are Dalits. These may be seen as small things, but they separate us. Dalit women don’t have the confidence because they are not nurtured that way. We have not been given even one platform to speak. Our capacity is still weak.”

Even elected members such as Dalit women sarpanches are unable to fully utilise their power. “If she takes a stand against a murder or arson or attack on Dalit people, she is targeted and harassed.... If she objects to any atrocity, she can be beaten or her house can be destroyed.... She wants to do her job properly, but the dominant caste people have all the power and keep her in control,” said Gayatri from Madhya Pradesh.

The lack of data on crimes against women disaggregated by caste, age, disability, religion and language makes it difficult to plan solutions and hold systems accountable, according to the report. Activists feel that having women and Dalit representation within the system could help. But sometimes the representatives could face pressure and harassment themselves. It is therefore important that they have support mechanisms and proper training to understand their own powers within the system. “It is very important that Dalit women are involved in counselling and legal services for Dalit women survivors. Most Dalit activists get involved only after the case is heard in court. Activists should have good network with women lawyers, particularly Dalit women lawyers, in the courts,” said Savita.

In the past, U.N. treaty bodies, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, have made several references to caste violence, and processes such as the Universal Periodic Review and the U.N. Special Procedures have taken it into consideration. Former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay pointed out that pervasive sexism combined with their caste status meant that women from discriminated caste groups had limited access to land, inheritance and other economic resources and their usually higher illiteracy rates further exacerbated their economic vulnerabilities. The European Parliament had passed several resolutions condemning the growing caste violence in India and made a strong call for solidarity with survivors of caste-based sexual violence in particular.

Years of struggle

Ruth Manorama, national convener of the National Federation of Dalit Women and the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award (sometimes described as an alternative Nobel Prize), 2006, recounted the years of struggle to bring caste violence into the ambit of international human rights fora.

She said: “The constitutional remedies, legal provisions, development schemes, institutions and mechanisms mandated to protect women of the community are ill designed; they remain rusty and useless in delivering justice to survivors of caste-based violence. Post the World Conference against Racism [in 2001], Dalit women have always seized every opportunity to engage in dialogue and raise awareness about our specific issues. However, the blockading by India is severe.”

Asha Kowtal, general secretary, AIDMAM, said: “Our narrative is not of victimhood; we want to make it known to the world that our fight is against those who spread venom and bias which obstruct our right to life. #dalitwomenfight is one such initiative that attempts to foreground the voices of Dalit women from our villages to the United Nations.”

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