India, has earned herself a shameful and ominous reputation as far as sexual violence against women goes, with 32,632 cases of rape reported in 2018 alone and each day we are breaking our own statistical records in regards to this. On September 14, a 19 year old Dalit girl was brutally gangraped in the Bhoolgarhi village, Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh. After a short struggle, she succumbed to her injuries on September 29 in the Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi. This incident led to obvious and justified outrage both on social media and physically, which was manifested in the form of protest marches held by common citizens of the country. But contrary to the reaction of the citizens of the nation, the administrative machinery – both State and Center – have been endeavouring to establish the assault to not be of sexual nature and their treatment of both the victim and the victim’s family is coercive, insensitive and, quite simply, discriminatory. This is where we should introduce the nuance of caste and casteism in the Hathras case to better understand the treatment of the victim and the crime against her by the state.
Casteism is a long prevalent reality of the Indian socio-political climate. The ‘varna system’ has historically been reflective of the division of labour in the society and has evolved to be a marker of both social position and economic status of its incumbents. Caste discrimination on the basis of this ancient ‘varna system’ is as old as the history of caste in India and it is also a widely acknowledged fact but what is not as commonly acknowledged is the fact that caste discrimination still is as much a part of the Indian social fabric as it was at the dawn of independence or when Dr. Ambedker urged for the ‘annihilation of caste’. Many of us who possess caste or class privilege in this country are of the opinion that we live in a casteless society because apparently the guarantee of caste-based reservation, the inclusion of the provision against ‘untouchability’ in the Constitution and the existence of the ‘creamy layer’ are enough to ensure that casteism has been obliterated in the status quo. This, however, could not be further from the truth and this is an expression of the arrogance and ignorance of the privileged in this country.
The ‘Dalit’ identity of the Hathras victim is the crucial point in the case; she belonged to the Valmiki community and lived in a village which has an overwhelming population of the Upper-Caste ‘Thakurs’. As per the statements of the victim’s family, a person from the Thakur community – Ravi – had a history of violence against their family that was intergenerational in nature and originated from the caste-based power differential among them. He is one of the four accused who was named and subsequently arrested. The rape against the Dalit girl is an expression of the same power differential that is afforded by their respective caste identities in the social context. The victim and perpetrator do not exist in a vacuum, their interactions are coloured by their socio-economic capital. This same caste and class linkages influence how the society and the administration perceives the crime and responds to it. In this case, it not only led to a delayed response but also to a neglectful one.
The victim was first brought to the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College Hospital (JNMCH) at Aligarh and there a MLC – Medico-Legal Examination report – was filed by the doctors who reported “complete penetration of the vagina” and the use of force on conclusion of the preliminary examination. The doctors at JNMCH had withheld either confirmation or denial of rape, as per the guidelines of the Union Health Ministry in cases of rape, and forwarded the case to the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) in Agra for further investigation. The same report claims that the victim admitted to sexual violence against her only on September 22 and the case was referred to FSL on the same day. It was on September 25, three days after the case was referred to FSL and eleven days after she was first examined that vaginal swabs were collected to form the subsequent FSL report, which has become the basis of reference for the Uttar Pradesh (UP) Police and a basis to deny the possibility of rape. Additional Director General (Law and Order) of UP Police – Prashant Kumar – cited the absence of sperm in the sample collected for the FSL report to deny allegations of rape and stated that the matter was twisted to stir caste tension. Accusations of neglect and a conscious effort at subversion by the authorities comes to light because of the wording of the beginning of the MLC report which gives an account of the hospital’s first examination of the woman on September 14. It describes the “present illness” of the woman as mere strangulation and claims that the assailants were unknown. This happens after the victim had spoken of rape against her by four upper-caste men that she had named in a video shot at Chandpa police station by unidentified persons. Hence, the claim that she mentioned sexual offences against her only on September 22 is doubtful in its validity.
Activists and opposition parties alike claim that the UP government in tandem with the UP Police is attempting to downplay the gravity of the crime by trying to establish, time and again, that there was no ‘evidence of rape’. After the victim’s body was cremated by the district police against the family’s consent, there is evidence of the Administration attempting to intimidate the victim’s family and prevent political and media personnel from entering Bhoolgarhi. In addition, the victim’s family have reported that they have been threatened by the Thakur community to not push for the incarceration of the four accused, if they want their lives to be spared. The savarna community in the same village mobilized in support of the accused rapist-murderers and they were supported in their claims by several prominent leaders of the ruling party. The violent manner in which the protest against the rape of the Hathras victim has been repressed across the country also raises doubts of where the allegiance of the powers-that-be lies. Rape is definitely a crime against women, but it is not only so. It is also a crime of power and it is used as a tool against the marginalized women in our country to exert the dominance of hyper-masculinity and caste-class superiority. Her caste identity had everything to do with her rape and murder, it influenced how her assertions were treated by the Administration. It took her a total of ten days to seek recourse from the police and, even then, all attempts were made to disprove rape against her. A mere lack of sperm was concluded as evidence enough of no sexual violence, when the samples were collected eleven days after the crime – the life cycle of sperms in the vagina being of two to three days, that is if the victim had not urinated or washed herself after the forced penetration. Lawyers stated that the insistence on evidence of sperm to confirm rape is erroneous and against settled law, which claims that the victim’s statements would hold a greater significance as compared to the forensic report which was most probably conducted on a contaminated sample. They also stated that given the circumstances, the FSL report would be corroborative to her statement but not substantial. And, there is everything in the theories of the police except anything substantive.