Hathras rape and murder: A dark reminder of India’s oppressive society

As the hapless parents of the gangrape and murder victim see a ray of hope in CBI chargesheet, the incident highlights a society deeply caste-driven, despite several laws

Protest at Jantar Mantar over the Hathras gang-rape. File Photo: PTI

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on December 18 charged four accused in the Hathras gangrape and murder of a young woman in September. A chargesheet has been filed in a Hathras court, Uttar Pradesh. The case had led to outrage across the country.

The 19-year-old Dalit woman was allegedly raped by four upper-caste men in Hathras on September 14. She later succumbed to her injuries at a Delhi hospital. But the family of the accused never expected the result to come in their favour.

The mother of the victim couldn’t speak much as she kept sobbing. “We never expected we’d get justice. We got justice only because a part of the media stood by us, otherwise, no one would have cared about the lower castes, that too, a woman,” she said.

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The father of the victim explained the problems their family faced after the incident. “The last three months have been most horrible for us. Earlier, we were deprived of our rights, but when our daughter was raped and killed, the villagers blamed us for that. The people from nearby villages said we are lying and our daughter must have done something wrong,” he said.

“No one stood by us. All the villagers want to prove us wrong and liars. The people from our own caste also said, ‘these are big people and you are upsetting them. They can make our entire area vanish and because of you, we all will also die.’ Everyone boycotted us,” he said.

Also read: Hathras case: CBI chargesheet raises serious questions on UP police claims

The father repeatedly said they were never treated as persons. “We could never say anything to the upper caste people. They treated us and our women as their slaves. Those people have threatened us to take the case back,” he said.

Many people had a bizarre twist to add: had our daughter died of COVID, we would have got some compensation from the government. “It is as if our daughter’s life didn’t matter. After the CBI chargesheet, we now believe we are alive… we never got justice… and we were not used to it as well,” he added.

Caste and gender

Women from lower castes in India are also prone to exploitation, discrimination, and physical attacks. According to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), a non-governmental organization, lower-caste women are singularly positioned at the bottom of caste, class, and gender hierarchies in India and are largely uneducated and consistently paid less than their male counterparts worldwide… they invariably bear the brunt of exploitation, discrimination, and physical attacks.

Sexual abuse and other forms of violence against women are often used by landlords and the police to teach political “lessons” and crush dissent within the community. The lower-caste women also suffer disproportionately in terms of access to health care, education and subsistence wages as compared to women of higher castes, the HRW report said.

A daily wager (name withheld on request) based in Uttar Pradesh says exploitation is accepted as usual by her and her friends. “Contractors take a commission from our salary. They treat us like their slaves. We are not allowed to even drink water from the bottle used by upper caste people.”

She says she once worked in a construction company. “A contractor sexually abused a friend of mine which we reported to the management, but no one took note of it. She finally left the company. We see many such incidents happening against us every day but where do we go? The police don’t listen to us. And when our males are unsafe, how come you expect us, women, to be safe?” she questioned.

Exploitation

Despite abolition in 1950, the practice of “untouchability” remains a reality in rural India. Representing over one-sixth of India’s population — some 160 million people called Dalits — endure near-complete social ostracization in India, said HRW report.

Allocation of labour on the basis of caste is one of the fundamental tenets of the caste system, with lower-castes typically restricted to tasks and occupations that are deemed too “filthy” or “polluting” for higher-caste communities. The poor remuneration of manual scavenging, agricultural labour, and other forms of low-caste employment often force families of lower castes or caste-like groups into bondage.

A lack of enforcement of relevant laws prohibiting debt bondage in most of the countries concerned allows for the practice to continue unabated. An estimated 40 million people in India, among them some fifteen million children, are working in slave-like conditions in order to pay off debts as bonded labourers.

The death of sanitation workers associated with Bengaluru’s local civic body, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), due to Covid-19 has showcased the plight of the frontline sanitisation workers in the country.

Dr Sylvia Karpagm, a public health expert, said there is a form of institutionalized urban casteism that is present in cities and this is one manifestation of that.

“Some people are expected to do free labour (slavery) without expecting anything in return or having any form of rights, this was always there, just that it has become more visible. While the society is fine with it because it is an intrinsic”, says Dr Sylvia.

Deprived of rights

Over fifty years since India’s constitutional promise of free, compulsory, primary education for all children up to the age of fourteen-with special care and consideration to be given to promote the educational progress of scheduled castes-illiteracy still plagues almost two-thirds of the Dalit population as compared to about one-half of the general population.

Most Dalit victims of abuse in India are landless agricultural labourers who form the backbone of the nation’s agrarian economy. Despite decades of land reform legislations, over 86 per cent of Dalit households today are landless or near landless.

Also read: CBI probe in Hathras case to be monitored by Allahabad HC, says SC

The International Dalit Solidarity Network said that despite constitutional safeguards and special legislation for the protection of the country’s 201 million ‘scheduled castes,’ violations of their fundamental human rights continue on a massive scale and this will continue till the society changed its perception.

Saurabh Singh, a social activist based out of Uttar Pradesh attributes the deep-rooted misogyny in the northern states to its feudal society, where dominant caste have called the shots since the pre-Independence era.

“The old order is changing and there are many new laws to protect and safeguard the rights of dalits and scheduled castes members of society. At the same times there is resistance and tendency to continue with old practices among the erstwhile dominant groups, especially in the rural parts. Exploitation of women and resources both are linked to same issue. The politics of vote bank fuels these sentiments often to consolidate their share of votes,” he added.

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