Dalit Women Face Brunt of Caste Battles, State Neglect
New Delhi, Lucknow, Hathras: Meera Singh, 35, who belongs to an upper-caste Thakur family, was surprised by all the talk of sexual violence in Boolgarhi, her village in Hathras district of western Uttar Pradesh (UP). The alleged gang-rape of a 19-year-old dalit woman by four Thakur men was an abberation, she maintained.
“Our village has always been safe, this is the first time that something like this has happened,” said Singh, tending to the cattle in the fields owned by her husband’s family.
Across the village, in the pocket where the dalits live, women said sexual atrocities were common--of the nearly 250 homes here, only four belong to dalits, they say. “We don’t let our daughters walk around alone,” said a dalit woman. “Normally, the Thakurs don't even touch us,” she said, referring to the age-old practice of untouchability, “But to rape, they take our daughters.”
The caste skew that drives sexual violence against dalit women is not unique to Boolgarhi: It is visible across UP, we found in detailed interviews with rape survivors and dalit activists across five western, central and eastern districts of the state--Hathras, Shravasti, Unnao, Jaunpur and Lucknow. We also found that statewide public programmes to ensure the safety and rights of women--projects, shelters, helplines--have become defunct over the last few years, neglected, drained of funds or simply shut down.
Activists allege that this apathy has worsened since 2017 when Yogi Adityanath took over as the chief minister. “After 2017, the political environment has been against all women’s rights movements in UP,” said Smriti Singh, former head of Mahila Samakhya, a UP government-aided project for women’s rights that is struggling to survive. “Institutional aid and assistance for female dalit survivors gradually dwindled post-2017 and has almost vanished in the last two years.”
UP recorded the highest increase in crime against women, 66.7%, over the four years to 2019, and the second highest increase in cases of rape against Scheduled Castes (SC) women in the same period--20.67%. Across India, cases of rape against SC women increased by 37%, and of assault by 20%, as IndiaSpend reported based on data from Crime in India 2019. Further, 32.5% crimes against scheduled castes across India were not registered under Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 between 2009 and 2018, according to the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) status report, Implementation of SCs and STs (PoA) Act 1989 and Rules 1995, launched in September 2020.
“Crimes against all women are on a rise but dalit women suffer the double discrimination of gender and caste. These women also become easy pawns for revenge in fights between men,” said Tahira Hasan, a Lucknow-based women’s rights activist.
Of all the cases of rape filed in the country in 2019, 11% were of SC women--an average of 10 a day, according to the Crime in India report.
Between 2014 and 2018, UP ranked first in terms of atrocities against dalits, followed by Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, according to the NCDHR report.
On October 13, three minor dalit sisters aged eight, 12 and 17 years, were attacked with acid while they were asleep at home, in UP’s Gonda district.
Watch our Hathras coverage here:
Government support networks frayed
Several UP government schemes and programmes focused on women’s empowerment and protection have either shut down or only survive on paper, as we said. This is mostly due to a complete or partial slashing of funds, experts told us.
Mahila Samakhya, for example, worked in 19 districts and 78 blocks of the state, focusing on gender violence, and enabling women to fight for their rights using legal tools.
The project was helping 250,000 women across various districts and employed 650 women. “In the name of evaluation, our funding was stalled over the last two years and in March this year, we received a letter saying that the project will be merged with another,” Singh, the former project head, said. “We had no details [about the merger]. The women working on the project stopped receiving any money and why would they work without any? Gradually the team dissolved and the women associated with it were left hanging. This came as a shock because all audit teams were satisfied with our work--we had real results to show.”
The helpline 181 for women facing violence, abuse and harassment was shut down for want of funds. “The women working with the helpline have not received wages for nine months,” an official working with the 181 helpline, based in Lucknow, told IndiaSpend, requesting anonymity.
To provide medical and legal aid to the survivors of crime such as sexual violence, rape and acid attack, the central government had started One Stop Centres in 2015. These centres were built across 17 districts to assist and house survivors. The centres were meant to train survivors in employable skills but the machines needed for training were never made available, a female employee at a centre told us.
“Women don’t get [any] facilities anymore, the staff has been reduced and even my salary hasn’t been paid,” she said. She claimed that the centre had not been closed but there were no residents as the building had only empty rooms with no beds or furniture. Those who visit the shelter are helped to register online FIRs and then sent away.
Most women cannot return home because they are escaping some kind of violence there--domestic abuse, or familial or social ostracisation after rape or acid attack. No information was available on whether the centres keep track of where the women go or how they fare--the manager said she did not maintain a register to note this information, and no data were available online for any other centres.
The Nirbhaya Fund set up in 2013 to enhance the safety and security of women in the country remains underutilised, FactChecker.in reported on December 7, 2019. UP received nearly Rs 325 crore from the fund but spent only 66.7% of the amount.
The results of this neglect were evident as we interviewed survivors across the state.
‘We had to send our daughter to Lucknow to protect her’
In a village, nearly 45 km from state capital Lucknow, a 14-year-old dalit girl was allegedly gang-raped in September 2020. The nearest police station, instead of filing a first information report (FIR), warned the survivor that escalating the matter could “invite trouble” for her and her family, her mother told IndiaSpend.
IndiaSpend called the local police station on October 14 for further details. The sub-inspector refused to speak with us, saying the matter is under investigation.
“After the two men raped me, I was in excruciating pain and couldn’t even scream because they had gagged me,” the teen said. “They threatened to do worse if I said anything to anyone. So I walked home, bleeding.”
With a population of nearly 4,000 households, most homes in this village belong to dalit and lower caste families. The neighbouring village is dominated by politically powerful upper castes such as Thakurs, Yadavs and Mauryas.
“These same men sexually harassed our eldest daughter, harassed her every time she left home, hurled sexual abuses at us,” said the survivor's mother. “We knew it was only a matter of time before she was raped so we sent her to Lucknow to work as a househelp.”
The family said they approached the police because they were worried for their two other daughters. “We can’t sacrifice them to these men because we have no power,” said the father.
After several attempts, the police agreed to register an FIR against one of the perpetrators who was 22 years of age but was recorded as 17 and thus a juvenile, alleged the family.
The teen survivor said she was traumatised by her experiences of dealing with the police, the forensic team and her neighbourhood. “I have narrated the horrific incident to the police over 50 times and each time they ask me the same questions,” she said. “We had to go to Lucknow thrice before they agreed to a medical examination at the Balrampur hospital in Qaiserbagh, 50 km from here.”
The examination, without any counsel or comfort, was terrifying for the lone youngster: “My hair and nails were clipped. They inserted a small stick [swab] in my mouth and in my private parts. I was petrified and shivering in fear.”
A month since the incident, the family is not only exhausted by the many visits to the police station, hospital and court but is also running out of money. “With constant threats from the local police, our younger daughters live in constant fear. How long can we carry on like this?” said the survivor’s father.
The family talks of another incident in a village around 6 km away--a six-year-old dalit girl was raped in 2011 in her school washroom, where she was found naked and bleeding. An FIR was registered but the accused were never arrested because they were politically affluent, they said.
Discouraged from filing FIR
Families of marginalised caste groups complained about how hard it is to register an FIR in a rape case. “Dalit victims are often poor and are often unable to obtain police assistance. They cannot afford to pay bribes that police ordinarily demand for FIR registration,” said the NCDHR report.
The long judicial process that follows the filing of an FIR is unaffordable for poor families--there is the legal fee, the daily wages foregone, transport expenses. Few dalit families we met were in a position to stop working to pursue a case. “[But] upper-caste offenders go scot-free because they have their financial and political affluence,” said Shobhana (she uses one name), a dalit activist from Jaunpur in eastern UP.
By the end of 2019, investigations were pending in a higher proportion in crimes against women in India--33.8%, as compared to 29.3% of all cognisable IPC crimes. Trial had been completed in only 7.6% cases of crimes against women; for crimes against the scheduled castes, this figure was 6.1%. Of these, 60% or more cases had led to an acquittal, IndiaSpend reported on October 9.
The average conviction rate for crimes registered under the SC/ST (PoA) Act that completed trial during 2009 to 2018 was 25.2% while the average acquittal rate was 62.5%, according to the NCDHR report. The conviction rate for crimes against SCs in UP was 66% in 2019.
“In most cases, the police are under pressure to not register an FIR,” said high court advocate Abhishek Dwivedi who has fought several rape cases for dalit survivors. “Ideally, in matters of sexual violence, the entire process should be wrapped up within four months but that never happens. Meanwhile the survivors’ families are pressured to settle out of court or change their statements. The process does not favour a poor dalit man who has hardly any savings or clout.”
The 45-year-old father of the six-year-old rape survivor, who works for a daily wage of Rs 200-250 on land owned by upper caste clans, says families like his have only two options: Feed their families or pursue the case. ”Only those who have money and power can fight these cases,” he said.
Targets in land, political disputes
Crimes against scheduled castes saw an 18.8% increase across the country between 2015 and 2019, as per the Crime in India report. In UP, this increase was 42%. Further, during the same period, cases of rape against scheduled caste women rose 21% in the state, the second highest in the country after Rajasthan.
“The state machinery has become casteist in UP, we saw how the government and police have been trying to protect the upper castes in the Hathras case,” said Shobanasmriti (she uses one name), an activist with the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM) based in Lucknow. “The political will is to protect upper caste offenders and help them assert their authority over the dalits. Mob lynchings, attacks on the communities, rape and murder of young girls has become commonplace. Dalits feel that the system is against them and they have stopped expecting justice even as they reach out for it.”
“In UP, the caste divide is very prominent and the scheduled castes have historically been victims of policy neglect. Atrocities are not new; the only difference is there is an indirect state sanction now,” said Rahul Sapkal, a caste expert currently assistant professor at the Centre for Labour Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). “When states commit suicide who is accountable? The current state machinery lacks accountability, institutions are being guided by political masters.”
The state machinery is being deployed to suppress questions over the condition of the disadvantaged that could make the state look weak, Sapkal said. “At the enforcement level of this machinery is the police where we barely have any dalit or adivasi cadres. Sensitivity trainings happen at higher levels but not for the police,” he said, adding, “A Thakur officer will bring his subjectivity to the case and it will interfere with his job, reports have shown how the police is casteist. The state machinery lacks sensitivity and representation, and it needs both.”
Between 2009 and 2018, UP reported the highest number of atrocities against scheduled castes--accounting for 22.4% cases registered under the PoA Act countrywide. This was followed by Bihar (19.6%) and Rajasthan (10.3%), according to the NCDHR report. Of the 10 states that recorded the highest cases of crimes against scheduled castes between 2009 and 2018, seven were ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party/National Democratic Alliance for most parts, the report noted.
In these caste battles, dalit women became easy targets. ”It could be a land dispute or a political tussle, women become a tool not only for revenge, but to also exhibit power,” said Tahira Hasan, “We see several cases where a woman was simply raped to establish dominance and authority over the community or village.”
A 65-year-old dalit woman was beaten on October 2 in Mahilabad block while she shielded her daughter-in-law who was being harassed by Brahmin men from a neighbouring village. The dalit family alleges that the offenders were trying to encroach their land and the harassment was meant to armtwist them into submission.
Crimes against dalit women account for 14.9% of the total crimes registered under PoA Act between 2014 to 2018. Upto 95% of these crimes were rape, assault to outrage modesty, kidnapping and attempt to comple for marrige, according to the NCHDR report.
Dalit women form the last and weakest rung in the Indian society--they have no power, no earnings, no property or resource of any kind. The lack of ownership of resources lies at the heart of this power dynamic, said Shobanasmriti.
Only 9.23% scheduled castes in rural India own land, according to the 70th round of Land and Livestock Holdings Survey of the NSSO. Amongst the dalits who do own land, women have limited access to or control over the land.
Even within their homes dalit women have little power: 60% of scheduled caste women have no say in how money is spent, 46% do not have have individual bank accounts, 46% cannot go alone to the market, 49% cannot visit a health facility on thier own and 35.7% have experienced some form of physical violence after age 15 inside their homes, according the fourth round of the National Family Health Survey (2015-16).
(Tiwari is a principal correspondent with IndiaSpend. Pandey is a freelancer based in Lucknow.)
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