Dalit Voices is a video series that seeks to keep the discussion of caste-based gender violence alive after the Hathras gang rape and murder of September 2020. We bring you Dalit womxn activists from India and around the world to talk about what is urgently required in the work towards ending caste atrocities in India.
EPISODE 1: In this episode, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Dalit rights activist and Executive Director of Equality Labs talks about why India's caste culture is a culture of rape, what dominant caste people including womxn can and must do and how India should hold itself accountable before the International community.
EPISODE 2 : In Episode#2, Disha Wadekar, Advocate, Supreme Court, talks about how the Indian justice system serves as a tool to entrench the caste system and why it is still important to keep questioning the system. She talks about what immediate measures can be taken under the already existing Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act). Disha talks about the role she'd like civil society and feminists to play in the eradication of caste. [PS: Disha identifies herself as a Vimukta(de notified)-Adivasi-Bahujan woman.]
EPISODE 3: In Episode#3, Grace Banu, India’s first trans*engineer and Dalit activist talks about how dominant caste oppressors consider Dalit bodies untouchable but not when assaulting them sexually. She talks about how they treat land and womxn’s bodies in the same way. Grace puts emphasis on the fact that the onus of bringing change and anti-caste education lies with people who are Savarna or people with caste privilege.
EPISODE 4: In Episode #4, Savita Ali, Lawyer & Core Member of Dalit Womxn Fight explains why there's a problem with dominant caste feminist saying, "Rape is rape, whether the survivor is dominant caste or Dalit." She talks of witch-hunts in Bihar and the distressing challenges Dalit womxn survivors and their supporters face. Savita says it's very common for survivors, their families and supporters to be locked up while the perpetrators roam free.
EPISODE 5: In Episode #5, Christina Dhanaraj, Dalit Rights Activist and Smashboard advisor cautions against boxing and stereotyping Dalit womxn in victimhood, limiting the way they want to imagine themselves as independent, successful, and happy womxn. She talks about how the perception of Dalit womxn as individuals needs to change and calls for an alternative vision where Dalit womxn can thrive. Reminding us that the Hathras case is not an isolated incident, Christina points out that it's critical that people understand the magnitude of caste based sexual violence in India.
EPISODE 6: In Episode #6, Riya Singh, PhD Scholar (research expertise: Special Laws, Atrocity and Gender) and Core Member of Dalit Womxn Fight stresses the need for a government order to disband the caste panchayats which have defended and valourised the upper caste perpetrators in the Hathras rape case. She talks about how we should focus on convicting not just the perpetrators, but the District Magistrate for willful neglect of his duty. She also reminds us of the importance of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, and how it is crucial in preventing atrocities against Dalit groups. Riya says that a larger change in the mainstream discourse on reservation is crucial for creating conditions that prevent atrocities such as Hathras.
EPISODE 7: In Episode #7, writer Vijeta Kumar talks about how we have been overlooking rampant caste-based sexual violence that Dalit womxn have been documenting for more than 15 years. Citing the example of #MeToo, Vijeta reminds us that the domestic worker's union in Bangalore had been talking about sexual harassment several years before English-speaking feminists brought it to light. According to Vijeta, while it's a relief that caste-based sexual violence is finally being acknowledged more, it is also disappointing that it has taken so long.
EPISODE 8: In Episode #8, Swati Kamble, PhD researcher at the University of Geneva says that building strategic alliances and solidarities is urgently needed to fight back caste atrocities. Pointing out that the Justice Verma committee failed to indicate caste based violence in what are considered historic reforms around sexual violence, Swati reminds us that not just the state but the civil society is also often complicit in the exclusion of caste from our policy or legal framework. For Swati, digital activism is becoming too reactionary and chaotic and there is an urgent need for dialogue and meaningful intersectional praxis where the most marginalized can be at the forefront of these conversations. Hathras may have brought many Dalit activists together in unprecedented ways, but Swati says there is further need to create a foundation of dialogue, reflection, and retrospection as first steps in erasing decades of silence on caste based atrocities.
EPISODE 9: In Episode #9, Nikita Sonavane, lawyer and co-founder of the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project says how the Indian criminal justice system is one that is structurally designed to oppress Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi communities. Nikita talks about the erasure of caste from the legal activism, pointing out how Bhanwari Devi’s Bahujan identity was ignored in the Vishaka petitions filed in the Supreme Court. Stressing the need to carve out a feminist imagination that is anti-caste and anti-carceral, Nikita says it’s critical to centre the voices of women from marginalized castes in this discourse.
EPISODE 10: In a film called “Call It What It Is” (extracts featured in this episode), actor and artist Jyotsna Siddharth recently performed to the voice of the Hathras victim’s brother describing what happened on that day. The silent rage and horror is depicted in Jyotsna’s powerful performance with Lutyen’s Delhi in the backdrop, the long empty streets depicting the apathy of the powers that be. Jyotsna calls for a public apology to be issued by the state to the victim’s family and to the community. She underlines the importance of recording the history of the ongoing violence and oppression against people of marginalised castes. Jyotsna demands more transparency regarding budgets earmarked for Dalit-Adivasi communities, and asks for increased accountability and concrete action from the state for the prevention of caste atrocities similar to Hathras.
EPISODE 11: Over 10 years of working closely with rape survivors, core member of Dalit Women Fight Anju Singh says she has observed that despite numerous efforts, justice has always eluded them. Recalling several cases including some such as the Delta case from 2016 for which she was part of the fact finding mission, Anju says Dalit womxn are fighting hard, and the wait for justice has been very long for too many. Working on a case where a minor girl had been raped and burnt alive in U.P. was particularly difficult for Anju, who says that every day, the number of young girls and womxn who lose their lives to casteist, Brahmanical ways of thinking is rising. She stresses on the need to bring survivors into the fold of womxn’s movements and letting them lead the way.
EPISODE 12: “It has taken us 25 years or more of talking about the need for bringing the issues of Dalit womxn’s concerns to the centre stage in the womxn’s movement,” says journalist Cynthia Stephen. The Nirbhaya case was gruesome yet one-off when compared to cases like Hathras that happen every other day, according to her. Not seeing the caste factor in gender violence is a major error that mainstream Indian feminists have been making and that makes them enablers of this kind of persistent violence. Cynthia reminds us that for Dalit womxn, the struggles have been for their basic right to life and basic amenities like water and physical safety. But the mainstream feminist movement has always put domestic violence on the top of their priorities. While the legal reforms that the movement has negotiated for are commendable, sadly, they haven’t benefitted the sisters of the marginalised women who were at the very centre of these reforms: such as Mathura and Bhanwari Devi. Cynthia says this is because the resulting laws are accessible only to a minority of upper caste womxn. This is why a separate law for the rape of Dalit womxn is the need of the hour.
EPISODE 13: When a Dalit womxn faces sexual violence, she is often made to feel she has brought misfortune to the family, as if she has committed a crime, says Manjula Pradeep, Campaigns Director of DHRDNet. Speaking from her personal experience handling cases of Dalit womxn, Manjula adds that this shame and stigma is so overwhelming that even when there is a conviction in a rape case, victims die of suicide. She wonders what the Hathras victim would have faced had she been alive today.Drawing attention to the lack of caste specific data given the underreporting of rapes of Dalit womxn, Manjula says the NCRB figure of 10 Dalit womxn being raped per day is probably very low. Fast-track courts must be set up for rape cases for Dalit womxn- a provision that already exists in the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, she adds. Most girls and womxn rape survivors are left alone, according to Manjula, making it difficult for them to fight for justice unless accompanied by activists. The state doesn’t provide trauma counselling to survivors and their families, despite the provisions present in the law. Emotional support is crucial in fighting for justice, says Manjula. The family of the Hathras victim also needs it.
EPISODE 14: Priyadharsini, founder-director of The Blue Club, calls for a legal reform, stating that even though the SC/ST Act is quite comprehensive, the police either fail to or deliberately do not implement it in these cases. She says it’s crucial to understand and connect the links between caste and gender in order to identify the signs of patriarchal and casteist aggressions in society. Priyadharsini points out how the perpetrators in the Hathras case had been committing caste atrocities against Dalits in the area even before the rape case, noting that Manisha was being intimidated and was afraid to step out of her home. From the perpetrators, to the police and the district courts/local panchayats- dominant caste agents are responsible for the high rates of impunity in Dalit women rape cases. Priyadharsini hopes that an overhaul in these structures and the social and systemic reforms will help prevent Dalit women rapes in the future.
EPISODE 15: “What we need are revolutionaries who are willing to burn with us, burn their ties to caste and their casteist friends and relatives like Ambedkar burnt the Manusmriti. We don’t need burnt bodies of our womxn, we want burnt notions of caste.” Writer Rachelle Bharathi Chandran makes a powerful appeal against casteism. She says violence is rarely a one time occurrence. It is continuous with regard to caste and has been layered for centuries. She warns against the appropriation of Dalit narratives, of the daily harassment in job markets, and reminds us of the cycle of psychological distress casteism creates and raises the question as to who will compensate for these.