By: Kruti Venkatesh (National Law University, Jodhpur)

“Don’t wash the stinking rags of our lives

We are naked already.

Don’t strip us in front of the whole world.”

                                                                                                 – Anuradha Gaurav, Dalit poet

women-safetyThese lines were written in the Anuradha Gaurav’s poem Request,as an attack on the long standing Hindu custom of offering Dalit females to God Khandoba, for prostitution, once they attain puberty.[1] These lines give us a painful glimpse of the life of a Dalit woman in our society. But there are many more untold horrors of sexual violence and slavery, which the women of lower caste face in our country.

In a country like India, ridden with instances of rape against women by the minute, has anyone thought how far the deep rooted caste system plays a role in such violence against women? There are no surprises here. In India, caste rivalry is one of the reasons behind violence against women of the lower caste. A big example of this is the recent horrendous incident of rape of two Dalit sisters on 27th May 2014, in the Badaun village of Uttar Pradesh. A few men belonging to the Yadav caste (upper-caste in comparison to the Dalits) abducted the two girls, raped them and hanged their bodies from a tree for the whole village to see their corpses.[2] While the Indian society was still recovering from the brazen Nirbhaya gang rape case of December 2012, this brutal incident was slapped across its face. However, this incident was slightly different in that it was a reminder of the existence of the dark shadow cast by our caste system. While it is true that we have become immune to sexual violence against women in general and Dalit women and other lower caste members in particular, the brutality of this incident managed to catch the media’s attention.  Only a few days after this incident, another 19 year old Dalit girl was raped and murdered in the same village of Uttar Pradesh. Incidents of rape and violence against the lower caste women seem endless.

But why is caste a determinant of how women are treated in our society? To understand this, let us first get a glimpse of the history of the caste system in India. The concept of caste system emerged in India as a part of the Hindu religion. In Hinduism there are primarily four categories or Varnas, namely Bhramins (priests and teachers), Kshatriyas (soldiers and warriors), Vaishyas (merchants and traders) and Shudras (labourers and artisans).[3] Those who were designated as Dalits or “untouchables” were entirely excluded from the caste system as they were not considered to be a part of the human society.  Ever since the start of the Varna system about 2000 years ago, the Dalits have been considered to be impure by the upper caste. Dalits have faced excessive forms of violence and discrimination due to their caste. While such forms of violence against Dalits is not so prevalent in the urban area, even today the villages in India remain affected by the vigour of the caste system.

Dalit women have increasingly come under the dire of upper caste men, not only due to their caste but also their gender, both of which make them vulnerable victims of sexual violence. As per the National Crime Bureau, everyday four Dalit women are raped.[4] Especially in rural areas, young girls are made to sleep with the village landlords. Women are raped to stop the growing demands of the lower caste. Rape is also used as a measure of retaliation. Unarguably, using force against the lower caste women is a way to show the power and the superiority of the social status for the upper caste men. It is quite an irony that when it comes to sex, the practice of untouchability is conveniently forgotten.

Evidently, in India caste is an important reason behind sexual violence and other forms of discrimination faced by women belonging to the lower caste. While our Constitution does provide equal rights to all and prohibits all forms of discrimination, what we need is a socio-political change to back the law. It is time that our society understands the value of everyone breaking all caste barriers. It is time our politicians actually stand up for the people of the lower caste by taking active steps, instead of making hollow promises. What we also need is that people are held accountable for their actions irrespective of their caste. In this, the executive needs to play an important role and this demands a stronger and more educated police force, especially in the rural areas.  We need a police force which is bereft of any corruption and nepotism and officers who will pledge to protect the backward class. The only silver lining today is that people are protesting against such outrageous crimes against women, be it an upper-caste woman or a Dalit woman.

Lastly, we need to make people in the rural areas aware of the redundancy of the obstinate caste system which has brought forth only abuse and discrimination for women, children and men belonging to the lower caste.

[1]Zelliot, Eleanor (1996): “Stri Dalit Sahitya: The New Voice of Women Poets”, in Anna Feldhaus (ed) Images of Women in Maharashtrian Literature and Religion, 65-93.

[2]See generally (2014):Badaun Gangrape and Murder: How the Incident Unfolded”, The Indian Express, (2 June). Viewed on 22 June 2014 (http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/badaun-gangrape-and-murder-how-the-incident-unfolded/).

[3] See generally Chandra, Ramesh (2004): Identity and Genesis of Caste System in India.

[4] Sehgal, Rashme (2009): “NCRB Statistics Show Growing Violence Against Women, Dalits”, Infochange Human Rights (June). Viewed on 22 June 2014 (http://infochangeindia.org/human-rights/news/ncrb-statistics-show-growing-violence-against-women-dalits.html).



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