Since the Bhanwari Devi rape case in 1992 and the Khairlanji rape and massacre in 2006 to the Hathras case in 2020, successive Central and state governments have failed to address sexual violence as the multi-dimensional issue that it is. Hierarchies of caste, class, and gender intersect to form a cocktail of horrors for the women of rural India — we must understand these nuances in order to form any policy that meaningfully tackles gender-based violence in India.
Caste is the fault line that runs through rural India, the parts I call home. My constituency is in the rural and agrarian district of Ambedkar Nagar, with parts that lie in its much more famous neighbour, Ayodhya. I grew up in the Ambedkar Nagar (then part of Faizabad district) of the 1980s, where gunda raj was the only raj. A lot of that has changed now, due, in part, to an increased police presence and a steady urbanisation of people’s aspirations. But what has remained constant is rural India’s obsession with the caste order. This is how society has functioned for millennia: The lower castes have served the upper castes as potters, labourers, masons and cleaners, while the upper castes work to keep the status quo, adopting a few lower-caste families along the way as serfs in the world’s oldest feudal system.
In the political economy of post-Independence India, land is the currency that reigns supreme in the hinterlands. Land is class, power and honour. Its exclusive ownership is the basis of maintaining the caste order. The dominant castes in a particular region have traditionally been the largest landowners, and the benefits of the Green Revolution and the neo-liberal economic order have disproportionately benefited them and seldom the landless labourers who belong overwhelmingly to the lower castes.
But the post-Independence politics of Bahujan-Dalit mobilisation began challenging these ancient hierarchies. The reservation guaranteed by Babasaheb Ambedkar witnessed an emergence of a politically and economically influential sub-caste of Dalits in each state of the country. With the advent of Bahujan politics in Uttar Pradesh, oppressed castes found themselves represented in positions of power. This was an affront to the existing order. As a highly coveted resource, land is a flashpoint of conflict: In the Khairlanji rape and massacre, the upper castes retaliated brutally and bestially against the Bhotmanges, a Scheduled Caste family in the village, after the Bhotmanges filed a police complaint in relation to a land dispute.
In traditionally patriarchal societies, women are the currency of honour. A family’s, a community’s, a caste’s honour is inextricably tied to the “honour” of their female members — their purity, their morality, their chastity. Sexual violence operates on the nexus of land, caste, and patriarchy. It becomes a tool to maintain the status quo of land and caste. Sexual violence against women from lower caste communities is seldom about the individual woman; more often than not, it is about robbing the honour of a community, a caste, a family.
In the war of land and caste, women are both collateral and weapons. During land disputes between two caste groups with a large differential of power and influence, women’s bodies become collateral damage. But there is a different dynamic in conflicts among caste groups who are relatively close together in the caste (and class) order. When strongmen from one group pay a threatening visit to the property of another group, the defending group will bring their women out of the home, making them stand with the men. This is a deterring tactic — if threatened or harmed by the strongmen, a woman’s complaint warrants Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code (outraging the modesty of a woman).
That police officials often fall in favour with the dominant caste groups has been much discussed. But it is because SHOs and SPs are under pressure from the administration to not register sexual crimes under their jurisdiction, since these cases make them targets for transfers and dismissals. This fear of bureaucratic reprisal sets the apathetic tone for investigations as well. The retaliatory cases of violence against women that are registered after land conflicts make it harder for genuine cases of sexual assault to get their due process.
Any attempt to tackle this situation can’t focus on police reform, caste discrimination, patriarchy and reforms in land ownership alone. We must take an intersectional approach that targets all of the issues. Land ownership reform must tackle the irregularities of demarcation and the lack of proper records. Sound policy involving all stakeholders should also tackle the illegal constructions on abadi land and banjar zameen. The goal of annihilating caste cannot be achieved without mammoth efforts in educational, professional, and social integration of lower castes into every field, be it healthcare, judiciary, education, entertainment, or sports.
In tandem with land and caste reforms, we must tackle the persistence of patriarchy in our society. “Women’s empowerment” is a buzz phrase for political and corporate organisations, but we must view these promises with a critical eye: In the last few central budgets, the Ministry of Women & Child Development has under-utilised its funds for multiple programmes aimed at women’s empowerment. We must demand more representation of women in positions of power — be it through reserved seats in MP, MLA, and MLC elections, or the judiciary and corporate boards. We must work for quality sexual education and consent training for our youth, with the aim of not just preventing sexual assault but also equalising and normalising healthy relations among members of different genders and sexes. And lastly, we must bridge the gender divide in access to the transformative and emancipatory power of consumer technology.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 4, 2021 under the title ‘The roots of impunity’. The writer is a BSP MP