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Webinar alert: Why caste is in focus when discussing violence against Dalit women

Updated on: 26 August,2022 12:31 PM IST  |  Mumbai
Sarasvati T |

With a call to eliminate caste-based sexual violence, the National Council for Women Leaders (NCWL) will be hosting a webinar on October 5 to address fundamental questions on violence against Dalit women. Manjula Pradeep, NCWL convenor, highlights the urgency of the campaign

Webinar alert: Why caste is in focus when discussing violence against Dalit women

Manjula Pradeep, convenor of NCWL, has been working for the rights of Dalits and women for almost three decades. Photo courtesy: Manjula Pradeep

According to the statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) 2020 report, a total of 3,372 rape cases (IPC section 376) and 3,373 cases of assault with intent to outrage modesty of Scheduled Caste (SC) women and girls were reported. Analysis by the National Council of Women Leaders (NCWL) found that of the total 12,436 such cases under categories of assault with intent to outrage modesty and sexual harassment that were up for trial in the year 2020, including pending cases from the previous year, only 167 cases—merely 1.3 per cent—resulted in conviction of the accused.

The NCRB data revealed a 9.4 per cent increase in crime against SC community from the year 2019 to 2020. The latest NCRB data on crimes against Dalits and the recent case in Delhi’s Cantonment area, where a nine-year-old Dalit girl was raped by a priest leading to her death, once again brought into focus the role of caste in violence against women across India, rural and urban.

The NCWL, in collaboration with Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network, Equality Labs and Equality Now, will be conducting a webinar on October 5 with panelists from across South Asia to highlight the role of caste in sexual violence against women in the Indian subcontinent and to discuss strategies to address the issue.

The webinar follows an intensive data-backed month-long social media campaign between July and August, calling to end caste-based sexual violence in India. On September 14, a year after the Hathras gang-rape case which led to the death of a young Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh, the NCWL, as part of the campaign, released a short report on 12 significant cases from 1985 (four years before the SC, ST Atrocities Act came into force) to 2020, on the history of violence against Dalit women.

Many are of divided opinion on the question of bringing up the caste of the accused and the victim in cases of sexual assault. Manjula Pradeep, one of the founding members and national convenor of NCWL, offers an explanation over why caste is a centre-point in such atrocities and how things have changed since the past.

Why is talking about caste important when we discuss sexual violence in India?

Caste is a reality in India and sexual violence is a manifestation of structural inequality based on the caste system. In the power-grid of caste and gender hierarchies, Dalit women are located at the lowest rung, making them multiply oppressed in terms of caste, class, gender and religion. Sexual violence is used as a tool of power by dominant caste men to "show Dalits their place" in society.

The low status of Dalits and the intersectional framework within the graded hierarchy imposes a burden on Dalit women and girls where they become victims and survivors of sexual violence. Hence their caste makes them vulnerable to sexual violence and therefore caste matters when it comes to sexual violence in India.

The report published by NCWL gives an insight into a history of caste sexual violence in India. Is there any change in the way caste sexual violence is addressed or treated by the justice system? Have lessons been learnt from the past?

Of the 12 cases highlighted in the report, three were massacres that were committed against the Dalit community at large by upper castes groups in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra, respectively. In each of these cases, the caste-based sexual violence charges were either not taken into consideration or dismissed arbitrarily, citing lack of evidence by the institutions involved.

In none of the cases was a judgment delivered within a year. Only in three out of the twelve mentioned cases, there was a conviction of the accused. Even here, the conviction in two out of these three was for murder, and the court chose not to apply the SC, ST Atrocities Act.

There has not been much change or progress in the treatment of such cases by the justice system at present, despite amendment in the atrocity act in 2015 to bring in more stringent measures.

What is the role of the media in highlighting caste-based violence against women in India?

The 1985 Karamchedu massacre in Andhra Pradesh was labelled as a riot by many sections of the media and society.  In the 2006 Khairlanji massacre in Maharashtra, it took more than a week for the news to appear in print media. Protests against the incident slowly swelled, with over 20,000 people marching to the Chief Minister’s office on 14 November 2006 in protest, and that's when the incident received national media coverage.

Last year in Hathras, upper-caste villagers and family of the accused tried to pass off the death as an “honour killing”, and there were debates on national television questioning the character of the victim, fuelling caste animosity by claiming that it was indeed an instance of honour killing. Now we see emergence of Dalit run media houses, and in the recent Delhi cases, it was these Dalit journalists who were the first to shed light on the crimes and bring attention to it.

While obstruction to justice is very rigid in rural areas in the form of Panchayats and dominance of upper caste villagers over the locals, how is the situation in metropolitan cities or urban areas?

Caste system prevails in the urban areas as well but is prima facie anonymous. The NCRB data on caste-based violence in metropolitan cities confirms the grim reality that sits at odds with the narrative of an aspiring global superpower.

The NCRB has been releasing separate figures for 19 metropolitan cities on crimes against Scheduled Castes since 2016. India’s “Silicon Valley” cities, poster children of modern, globalising India, temples of cutting-edge information technology, Bengaluru and Hyderabad, reported 133 and 127 incidents respectively in 2020. Hyderabad also reported the highest number of rape cases (38 cases in 2020) of Dalit women and girls among the 19 cities, followed by Jaipur, Kanpur and Lucknow.

In what ways does the invisibilisation of caste exist in cities?

The population of Dalits is higher in the urban areas and cities as they have moved for better livelihood opportunities and also to escape from caste based discrimination and violence. So they live in open settings rather than the closed settings in the rural areas. But their places of residence are most of the time ghettoised.

Sexual trafficking of, and sexual violence against, young Dalit women happens in towns and cities, but the police structure and administration lacks adequate machinery to identify and address these cases.

How have people responded to the report and the overall campaign?

 Our aim was to initiate conversations around caste-based sexual violence and highlight the work being done by Dalit women leaders and human rights defenders across the country, over social media.

We believe we have been able to create substantial progress as NCWL’s existence started with this campaign and we have more than 3,000 followers on Instagram. The campaign has also made us work upon future strategies to address sexual violence nationally and internationally.

In August, the council released a report listing out recommendations to the government authorities, human rights commission and state commissions for women and scheduled caste communities for devising ways in which sexual violence against Dalit women can be addressed and prevented. The government is yet to respond to these calls and recommendations.

Webinar details:

Subject: Caste-based sexual violence in South Asia


Manjula Pradeep, National Convenor, National Council of Women Leaders, India

Meena Verma, Executive Director, International Dalit Solidarity Network

Moni Rani Das, Chairperson, Bangladesh Dalit and Excluded Rights Movement

Sona Khatik, Journalist and Programme Coordinator, Samata Foundation, Nepal

Moderator:  Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Executive Director, Equality Labs

Date: October 5, 7.30 pm - 9 pm IST

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