Atrocities on girls from Dalit and oppressed castes at Badaun and Bhagana underline

The brutal gang rape and lynching of two minor girls aged 14 and 15 in a village in the Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh is a grim reminder of the gender, caste and class based atrocities that women from Dalit, oppressed castes face on a daily basis in India. Two months earlier, four teenage Dalit girls aged 13-18 were gang raped by higher caste landowners in Bhagana in Haryana, where the survivors are still fighting for justice to take off.

The fact that the higher caste rapists at Badaun chose to finish off their vile crimes by murdering the victims and leaving their bodies on brazen display in full public view, rather than make any attempt to hide their deeds, shows that the act was intended as a chilling spectacle of higher caste dominance over the Dalits and oppressed. It also displays the confidence of the perpetrators, that they would not be punished for commiting crimes against women from oppressed castes. Indeed, less than a percent of rape cases of Dalit women by non-Dalits end in conviction.

In the Badaun case, the police refused to investigate when the girls’ families reported them missing. Two policemen have now been arrested with charges of conspiring with the higher caste rapists. The families of the victims of Badaun have been warned with dire consequences for seeking justice. They have been threatened with retribution once media and public watch ends in the village. In Bhagana, the survivors have been forced to travel to and camp in Delhi and stage a long protest to demand the arrest of the rapists after the police refused to register cases against the powerful men – the village Sarpanch and his uncle –  named by the girls in their testimonies.

In UP, where Mulayam Singh Yadav, chief patriarch of the ruling Samajwadi Party, declares that rape is a ‘mistake boys make’, and the Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, instead of giving out a strong message against gender violence, stubbornly tries to defend crimes against women in UP by comparing it with other parts of the country, is it a surprise that the police try to help the rapists and refuse to file an FIR or arrest the culprits? In Haryana, where the all-male Jat-dominated Khap panchayats continue to enjoy social ‘legitimacy’ and enormous political clout, is it a surprise that bodies of Dalit women are treated as sites of ‘dishonour’ and entitlement that savarna castes ‘enjoy’ over the oppressed castes?

That the perpetrators of caste-gender violence enjoy utter impunity can readily be gauged from the role of the police.Neither Badaun nor Bhagana are stray incidents or ‘aberrations’ as claimed by the respective governments in power. In 2011, a 14 year-old Dalit-Muslim girl was raped and killed by UP police and then hung up on a tree inside the police station. The tree was cut down and evidence destroyed. Police, doctors, ruling politicians, the then government – all united to protect the perpetrators, and tried to bury the crime as deep as the girl’s body was buried. Last year in April a Dalit child was raped and murdered in UP, and when her family protested they were beaten up by the police. The beating was caught on camera. In another case in Aligarh, the police refused to file an FIR in the case of a missing Dalit child, and later her body was found – raped and murdered. When the family protested, they were viciously assaulted by a police officer – again, caught on camera. Even as the Badaun case came under intense public scrutiny, in another instance of shocking brutality, the mother of a rape victim was brutally beaten up by the father of the accused in Etawah. A week after the Badaun tragedy, a minor girl was raped, murdered and hanged from a tree at Sitapur. Notably, in Badaun too, the government acted only after there was a huge public outcry.

In the amendments to the criminal law that followed the anti-rape movements of 2012-13, a significant step-forward was Section 166A IPC, that mandates that police personnel who refuse to file FIRs or otherwise refuse to do their duty, must be criminally prosecuted, and can be jailed for a term between 6 months and 2 years. Although there have been multiple instances of police refusing to do their duty, or intimidating the victim’s family – in Delhi, Kolkata, UP, Haryana – nowhere have FIRs been lodged against the accused cops.

It is no strange coincidence that at Badaun, Bhagana and Sitapur, the households of the victim girls lacked basic amenities, including toilets. In all the cases, the girls had gone out to relieve themselves in open fields at night. That the girls in some cases went in groups did little to ensure their safety. The utterly insecure environments of day-to-day work and living in a sharply caste-hierarchical society, where women are compelled to travel miles to fetch water or are forced to work and relieve themselves in fields beonging to higher-caste landowners, make Dalit and oppressed caste women several folds more vulnerable and prone to being targets of sexual violence.

Dalit women have been targeted for sexual violence wherever Dalit communities have challenged caste and class exploitation. In Bhagana, the four girls were raped in ‘revenge’ after Dalits demanded that the upper caste controlled village council hand over the commons land which had been allocated to the entire village community by the government, and protested against eviction, socio-economic boycott and harassment. In Bihar, the Ranvir Sena, a landowners’ militia aligned with Narendra Modi’s ruling BJP, had targeted Dalit and Muslim women for horrific violence when the rural poor organized for land rights and a living wage.

In the wake of the Badaun rape-murders, the BJP has condemned the appalling levels of gender violence in opposition-ruled UP. But Amit Shah – the BJP’s chief campaigner in UP –  promised in election speeches to ensure that all FIRs against Jat accused in Muzaffarnagar riots and rapes be withdrawn. The fact that the BJP-led ‘Modi Sarkar’ has given no less than a ministerial berth  to Sanjeev Baliyan, one of the main accused in instigating the Muzaffarnagar communal violence in UP last year which involved mass rapes of Muslim women, gives the BJP’s indignation a lie.

We demand speedy trials to bring all culprits to justice. The UP Government must ensure that the cops who have been suspended, are booked and arrested under Section 166A IPC (Criminal Law amended in 2013). We demand that the victims of Bhagana be rehabilitated with dignity, and that the families of Badaun and Bhagana victims be protected against all intimidation. That the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act be invoked in all cases where it is applicable. Rape is an atrocity against women, a display of the male sense of entitlement and dominance over women. Feudal culture has always held that Dalit and oppressed caste women must be ‘available’ for the ‘use’ and ‘enjoyment’ of dominant caste men. From Bathe, Bathanitola, Khairlanji to Bhagana to Badaun, such instances abound, showing that endemic atrocities against dalits and oppressed castes continue to persist and thrive in 21st century India. The last year and a half has seen a powerful movement against gender violence in India. But the Badaun and Bhagana cases painfully underline once again that the struggle continues, and can only succeed if the lethal connections between gender, caste, class and communal violence are recognized and fought.

[ML Update Editorial]