Gendering Caste: Through a Feminist Lens


Uma Chakravarti & Maithreyi Krishnaraj

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    Also in the Series


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    Sudesh Vaid

    C. V. Subba Rao

    Madha Sathe

    comrades in the democratic rights movement,

    Krishna Raj

    Alice Thorner

    Sharmila Rege


    Rajni Tilak

    for being what they were

    and for doing what they did.

    A Note from the Series Editor

    Gendering Caste in India

    This series presents introductory texts to draw in readers outside academia as well as for those inside it. Written by well-known scholar-activists of women's studies, the books seek to explain ideas and theories in a simple way and place them securely in the Indian context. Many feminist theories originated in the West and therefore reflected the social and cultural background of the writers and the nature of social configurations within which they sought explanations. Dominant features like the nuclear family, advanced capitalism, different marriage patterns and cultural ethos naturally shape their understanding of women in society (in the beginning they omitted race). More relevant for us are the family, immediate and extended; security; an economy in transition to capitalism; a deeply hierarchic society stratified by class and caste; and persistent conflicts over religion, language, ethnicity and other differences. Scholars here have used standard feminist theories in innovative and imaginative ways, modifying them, elaborating them and offering us a comparative perspective.

    Hence a very important aim of this series is to bring together Third World feminism and feminist theorizing in the broad sense of conceptualizing social reality. Each book is meant to be self-sufficient in itself and yet cumulatively add to the theory-building. As each is written by a different author, the style would vary. The constituent essays in the series are not repetitive but additive. The emergence of autonomous grass-root women's movements here has forced us to rethink our views on liberation and questions of who speaks for whom. It has brought to the forefront a fundamental dilemma: we began by a strong notion of universal sisterhood and now we realize there are divergent interests among us. How do we reconcile them? From saying we are tied by a common bond of oppression to saying we do not have the same kind of oppression, are we stranded in theory?

    We hope these books will be used widely not as ‘prescribed texts’ to be memorized for examinations but for debate and discussion in the classroom and outside; as a springboard for further thought and not as congealed wisdom. In the quick and easy recipes of ‘gender awareness’ programmes, what is missed is that behaviour change occurs never by rhetoric but only when there is a clear understanding of what the limitations and possibilities are for gaining one's freedom in the present situation.

    Gendering Caste by Uma Chakravarti was the first systematic attempt to work out the interface between caste and gender. Delving into historical sources, religious texts, anthropological and sociological literature, Uma shows how gender is critical to the formation of caste. It is truly an astounding piece of interdisciplinary work. Caste as the bulwark of Indian society that has persisted despite many transformations has been much written about, debated about but we had hitherto lacked the theoretical framework to show that gender constituted caste. The first edition originally published in 2003 has been very successful, reprinted three times. Because of the ways caste has changed and gender is perceived during the years since the book was published, a revised edition was in order. As the author's Acknowledgements state, an update was required on various issues, particularly on the new ways caste violence targets women.

    Sexuality, hitherto not aired in India, has come to the fore. Its connection to pervasive violence against women has demonstrated the ideological and material hold of patriarchy in its manifest forms. Feminists had resorted to reform of laws and of law enforcing agencies. Despite all these efforts, the media work as eye-openers on the strength of the ideology of patriarchy in India, with its foundations still secure in caste, family, marriage practices; where female sexuality has to be curbed, where women are violated on issues of ‘honour’ or revenge or caste vengeance.

    Uma has worked assiduously on ancient Indian society and her work on historiography demolished for the first time the standard version of women's position in ancient India, popularized by Altekar, uncritically accepted and taught to generations of post-independent students. Uma's involvement in civil rights movement gives her a ringside view of contemporary politics. With her training in history, and her knowledge of Pali, she has over the years retrieved our past through a feminist sensibility. Gendering Caste contains immense erudition. She has covered a vast historical and geographical territory and given us not only a brilliant account of the link between caste and gender but also helps us to see the transformations in the manifestation of caste across regions and across social groups.

    Patriarchy in India, Uma explains, is in the plural (and the word is used as an adjective), not a monolithic unchanging system. It has checks and balances. She emphasizes the building and maintenance of patriarchy as an ongoing process. Women's subordination to caste and gender oppression, as Uma points out, is maintained through women's complicity: a complicity in view of the threats in not conforming and in the rewards for consent. Her opening paragraph gives us a jolt. Upper caste women may face gender oppression but they also gain the privileges of belonging to a higher caste and will defend those privileges. Caste is extraordinarily successful in dividing women, in erasing a possibility of sisterhood. Such sisterhood can emerge only, Uma thinks, and I would agree, when we eliminate caste. That does not do away with other divisions like class or ethnicity, but these again are other battles. The displaying of caste symbols, many protagonists of brahmanism hold, is innocent and merely vouchsafes brahmana identity. How could it be innocuous? Those symbols are laden with meanings of hierarchy. Yet to discard these is seen as becoming western, forsaking Indian tradition. Hinduism has a dilemma: caste is so inextricably bound up with it. All our rituals, all life-cycle ceremonies, all worship, all daily life activities are permeated with it. What remains of me as a practising Hindu if I throw out caste? Only the philosophy? These are things to ponder on.

    Uma now has brought out an Afterword to her earlier work to make sense of many changes that are taking place in present day India. There is now conflict between the upper castes and the castes lowest in the caste hierarchy (earlier dubbed as untouchables because they were assigned work that was dirty like manual scavenging, removal of dead carcasses of animals). They had to live outside the village or living habitats of other higher castes. The caste system is an ingenious hierarchy, multi-tiered, where someone can be found to be lower than you. For example, the mahars and mangs both dalits, observe a hierarchy between them in Maharashtra. As the French anthropologist Louis Dumont called it, we are Homo hierarchicus.

    The Constitution proclaimed equality to all citizens of India regardless of caste, class and gender. It remains an unfinished agenda, a utopia against the ground reality. Wielders of power are always reluctant to forego their privileges. Hence to dislodge their assumed superiority entrenched over centuries, to acquire the equality enshrined in the Constitution, violent conflict became inevitable. The oppressed classes (the former SC/ST) began to mobilise and called themselves ‘dalit’, namely, ‘oppressed’ that gives meaning to their condition. Uma's text brings to the fore that despite decades after the Constitution's grant of equality, the battle has not been won. Caste and gender continues to occupy the present economic, political and social domains given the fact that violence is an endemic and structural feature of the caste system. The Constitution abolished untouchability technically as a practice but the law could not undo the practice. To gain the rights guaranteed to them, dalits have had to resort to various forms of resistance. Their resistance stems from their attempts to counter the unchallenged power of the upper castes. This power is supported by the administration, the magistrates and the police which are predominantly manned by the dominant castes (who are not merely the erstwhile brahmanas but those below them) who hold substantial economic and political power. Assertion of dalits for their legal equality provokes resistance by the dominant castes who have unleashed extreme violence. There is a pattern to the retaliation by the dominant castes. Uma narrates several instances in recent years where outright lynching of individual or family of dalits, or whole communities, has taken place. One particular episode bears recalling here, because of the way how women are partners in aggression and are also made victims for their men's resistance.

    Uma points out that women are at the heart of the conflict as protagonists and as victims. Kishan was a dalit who worked for his employer, Yeduram Kale, who made obscene gestures calculated to outrage the modesty of Sonabai, Kishan's wife, by holding the edge of her pallu and offering her money (see Afterword). Sonabai lodged a complaint to Kale's wife. Six months later Kishan stopped working for Kale and explained to Kale's wife that if your women have modesty, so do our women. Don't misbehave with our women and think you can get away after making offensive gestures to them. We will not take it lying down. In retaliation Sonabai and her sisters-in law were taken to Kale's house, disrobed and beaten up. The message was: how dare a dalit woman protest against an obscene gesture and claim to have bodily integrity?

    The Prevention of Atrocities against SC/ST Act was passed in 1989. During the National Movement for Justice in 2013, the Chairperson of the National Commission for SC/ST demanded that that the government should take note of the frequent violence against women. The Office of the Commission for SC/ST began to make a review of complaints but the onus of proving no such atrocity was committed, was given to the perpetuator! Court verdict tells us that even though the law maintained its monopoly to punish crimes, it did not displace the monopoly of the dominant castes to rape, kill, dalit women. Uma says the law might punish the accused but does not acknowledge that sexual violence is central to caste domination. A survey of some major cases of caste-based sexual violence suggests that the culture of impunity in caste-/gender-based violence is deep rooted, too sedimented, internalized, too normalized, too banal to make legal redress possible. Uma feels that it is social silence and social scientists not recognizing sexual violence as a tool to retain dominance of upper castes that prevents the effectiveness of law. Schooling has given girls some exposure to the public sphere. Endogamy (the practice of marriage within caste) is primarily the instrument for retaining caste. When young women and men have begun to marry outside their caste, there is violence against the offenders known as ‘honour killing’. Uma ends with the hope that the emergence of committed young men and women taking over from former tired old leaders would transform politics. There lies our hope.

    We hope it would be possible to bring out translations of Uma's text to reach wider groups all over India. My immeasurable gratitude to Uma and to Mandira: I believe generations of students and young men and women to come will feel enriched by this text and hopefully build on it. There is such a sense of fulfilment that the dream of readable ‘Gendering Caste’ in India is a reality.

    Series Editor

    Maithreyi KrishnarajBengaluru12 May 2018


    This work would never have been written but for the gentle and persistent pressure that Maithreyi Krishnaraj applied upon me for all of four years, stoking my own pangs of guilt. She also read the first draft and made extensive comments, making many useful suggestions that ran into many typed pages. Throughout the period of writing and revising, it was clear that Maithreyi not only read the work closely but also identified with the project totally. Its completion is as much her achievement as has been my input into sustaining the writing through a very trying period—personally and politically. V. Geetha and Gopal Guru also read and commented on an earlier draft; I have tried to incorporate their suggestions as comprehensively as possible. Pratiksha Baxi read the first draft and made important comments. In addition, she allowed me to use material from her doctoral work. This is rare generosity and I am deeply grateful to her for her gesture of solidarity and for the long and insightful discussions we had as the work was being completed.

    I owe a debt to Ambedkar for his insights in linking caste and gender. His work on endogamy made possible my work on the role played by gender in constituting caste. Others have contributed to my understanding of caste over many decades. Sharing life with Anand Chakravarti as he did his first stint of fieldwork in Rajasthan in 1964–65 introduced me to the lived reality of caste in rural India. Sharing Anand's concern for inequality has shaped my own interest in the field and this work would not be what it is without the long interaction that we have had over five decades. On hindsight I am glad that I am a historian and he a sociologist—it is these two disciplines that have informed this work. I have also had discussions on various aspects of caste with Gail Omvedt, Prem Chowdhry, Janaki Abraham, Kumkum Sangari, Kumkum Roy, Ashley Tellis (who gifted me with many books on caste and never failed to urge me to finish each time we met), Radhika Singha, G. Aloysius, Tripta Wahi and Vijay Singh (who have kept a close watch on caste discrimination in the University campus of Delhi), Sanjay Misra and Kumar Sanjay Singh (compatriots in our attempts to create alternate opinion during the virulence of the anti-Mandal agitation at the University of Delhi) and Tanika and Sumit Sarkar. I am grateful to all of them. More recently I have had many discussions with the members of the PUDR (People's Union for Democratic Rights) fact finding teams to investigate the lynchings of dalits in Jhajjhar and violence against young couples who attempt to marry across the caste divide in Haryana, and this joint work has sharpened my understanding enormously.

    Over the years many people have provided me with an opportunity to think about caste and I am indebted to all of them, particularly, Ram Bapat, Sharmila Rege, Vidyut Bhagwat, and the young team at the Women's Studies Department of Pune, especially Swati and Anagha. I would like to thank Subhash Ghatade, Rajesh, and Ranjana who have taken a sustained interest in caste issues and helped to mobilize on a variety of issues on caste and gender in Delhi. I have also benefited from my discussions with Dev Nathan, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, S. Anandhi, Kalpana Kannabiran, Meera Velayudhan, M. S. S. Pandian, Rajni Tilak and Hemant. Presentations on caste and gender were made at a conference on Ambedkar at Pune University and in special lectures at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, and at the University of Bombay. I am grateful to all those who participated in the discussion on these occasions.

    The Madras Institute of Development Studies also invited me to the Institute as a visiting professor in January 2002. The fellowship enabled me to work on this script without the ‘routinized’ interruptions that are otherwise a normal part of my life. I have also used the work of a very large number of people in writing this book whom I cannot list here but would like to acknowledge their contribution to understanding both caste and gender, even as the connections between the two have not always been drawn out.

    Mandira Sen of Stree has plied me with suggestions and generously accessed material to pursue the suggestions. And, finally, I am thankful to my family for supporting my work, Srikant for organising my life, Siddhartha, who lives far away, but worries about what stands I take in repressive times though he generally approves of what I write and approves too of my being a feminist; I am grateful to Anuja for physical and emotional sustenance and especially, for her capacity to make one laugh even during difficult times. Athadeep Aman, the little boy at home also makes me laugh and lets me see the face of hope and affection for everyone, no matter who they are.

    I must also acknowledge the many, many readers of this book, mostly students of universities, some of whom are first generation students, women and men, who have kept the book in print since 2003; it is for them that I have written an Afterword, an update on gendering caste as it unfolds today.

  • Epilogue

    It is time to return to the beginning of our explorations: of the way caste exists at a fundamental level as a system of hierarchy and power in our lives and how little we recognize it. Of how it is masked as ‘merit’ in the reservations debate; or as the culture and tradition of specific communities. Or as a mere circle of marriage practices with no relationship to hierarchy or power. As a system of ‘cooperation’ in which each community develops skills and becomes part of a larger organ of exchange; of what people like to eat and what they don't. When regarded as bad, it is something like the ‘vitiation of our electoral system’. Or it is regarded as preventing us from becoming good scientists and doctors because our institutions are infected with the virus of caste-based reservations. Often it is regarded as forcing us into a denial of our secular modernity through fixing us into categories of forwards, backwards, most backwards, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

    In the face of such popular tropes about caste, the process of beginning to examine the linkages between caste/class and gender and how each of these axes shape the other is hardly simple, especially because we are all so strongly implicated in the system, whether we are aware of it or not, whether we like it or not. The complexity of the structure and its relationship to hierarchy, material basis and to violence is even more difficult to recognize, especially by those who occupy privileged positions in the system. For women and men who occupy the lower end of caste hierarchies, however, recognition of these structures occur from childhood; analysis may then seem an unnecessary intellectualism because the lower castes experience caste in their everyday lives much more directly, much more palpably. What may still be useful is to outline the relationship between caste and gender so that we may find ways of addressing their workings jointly rather than severally.

    The task of unravelling the relationship between caste and gender—of gendering the caste system—is even more difficult than recognizing their workings individually because the whole weight of domestic ideology is against such a recognition. Within families, schools, and even colleges the consensus model of the caste system prevails and here the naturalization of patriarchal models has not even begun to be interrogated. Most dangerous of all is the manner in which the powerful medium of TV is reproducing and consolidating the idea that the carefully controlled marriage system is the norm and needs to remain so in the face of challenges from a rapidly changing society. In this the medium of TV, especially in recent years, is a contrast to the valorization of love in Hindi cinema. By and large the question of the caste affiliations of the young lovers was systematically elided through the use of unfixable surnames such as Kumar, except in the case of Christian and Muslim protagonists. Thus the question of whether the marriage that was always the finale in the film was between two persons of broadly the same marriage circle, even though the marriage was not arranged by the parents, was always left ‘unmarked’. In contrast the caste affiliations of families in the TV serials, especially in the (in)famous Balaji productions of Ekta Kapoor are loudly proclaimed as Agrawals, Viranis, Kapoors and so on, as are their family traditions, which are always drawn from upper caste practices. The family deities— a Radha-Krishna, or a Krishna, or a Rama, or a Ganesha, or Durga but never a Mariamman or a Pochamma worshipped by the lower castes—are located in a separate and central space at which the family congregates daily, and at every crisis. The women are the guardians of family traditions and observe all the rituals expected of devoted wives, fast periodically as in the karva chauth and even perform dangerous rituals, which could harm them, for the perpetually tenuous lives of their husbands. The careful arrangement of marriages remains the norm, although there are occasional instances of falling in love: the norm that is propagated is that love must follow marriage, not precede it as has been the pattern for stories in the women's magazines as Patrica Uberoi and Amrita Tyagi Singh have shown.1

    The tension in this structure comes from the conflict between desire—especially, though not invariably, male desire which cannot be contained within the arranged marriage system—and thus with the partners that have been chosen. Ultimately the desire, which is illicit because it is not within marriage, leads the partners astray with a final resolution almost always upholding the sacred marriage tie. In between reproduction, legitimate reproduction itself, is the first casualty of the tension—the legitimate partners in the marriage are unable to conceive, or the conception is threatened by dangers both physical and mental. Since the marital tie has to be upheld, it is not infrequent that the child of the illicit union is brought up within the conjugal household because the woman disrupting the marriage conveniently dies in childbirth. It is apparent from all the serials that the marriage system is under severe stress—by internal and external factors—but the attempt, through the ideological underpinnings of the serials on TV, which are more formative than films today because TV is so much a part of domestic life, is to battle these factors. The narratives thus respond to the concerns of men and women but contain the damage posed by the threatened tradition— the foremost being the upper caste family—by pegging it on the newly reformulated codes for women. Thus upper caste women continue to be successfully socialized into consenting to family, caste and gender norms that invisibilize the oppressive structures that continue to be reproduced in our society. Many women then can believe that they are actually against an oppressive piece of legislation like the Mandal ordinance, spearheaded by a populist and manipulative leader and therefore have a legitimate right to bemoan the loss of potentially employed partners from their own upper castes in the powerful bureaucracy. These positions, they believe, they have a right to because merit ‘naturally’ resides among them. The entire history of the caste system, its relationship to unequal control over material assets, and particularly to cultural capital through centuries of entrenched hierarchies does not exist for the upper caste protestors who can construct themselves as its victims. Nor is its control over women's sexuality or the coercion through which it was perpetuated perceived by them. Instead, its oppressive practices can be erased in one sweep in the ‘righteous’ anger of those fighting for the ‘merit’ principle and against the archaic caste system, which either does not exist for the upper caste protestors, or else they see themselves as its victims, as mentioned earlier.

    To sum up, we can see that the women's movement has raised very pertinent questions on the inequality that exists between men and women in our society and has also taken up many crucial issues that impinge on women's lives—access to productive resources, to the right to control their own bodies, and to a host of other issues, but, above all, to the violence women experience virtually from conception to death. Given that violence has been so central to the reproduction of patriarchy, it is significant that the women's movement has not linked up sufficiently the violence inherent in the caste system to the violence in patriarchy. Given that women's studies is an outcome of the women's movement and owes its rationale to creating tools and concepts to understand patriarchy/ies from a woman-centred perspective; and given that patriarchy/ies in India is/are deeply shaped by caste, gendering the caste system is a long overdue task. This book is a small beginning, and only a beginning, which other students, teachers and researchers will need to take forward before we can unravel the complex formations that we live in so that we may proceed to find strategies to struggle against them.


    1. Amita Tyagi Singh, and Patricia Uberoi, ‘Learning to “Adjust”: Conjugal Relations in Indian Popular Fiction,’ Indian Journal of Gender Studies 1, 1 (1994); Patricia Uberoi, ‘A Suitable Romance: Trajectories of Conjugality in Indian Popular Fiction.’ In Images of Modernity in Asia: Global Media/Local Meaning, edited by Shoma Munshi (London: Curzon Press, 2001).

    Afterword: Caste and Gender in the New Millennium

    Much has happened in the public sphere around the caste question since the writing of this book in 2003 and that makes a second edition of Gendering Caste require an update that can examine issues that the last decade or more have thrown up. Let me begin with the dastardly violence in Khairlanji as a focal point through which we may trace the different threads of the caste and gender question as it now occupies the economic, political and social domains. It is not as if Khairlanji hadn't ever happened before; violence against dalits has been an endemic and structural feature of the caste system. But in post-Constitution India dalits are technically equal citizens of the country and untouchability itself, as a practice, has been abolished. It is precisely because of these statutory ‘protections’ that the violence in Sirasgaon in December 1963,1 and then again in Khairlanji in 2006,2 more than forty years later, allows us to see the violence that inheres in the caste system, especially in terms of the conjoint nature of caste and gender as the deadly mix that it entails. As dalit resistance is seen as an attempt to counter the unchallenged power of the upper castes, or as a claim for rights, the violence against them escalates to new heights. Brutal acts of unimaginable violence then take place in which whole communities of the village participate in a kind of sport where sexual assault is central to the attack on dalits. We witnessed this first in Sirasgaon and then in Khairlanji and it is significant that both these brutal assaults took place in Maharashtra which has been the classic land of dalit and non-brahmana struggles since the days of Phule in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century Ambedkar continued and expanded on these struggles and then wrote caste into the Constitution in a way that enabled the possibilities of change and the claiming of rights by the dalits: for land, water, dignity as the tangible signs of a meaningful understanding of equality. Unfortunately the Constitution merely ‘grants’ rights; to activate them they must be claimed by the dalits themselves (as no one else is invested in ensuring that the rights are claimed) but when they do there is brutal repression that follows. There is a pattern to the retaliatory attacks by the upper castes and despite attempts to provide legal support to prevent ‘atrocities’ against the dalits the violence has not diminished or been countered effectively to date.

    The violence in Sirasgaon in 1963 may be regarded as a moment when the constitutional guarantee of equality to all citizens of the country, regardless of the continuation of the practices of the caste system, and the simultaneous abolition of the practice of untouchability in particular, were tested in the social and legal domains. The incident itself was not in its origins based on what would be perceived, especially at that time, as a violent act. An employer of labour, Yeduram Kale, who according to the bare facts recounted in the judgement, made some gestures ‘calculated to outrage the modesty’ of Sonabai, wife of Kishan, who worked as a labourer for him, by holding the edge of her pallu and offering her money. Sonabai mentioned the incident to her mother-in-law, Laxmibai, who accompanied her to the house of Yeduram Kale where the incident was recounted to the latter's wife, Shevantibai. Shevantaibai apologized to the two on behalf of her husband. About six months later Kishan decided to stop working for Yeduram Kale and told Shevantibai about how he had reacted to the gesture (clearly the incident had festered over the months) made to his wife, Sonabai. In doing so, when he spoke to her, Kishan asked Shevantibai to imagine how she would have felt if Kishan himself had touched the edge of her sari to outrage her modesty. Shevantibai went on to relate the incident to her husband, perhaps with some ‘relishment’ as the judge put it. Thereafter Yedu, and other accused in the case that followed the violence in Sirasgaon, went to Kishan's father's house demanding to see Kishan as ‘Kishan had played mischief with Yadu's wife’. Two of his sons ran away and Kishan, who saw the crowd at his house, ran away for a week. Laxmibai as well as Sonabai, Kadubai and Sakrabai, other daughters-in-law of Laxmibai were then dragged out of the house and beaten; Sonabai's sari was removed as were Kadubai's and Sakrabai's. All four women were taken to the entrance of the village all the while being subjected to beatings. The women tried to cover their ‘genitals with their hands’ which too were beaten; then they were taken to Yedu's house so that Shevantibai could ‘see’ them in that condition so that she could see that her men had taken revenge for the alleged offence committed by Kishan. A sari was then thrown to them which all four women used to cover themselves as they walked back home. While the men of Kishan's family had fled the women were stripped and paraded, which was permitted as a form of punishment in the Dharmashastras to ‘errant’ women.3 Women were also at the centre of the execution of the ‘punishment’ and of course women were the victims of the attack: how dare a dalit woman protest against an obscene gesture and claim to have the right to bodily integrity no matter what the Constitution granted.

    On the basis of the women's complaint, which initially did not highlight the stripping (as the women were hesitant/shy to draw attention to this act of humiliation) a first judgement acknowledged that the ‘harijans’ were placed at the mercy of the villagers without any regard to ‘modesty or humanity’. The case then went in appeal. The judgement went into further contortions in trying to arrive upon the meaning, and implication, of the incident of stripping and parading. It also noted the participation of women in the act of humiliation, and tried to ‘read’ the two acts of Yedu's gesture to Sonabai, as well as the subsequent verbal counter on the part of Kishan to Yedu's wife, which precipitated the attack on the four women of Kishan's family. However one might try to interpret the judgement, what is inescapable is that for the first time in post-Constitution India dalits ‘tested’ the meaning of the constitutional changes to the everyday lives and everyday practices of caste as it unfolded between men and men, men and women, and women and women across the dalit–non-dalit divide. Through his gesture to Sonabai what Yedu was saying is that caste and class privilege meant that he could have any woman he wanted, a practice that existed across many centuries and is documented in the Kamasutra where the upper caste man can seduce the women who come to work for him. What Kishan was saying, but which Shevantibai had found offensive, is that if your women have modesty, and dignity, so do ours. If your women can be, or are seduced, how would you like it? Now there is equality between men but also between how women of different castes are viewed. The message that Kishan was trying to send out is ‘Don't misbehave with our women and think its okay to make offensive gestures to them and get away with it. We will protest and not take it lying down anymore, and we will make that clear by claiming the equality that now exists between Shevantibai and Sonabai, as between Yedu and Kishan.’ Women are at the heart of the conflict as protagonists and as victims, and also as aggressors in this new moment of constitutionally protected/granted rights to all citizens equally.

    Sirasgaon was only a beginning; stripping and parading as a form of ‘punishment’ meted out to dalit women or women regarded as errant, usually from middle castes such as in the infamous Maya Tyagi case,4 continued to catch the public eye at different times in the last 70 years. That could have been the motivation to build stripping and parading as a specific provision into the Prevention of Atrocities Act when it was passed in 1989 as a special law which named stripping and parading as an atrocity derogatory of dalit or tribal men, women and children. Atrocities are legally defined as those crimes listed in the Prevention of Atrocities (POA) Act 1989, against a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe man or woman or child, committed by a person(s) who is not an SC or ST. The POA Act is mindful of the power imbalance that exists in India society and it was created as a protective measure more than 42 years after independence. It is meant to counter-balance the extreme imbalance in society despite the abolition of untouchability and the enshrinement of equality as a fundamental right in the Constitution. The 1989 Act was only given a legally active existence in 1995 when rules were laid out to make it operative. The Act has also gone through two further revisions/amendments in 2015 and 2016 where changes were made following the submissions made to the Verma Committee in 2012, leading to changes in the criminal law on rapes which named some offences more specifically but also changed some provisions which had relevance for specific forms of violence against dalit women. A brief overview of the workings of the POA Act are therefore useful in understanding how caste has featured in the legal provisions that expand the manner in which the Constitution had tried to make the equality law more effective for disadvantaged people like the dalits and adivasis.

    In a study conducted by the National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ) in 2013,5 the context for the study was provided by the developments in Delhi when it had become the site of major demonstrations in the Nirbhaya rape incident in December 2012. The chairperson of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes drew attention to the number of cases of rapes of dalit girls in neighbouring Haryana. Indeed, when the demonstrators thronged the Vijay Chowk area in December 2012, demanding that the government take note of the heinous violations against women in public places in the Nirbhaya case, dalit groups asked a pertinent question to the rest of the country: why did such visible signs of outrage not take place when scores of dalit girls are gang-raped in villages and small towns in the neighbourhood of the capital? The study went back to the early 2000s and went on to flag the violence dalits faced in Haryana up until 2013 when the study was conducted. Delhi itself witnessed major sit-ins and agitation on attacks against dalits including the driving out of dalits from villages where they dared to protest against outrages committed against them and their demand for common lands in 2013–2014. Making land a central issue the dalits of Bhagana demanded shamlat (common) for their livelihood as well as house sites to become independent of the power of the dominant groups in the village. As part of a brutal ‘retaliation’ by the dominant groups (mainly Jats in Haryana), in the village four dalit girls of Bhagana were kidnapped and raped. For months they sat on a dharna in Jantar Mantar, the only place available for demonstrators as spaces for dharnas and demonstrations have shrunk all over the city of Delhi, seeking land outside the village of Bhagana as they were being intimidated in their native village. Earlier, Mirchpur in Haryana had witnessed large scale violence as dominant castes went on the rampage against dalits in a totally bizarre incident when youths from dominant caste took offence at a dog that barked at them: the dog lived in a dalit house and compound so perhaps it was regarded as a ‘dalit’ dog which had the temerity to bark at dominant caste men and that in turn was an insult to their casteist manhood. In ‘retaliation’ the dominant caste groups in the village attacked the dalit basti and torched the houses, killing an elderly Balmiki man and his disabled daughter, and injuring scores of other dalits of the village. The Balmikis left the village en masse as they tried to escape to safety. A case was filed with help from civil rights lawyers as the incident revealed the deep seated faultline in Indian society: a special report on Mirchpur opens with a quote from Dr B. R. Ambedkar which is eloquent in how it frames the criminal-legal system in India:

    [That] the Hindus most often succeed in pulling down the untouchables is largely due to many causes. The Hindu has the police and the Magistracy on his side. In a quarrel between Untouchables and the Hindus the Untouchables will never get protection from the police or justice from the Magistrate. The police and the Magistrate are Hindus and they love their class [caste] more than their duty. But the chief weapon in the armoury of the Hindus is economic power they possess over the poor Untouchables living in the village.6

    This statement points to the unacknowledged aspects of what has been described as ‘social power’, a power that pervades every aspect of life in India and dominates the administration and institutional apparatus that governs India.7 How then can the dalits access justice and expect legal redressal for the wrongs inflicted upon them? We are no longer governed by the caste distinctive code of laws, derived from brahmana ideologues that existed in pre-colonial India since the Constitution specifically enjoins equality as the principle that governs the law. Since equality, however, does not actually prevail because the police and the magistracy are imbued with the remnants of Manu's ideology, only a few dalits could find relief from social and economic oppression through the legal system. A demand for a law that would acknowledge the difference between exploitation and oppression, what was economic and what was social and cultural in its origins, began to grow. That, in turn, led to the framing of an act that would acknowledge ‘atrocity’ for what it was: a specifically Indian/Hindu type of harm experienced by the dalits and adivasis in India.

    How is atrocity a different type of crime? How can an atrocity be made to be a crime that can actually deliver justice? Pratiksha Baxi has shown us how an atrocity came to be recognized as such in the POA Act of 1989. Drawing from the writings that followed its passing she suggests that an atrocity is a ‘gross evil’, a widespread toleration of wrongfully perpetrated intolerable harm to individuals.8 Baxi argues that a protectionist act like the POA Act aims to ‘infuse criminal law with constitutional ideals of substantive equality by re-signifying previously stigmatised bodies as bearers of rights’. As a special law the POA Act requires the governmental apparatus to allow dalits and tribals greater access to courts; it seeks to counter the structures of impunity and immunity that denies justice to dalits and adivasis. It is in that sense an ‘exceptional law’ that tries to make the less equal more equal by providing the less equal with an protective umbrella that would enable these categories of victims access to the law when violence is inflicted upon them when they seek to claim their constitutional rights and when they refuse to be passive victims.9 Atrocities had come to be acknowledged as a more grievous harm since the 1950s when the Office of Commissioner for SCs and STs began to maintain a record of complaints. By the 1970s and 1980s atrocities against the dalits came to be acknowledged as evidence of the ‘systemic’ domination of the dalits. To counter this dominance, the sociologist Ramesh Kamble pointed out that it was necessary to regard every offence committed against the dalits by upper caste Hindus, who had for centuries regarded the dalits as untouchables, and had stigmatized them, as presumed to have been committed. The accused should therefore prove that he had not actually committed the said crime; the onus of proof should shift to the accused rather than in ordinary crimes.

    In 1989 the Special Commissioner for SCs and STs P. S. Krishnan specifically used the category of ‘atrocity’ to pioneer a special law. The statement of objectives declared that such a law was necessary as there had been an increasing trend of assaults upon the SCs, forcing them to be humiliated in very revolting ways, mass killings (there is an unmentioned acknowledgement of cases like Keezhvenmani 1968, Belchi 1977 and Karamachedu 1985;10) and the rape of women belonging to the SCs and STs. A special law to check and deter crimes against them committed by non-SCs and non-STs had therefore become necessary. What is significant is that discussions during the parliamentary debates over the proposed legislation made a connection between the growing atrocities against the SCs and STs and the social changes that were sought to be engineered by government policies as part of its constitutional mandate for the protection of these groups. The growing violence against the dalits was framed as a backlash against new forms of social mobility and self-assertion as claimers of constitutional rights. As a retaliation and ‘to teach them a lesson’, women were raped and entire villages were burnt. Sexual violence was central to these acts of power to reassert domination: women were dishonoured: this, the debate recognized, was the worst type of atrocities committed on the SCs. As Pratiksha Baxi writes, ‘teaching a lesson becomes an operative term to distinguish rape as a crime from rape as an atrocity’.11 These were crimes which had ingredients of the infliction of suffering in one form or other upon SCs and STs.

    In sum, the POA Act was designed to counter the social power of the savarnas, the power of the dominant castes12 and to appropriate all the organs of the state and use that power to stigmatise and degrade the SCs and STs by word and deed. It is designed to provide a legal acknowledgement of such a deep-rooted social imbalance which even the constitutional rights could not deal with sufficiently and to redress that imbalance with special legislation. Both physical and verbal assaults were built into the new law to make the less equal dalits and adivasis more equal through the special protection the POA Act would provide.

    Retaliatory violence against dalits had appeared in post-independence India within a couple decades by which time it was amply clear that the state in India had failed to deliver on its promise of freedom for all, food for all and dignity for all. It is not surprising that the late 1960s was characterized by many food riots as well widespread unrest in rural India. Left-wing groups were active in many parts of India. In 1968 a brutal retaliatory attack against agricultural labourers demanding minimum wages and a right to organize themselves took place in Keezhvenmani in Tamil Nadu, as mentioned earlier, where 44 dalits were burnt alive on Christmas Day while in many parts of the world people were celebrating the message of peace on earth and goodwill among men. The landlord, a dominant caste man (at that time from the Naidu community), was widely believed to have used his muscle men to trap the villagers in a hut and set it on fire as the agricultural labourers, all dalits, were refusing to give up on their demands. According to an eyewitness, a dalit woman, the attack had followed more than six months of extreme harassment by the landlords when they suffered hunger and privation as attempts were made to break the resistance of the dalits to the terms set by the landlords which was violative of their constitutional rights: minimum wages and the right to unionise.13

    The case went to trial but when the judgement came the it sent waves of outrage across India as the judge dismissed the charges against the landlord saying ‘gentlemen farmers do not kill’. As Mythily Sivaraman wrote sharply ‘Gentlemen farmers’ would not pollute their own hands with blood:

    The High Court has clearly implied that it is beneath the dignity of the landlord to pollute his hands with the blood of a paraiya. Why should these gentlemen risk such sacrilege when they can get as much harijan blood as their lordly hearts' desire for a few rupees?No, a man who owned extensive lands and drove around in his own car could never get that crass.14

    As the case had already gone into appeal, and with political games being played out by the government in power, someone or some group of people decided to deal with the issue outside the court structures and killed the main landlord who was regarded as the chief culprit in the killings. Be that as it may, Keezhvenmani became a metaphor for the failure of the poor and the marginalized dalits to get justice in the courts of law in ‘free’ India, as Ambedkar had pointed out. And, as we see today, the media failed to respond to the terrible tragedy that had happened in Keezhvenmani: because of the outrage experienced by a young social scientist who went on to becoming a political activist, sections of the press did get to know:

    The treatment that the victims of the Venmani got from the majority of newspapers in Tamilnadu was a grotesque irony—a macabre display of the sense of objectivity of the ‘free press’. The indecent haste with which the dailies took up the case of the landowners in their reports and editorials was shocking.15

    While Keezhvenmani came to be well known in social science writing, atrocities did not stop in India. There was Belchi in 1977 in Bihar where 11 dalits were killed and Mrs Gandhi rode into the village on an elephant making a show of great sympathy for the dalits. She rode back to power after her time of exile following the emergency; her dramatic visit to Belchi earned her many votes though it did nothing for the impunity with which dalits are subjected to atrocities. Soon there was Karamchedu in 1984 where 5 dalits were killed in a dispute over water and where too the High Court acquitted all the accused.

    Finally, under pressure from dalits and concerned bureaucrats such as P. S. Krishnan, the Government of India passed the Prevention of Atrocities Act; it provided for a number of critical measures that forced the judiciary to take cognisance of the workings of the civil and criminal administration in making justice accessible to the SCs and STs. It specifically acknowledged forms of discrimination SCs and STs routinely faced including verbal assaults and humiliations, sexual violence against dalit and adivasi women. Special courts were set up to try cases under the POA Act. But the specific acknowledgement of such crimes as a particular type of atrocity have not always worked as Pratiksha Baxi has shown in her research on the POA Act in the context of sexual violence. The accused often get acquitted on hyper technical grounds such as not knowing that a woman is an SC or ST, or on get lesser sentences as the accused did not rape the woman because she was dalit but out of being ‘overcome by lust’ or a wave of sexual desire! As one judgement held: ‘The mere fact that the victim belonged to the category of SC does not attract the provisions of the Act.’16 To sum up, Baxi argues that the mere fact dalits and tribals are, and have been, a stable target of rape is not seen as a form of historical discrimination. Instead everyday forms of gang-rape are contrasted with stylized images of atrocity as sanctioning organized, mass-scale and spectacular sexual violence calculated to send a message to men of unequal status.17

    Did the new law of 1989 work as it was envisaged? How were crimes committed before the atrocities act passed dealt with by the courts before and after its passing? A quick survey is revealing. Only in one case can we see the intended workings of the POA Act provide genuine justice to the survivors of an all night orgy of violence by hundreds of policemen and forest officials in Tamil Nadu at Vachati, an adivasi hamlet close to a forest, in 1992. The police were supposedly pursuing Veerappan, a sandalwood smuggler, who they alleged was sheltering in the village. A scuffle between the adivasis and the police and forest officials led to the threat of retaliatory action by the policemen men. The men fled the village and the policemen executed their retaliatory action upon those left behind: beatings, destruction of the grain, polluting of wells in the neighbourhood, slaughtering of the chickens feasting by the power drunk ‘officials’ and finally the rape of eighteen women, mostly young girls.

    As the happenings at Vachati began to come to light, mainly because of the work of women activists from the CPI(M), the government began to justify the actions of their men. Despite prevarication and stalling tactics by the state the case went to trial after a special public prosecutor was appointed specifically provided for by the POA Act. Finally a judgement came nearly 19 years after the incident had happened and 54 of the accused had died. The judgement acknowledged that an atrocity had been committed; the guilty were sentenced and the court also ordered the payment of compensation to the survivors of the sexual violence. The judgement against the perpetrators of violence itself was made possible on the basis of the newly formulated POA Act where sexual violence was marked for special attention and the women survivors of the orgy of violence had stayed firm in their search for justice, braving stigma, and were supported by an able team of lawyers and activists.18

    If we follow the arc of atrocities from Sirasgaon to Keezhvenmani, and then to Vachati, we can trace the potential of the POA Act to redress the balance of power that had operated in India for centuries. But, when one looks back, it appears that Vachati was almost the exception in the working of the POA Act which has been observed more in the breach than in its operations. Between the passing of the POA Act and the judgement in the Vachati case we can see the subversion of the law and the dashing of possibilities, in Khairlanji where there was almost a re-enactment of Sirasgaon but with more deadly consequences.

    Khairlanji, 2005

    In the heart of the Vidharba region one of the most barbaric attacks on dalits in post-Ambedkarite Maharashtra took placethe Khairlanji atrocity—where a mother and daughter were stripped, battered, paraded naked, raped and killed by a mob goaded by the entire villagewhere a victory procession of caste-Hindu violence ended with the dumping of the bodies in a canal after a ‘victory’ procession through the village.19

    Anand Teltumbde locates the gruesome happenings in Khairlanji in the form of a terrifying occurrence of sexual violence, and its erasure, in conflicts in the political economy, and the manner in which violence against dalit women is so naturalized that every arm of the state: the administration, the police, the medical establishment, the local media, political parties and even elected dalit representatives, are all implicated in subverting the possibilities of justice. Ultimately, although the criminal legal system was forced to act under pressure from mobilization of the dalits in Khairlanji, the specific types of sexual violence dalit women are often subjected to—such as stripping, parading and rape—disappeared in the judgement of the High Court. Initial reports on the violence had acknowledged that Priyanka and Surekha had been stripped and paraded, even tied to a cart before the bodies were disposed off. Priyanka's body had rods inserted into the genitals.20 Two post-mortems were conducted one after exhuming the body, which was too late in terms of finding any useful evidence; the massive cover-up was successful in clouding the evidence in filing a case that would include sexual violence amongst the charges in the case proceedings. The judgement did not specifically address the crime of sexual violence, even as it punished a few of the accused for the murder of four members of the Bhotmange family. It also did not see the need to invoke the provisions of the Prevention of Atrocities Act that had been introduced in the law to address crimes against the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes as it recognizes the specific nature of social hierarchy in India and the endemic low intensity conflicts that mark social relations between dalits and caste Hindus.

    Typically, the erasures included turning a specific caste-based reprisal against the two women for having the temerity to use their fundamental right to file an FIR in a crime that they had witnessed. That act became the ground-spring of the sexual violence against them, recast as a sense of anger on the part of the accused for the two women having levelled ‘false’ allegations against them. Just as in the Manorama case21 the security personnel sexually assaulted Manorama, allegedly for being a member of the PLA, a militant group, two years before Khairlanji, here too the women were punished for challenging the unwritten writ of the upper castes in dominating the dalits. Ordinary acts such as Priyanka, the daughter of the Bhotmange's, going to college, riding a bicycle, and exercising her rights as a citizen by being party to her mother's filing of an FIR, led to the horrendous reprisal: being beaten with bicycle chains—the very chains that had been an instrument of her freedom as she cycled to college every day. She was then stripped, paraded, raped and thrown into a canal to erase crucial evidence. And, to compensate for the calculated destruction of crucial evidence and/or shift responsibility, in this case too rumours were set afloat of an adulterous relationship that the mother was allegedly involved in; these rumours had the disastrous impact of turning everyone in the chain of investigation often in the hands of dalit officials against the family. Acting as moral ‘policers’, and displaying patriarchal governance of women's sexuality is as embedded in dalit men as it is savarna men. Thankfully, a fact-finding investigation by a senior bureaucrat within a few days indicted local officials for their role in not collecting evidence, suppressing the news of the killings, protecting the culprits and conducting shoddy investigations. The report also attributed the violence against the Bhotmanges to caste hatred and acknowledged that the women were sexually assaulted but the Government of Maharashtra ignored the report and even took it off a website that it had been uploaded on to. Long before the judgement of the High Court that punished the assaulters for the murders but took no notice of the caste dimension of the attack nor of the sexual assault a dalit activist had sung: ‘Nyaya vyavastha tujhi nahi, shasan vyavastha tujhi nahi—the judiciary is not yours, the government is not yours’.22

    As the case unfolded the gruesome violence in Khairlanji where women were raped and killed but rape charges were not filed, nor was the case registered under the Prevention of Atrocities Act, became a classic example of how the law operates in India and of how it is unable to challenge the impunity arrogated to themselves by the dominant castes across the length and breadth of the country. It is also an example of the brutality unleashed upon the dalits when they claim the principle of equality before the law that is enshrined in the Constitution. The entire family was ‘punished’ for this claiming of equality provisions. After the mobilization by dalit groups the perpetrators were punished for the murders they had perpetrated but the caste- and gender-based nature of the atrocity and the flaunting of social dominance and the display of sexual power, the targeted and aggravated nature of the sexual violence by the dominant castes went unacknowledged by the Indian judicial system.

    How did the court achieve this slide from turning an atrocity to an ordinary crime? Pratiksha Baxi provides us with a critical reading of the judgement. She argues that the judgement frames the motive for the crime not as a reprisal for dalit women seeking to assert their constitutional right to file an FIR but as individual revenge rather than a collective revenge, which defines atrocity. It evades acknowledging that caste ‘materializes dominance over bodies, space and resources’.23 The court did not recognize that the dominant castes' attempt to retain monopoly of the law is a feature of caste domination. The evidence before the court acknowledged that the accused enjoyed the killings and were fearless in the mob's presence and thought of the killings as acts of heroism. Some of the accused removed the clothes of Priyanka before disposing off the severely injured dead body thereby ‘giving satisfaction to their sexual eyes’ and yet does not see this as sexual violence. The verdict tells us that even though the law maintained its monopoly to punish crimes it did not displace the monopoly of the dominant caste to rape, parade and kill dalit women. The law punishes the accused but does not acknowledge that sexual violence is central to caste domination, or that there is extreme violence in the structure of caste; instead it becomes an occasion for the de-politicizing of caste under the label of personal revenge as the motive for the violence.24

    This brief survey of some of the major cases of caste based sexual violence suggests that the culture of impunity in caste-and gender-based violence is too deep rooted, too sedimented, too internalized, too normalized, and too banal to make legal redress possible. The moral framework of the status quo is fully in place as the bed-rock for the culture of impunity to survive and flourish, never mind what the law might provide or seek to provide for. But, equally, dalit and democratic resistance to such crimes is also beginning to be evident. Khairlanji led to huge mobilization in which women participated in large numbers as they gave vent to their anger and sense of moral outrage and even though Dalit protests have been a regular response to the perpetration of caste atrocities upon them Khairlanji marked a new moment in dalit resistance to injustice on such a massive scale. The case, however, is that the sexual violence was erased and the POA Act was never applied. Vachati remains the sole example of an atrocity that was recognized for what it was.

    Khairlanji has caused enormous social suffering to the entire community of the oppressed castes in recent times. It has made a mockery of the POA Act and the attempts of the dalits to challenge caste-based impunity and therefore to a sense of hurt and anger that is unredressed and continues to fester in the minds of dalits and other democratic people in India. Dalits may be perceived to be powerless but they are now displaying ‘righteous anger’ when atrocities are inflicted upon them.25

    Endemic Sexual Violence against SCs and STs as Everyday Atrocities

    Let us now look at a different terrain in the context of sexual violence and the impunity that almost inheres in the very being of the SC-ST woman because it is not region-specific and in most cases not a consequence of emergency provisions, or of recent origin. Instead the impunity is located in the longstanding modes of using violence against dominated groups: oppressed castes such as dalits whose women are perceived to be sexually available by the oppressor castes and/or subject to sexual dominance by them. Endemic sexual violence, driven by caste, marks the social landscape in most parts of rural India where those who have land, resources and social power— derived from the caste system and from the patriarchal power of some men over the sexuality of all women—have used violence as a means to demonstrate and reproduce the inequalities of Indian society. The caste system and its workings have made for a state of perpetual, but disguised, conflict which has put a veil of impunity upon acts of sexual violence by men of the oppressor castes inflicted upon dalit women. Here the state is not usually the perpetrator of the violence but its institutional apparatus is available and is used to provide impunity to the perpetrators through the obstructions and impediments that the police and the criminal justice system place in ensuring justice to the survivors of violence.

    The inherited legacies of practising inequality including the recourse to sexual violence against the women of the dalit castes have thrived upon ‘social silence’ wherein neither the law makers nor social scientists addressed sexual violence specifically as a tool that was used to enforce the dominance of the ‘upper castes’ upon those at the bottom end of the hierarchy. The structural causes for the violence and the specific vulnerabilities of dalit women to sexual violence in India went unchallenged for many decades even after independence. This social silence was broken by the Dalit Panther movement as well as by dalit feminists. Finally, after many years of work put in by dalit activists the Prevention of Atrocities (POA) Act had come into being, but its workings have not been able to counter (to date) the social power of the dominant castes in Indian society as we have shown earlier. Unfortunately its (faulty) workings have in fact led to a counter discourse and to social silence: as of now there is a shrill rhetoric of ‘false’ reporting of cases of sexual crimes accompanied by the narrow interpretation of the POA Act.26 As Jayashree Mangubhai points out, the end result is that too often it ‘obviates the constitutional right to equal protection of the law’ by making available to all its citizens an unbiased system of governance that can challenge the impunity derived from the social and cultural forms of dominance in India.

    Jayashree's analysis, based on 10 case studies of sexual violence in Rajasthan, is able to expand the ethnography with statistics of cases filed, compromised, acquitted and convicted, to show how deadly the combination of social power, upper caste patriarchal violence, institutional biases and judicial pronouncements has been, resulting in making a mockery of the POA Act.27 To begin with, enormous pressure, intimidation, threats of further rapes, and economic and social boycott of the families of the survivors of sexual violence are the tactics used to try and kill the FIR, if at all it is registered, thereafter to botch the investigations, then to compromise the case so that the case never really comes to trial. Jayashree has a moving account of a young woman who ended the miseries of her family and herself by committing suicide even after the accused was convicted. The family had experienced enormous social suffering, dislocation, disruption of livelihood, and fear. The young girl was sent away to a relative for three years to continue her studies after the conviction. But when she returned to her natal home the rajputs of the village started to harass her again for having pursued her case against their caste men. Dogged by harassment, and unable to put the violence behind her, she gave up her will to live in the face of insurmountable difficulties, turning the sorrow into further violence upon her own self.28

    Recent studies and fact-finding reports29 in the neighbouring state of Haryana have documented a new upsurge of violence against dalit women in the state. Haryana is experiencing rapid changes, particularly in its political economy, spawning rising tensions between the dominant castes, mainly jats in Haryana, and the dalits. We see this in post-liberalization Haryana a state that borders Rajasthan but also borders the capital/metropole of Delhi. It is experiencing an urban boom in the villages and small towns that surround Delhi on three sides. Complex changes in the political economy in Haryana have given rise to new social relations. There is now an active mafia operating the land market and a real estate boom can be witnessed even in towns like Rohtak, Sonepat and Hissar where large shopping complexes or water parks and other amusement places have brought in riches to the landed sections, mainly drawn from the dominant castes who are used to asserting their power. Their sons now swagger about in large vehicles stalking the countryside, menacing young women. According to a woman's rights activist these changes have led to more predatory behaviour against women in which dalit women in particular are more vulnerable because they have ‘traditionally’ been regarded as ‘available’ to the dominant caste man. The situation is fraught because the dalits in turn are no longer willing to acquiesce to the caste power of the dominant groups: they have aspirations for education and work which will enable them to exit the oppressive social relations that they have been subjected to in rural India. Dalit girls are encouraged to go to school now but these aspirations also mean that these girls will no longer be available to perform labour for the dominant caste groups as education will enable them to end their dependency on labour as it existed in the past. There has been an increase in the number of rapes being reported in Haryana of young school going girls, many of these being gang rapes, by groups of young men who clearly treat the whole venture as a kind of sport. It is not at all unusual to hear that the rapes are videoed and then circulated, drawing more people into the new voyeuristic sport, sometimes leading to terrible tragedy for the families of the girls. When the young women file cases against the rapists the khap panchayats are drawn in by the dominant caste accused to prepare rajinamas, forcing an artificial end to the case. Rarely do the cases end in convictions as the twists and turns the cases take over the years reflects the power of the dominant to secure acquittals, particularly if the cases are not filed under the POA Act. Thus, despite the beginnings of documentation of the huge amount of violence which is caste-based,30 judges continue to reflect social biases in their judgements. Many cases are not acknowledged as caste-based atrocities at all and are dismissed by the judges as the mere ‘lust’ of men, the sexual desire which young men are prone to display, that upper caste men will never gang up to rape an untouchable or lower caste woman, or that women are prone to lying. The casteist nature of the violence is erased under other explanations such as conflicts over land, of motives of revenge, or of political and electoral battles. As Jayashree has pointed out when judicial ‘restraint’ (or abdication of judicial reasoning) is combined with the extremely limited rights of victim/survivors of sexual violence to participate in the trials, the grounds are set for the operation of the same power inequalities that produced the violence in the first place to ensure the further victimization of Dalit women throughout the legal process. The impunity congeals and leads to a heady sense of power, to the belief that upper caste power cannot be reined in, despite the workings of the Constitution for over almost 70 years and is immune to the workings of the law.

    Inter-Caste Marriages and Brutal Reprisals in the New Millennium

    Caste and gender as a conjoint system still operates all around us uniting the different Indias—the metropole and the village, the province and the small town; the world of the internet and the khap panchayats; the Indian who lives within India but aspires to live elsewhere; the NRI who lives elsewhere but follows the codes he/she left behind, perhaps even more stringently than the families that they have left back home do. Marriages are still ‘settled’ by parents with the girls and boys accepting that whatever they do before marriage when they marry it will be between families that are caste compatible, sometimes explained as culturally compatible, because one must pretend that one has left caste behind in the race to be ‘modern’. Newspapers still carry matrimonial ads which continue to be coded by caste and sub-caste circles and are advertised as such even in the matrimonial websites. Advertisements on the TV media too have learnt to be creatively conservative as they understand that commerce must make itself acceptable to the idea of the Indian family, which is socially reproduced by the caste-based endogamous marriage system. Thus, in the main, the marriage system conforms to the codes of the past.

    And yet, occasionally, the system that has produced the stability of the caste system is threatened by the changes that post-Constitution India has set in motion. Following the changes in the Hindu Law since 1956 legally any two Hindus can marry, once they have become majors, without following caste and sub-caste rules. And sometimes they do because in certain spaces some measure of interaction between young women and men has become possible: going to schools and colleges has led to a degree of mobility for girls as has the possibilities of work for young women. All around us, in novels and films, romance is celebrated. There are new eating places, cinema houses and new cultural practices that make for an interaction between young men and women who do not at first know what the caste of the other is. In one case that we investigated where a young couple had eloped, and had not yet been hunted down, the dalit boy's younger brother described the winning ways of his elder brother who sang in a band; a jat girl who saw him singing at a marriage ‘fell’ for him and they later eloped. Elopements are the only way these romances can end because families will not allow a hypogamous/pratilomic marriage to take place. There is much violence afterwards with young couples being hunted down with the weight of families and communities being supported by the police—which shares the social norms of their communities in disrupting the marriage if possible, or violently ending the relationship if the young couple/young woman does not relent. Custodial killings are therefore common uniting north India with south India: ironically, the true unifier of ‘Indian’ culture is the endogamous marriage. Let me just cite two such cases for us to get a sense of how stable the caste system is in the new millennium.

    On 13 March 2016 a young kallar woman eloped and married a dalit boy. The kallars are a dominant caste group who are very powerful in parts of Tamil Nadu. A few months later the couple were hacked by an armed group of young men in broad daylight in a busy market place area. Both sustained serious injuries: the boy died but Kausalya survived. Kausalya testified in court and recounted how her family had tried to end her marriage and when she resisted they threatened her with dire consequences just the week before the couple was attacked. She stood firm throughout the trial, living under police protection as there continued to be danger to her life. Finally, her father and—others were convicted but the mother and uncle were acquitted. A film made on Kausalya's case is very revealing for the deep rooted caste prejudices that Kausalya's family unabashedly displayed on screen even after the conviction of the family. In her words, Kausalya and Sankar never imagined that caste prejudices would lead to such a heinous crime: she told the reporters there should never be another Kausalya and Sankar in the future—that is what she was now struggling for.

    Kausalya and Sankar's romance had begun in the course of a daily bus ride. Sankar sat behind Kausalya every day: it was an ordinary romance but it was doomed even though Kausalya poignantly acknowledged that ‘no one ever loved her as Sankar did’. But her family felt humiliated as they were taunted about the elopement. The grandmother bemoaned the fact that the family had let her go to college in the first place. Her mother said that theirs was a community that killed the girl child at birth; she was suggesting that if they too had done so they would not have experienced such ignominy. ‘Can one person abolish caste?’ said the mother to the reporter. The family had been berated by other caste-fellows for not ‘avenging’ the wrong that their daughter had inflicted upon them. They ended their humiliation by trying to kill the couple.31

    Far away in north India two young people, a brahmin girl and a kayastha boy were students at a Media Institute and planned to marry once the course was over. The girl was called home on a fake pretext, using emotional blackmail of the mother's illness to get her out of Delhi. What exactly happened ‘at home’ is not clear but the girl was found dead at her parental home. While the media speculated about whether it was suicide or a murder, a letter written by the father to his daughter was made public and it gives us the key to how he and his family viewed the relationship between the two young people: ‘You are talking about the Constitution that was made in 1950; what about the Constitution that Manu wrote which is 2000 years old?’ As one Jat elder told us in Haryana, ‘Na to yeh samvidhan hota and na yeh ladkian school jaati’ (neither should this Constitution have come and nor should these girls have gone to school) clearly indicating what dominant castes thought about the Constitution and the new educational possibilities for women. Schooling gave the girls a reason to go into the public sphere, the Constitution gave them rights. It was exercising both rights that led to such gruesome tragedies in the case of the young couples who married across caste. How casteist our judges can be is evident from another case where a brahmin girl from north India married an ezhava boy from Kerala in cosmopolitan Mumbai: the brother, in whose house the couple had been living for many months, killed the boy and his sister. When the appellate judge spoke to reduce the penalty the lower court had given he used the argument that one must understand the pain of the brother who was being taunted by his caste fellows for the sister's violation of the moral codes which were widely revered by upper caste Hindus. The upper caste judge showed sympathy for the pain of the moral policers of a caste-based patriarchal system. Even more disturbing is the judgement of the Supreme Court where a strong indictment is made against khap panchayats and parental recourse to codes of honour. While this judgement is welcome it is intriguing that in the entire judgement caste-based violence is sometimes attributed to class differences, or to the more innocuous family and community codes so that the violence relating to a hypogamous relationship is sanitized or even masked.32

    The number of cases of fathers, brothers, uncles and other kin giving the ‘death penalty’ to their daughters for choosing to marry across caste should not be regarded as a mere matter of ‘honour’ as we have been doing for far too long. That a hypogamous marriage in a deeply casteist Hindu society is not a mere matter of the private domain, but is deeply political in its import, is clear from the Meenakshipuram conversions of the dalits to Islam in 1981. After months of being hounded the dalits decided that the only way to stop their harassment was to convert to Islam because Muslims were perceived to be a group that could defend themselves against the dominant caste in the village.33 This ‘act’ of conversion led to investigations by state agencies and ultimately gave a fillip to the VHP to expand its base, both within the country and outside it—wherever there were communities of upper caste Hindus ready to defend their culture. This culture includes the endogamous marriage, which is often the lynchpin of the idea of ‘culture’ to be reproduced in all its ‘antique’ purity. Ironically, even the Muslims and Christians in India adhere to endogamous marriage norms and police their daughters' sexuality and ensure the reproduction of caste.

    Challenging Caste: The Upsurge in the Universities

    In the year 2014 a group of students at the IIT in Chennai planned a meeting of a new group they had formed: The Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle. The tightly controlled teaching community dominated by brahmins and the upper castes brought up a number of technical objections to the holding of the event. They were drawing from the new political formations that were now in power. The students sought to stand firm and finally the official ban on the group was lifted by the Institute. Soon after this the University of Hyderabad exploded with a dalit upsurge supported by democratic sections of society. Dalit students who were on a dharna to oppose the suspensions were opposed by the student wing of the party in power at the centre who were seeking to gain a foothold on the campus and they drew power from their ministers at the centre. One young dalit student, Rohit Vemula, was so deeply affected by the discrimination he and other dalit students had faced in a central university that he found little reason to continue with his life. The scholarship he and other dalit students were supposed to receive were long delayed in reaching the students, or blocked by the administration, treating what was theirs by right as a handout that they controlled. As they protested these conditions the agitating students were suspended by the administration. Rohith Vemula's death came to be quickly termed an institutional murder as the dalit students faced systemic and systematic discrimination in institutions of higher education. As the Rohith Vemula movement spread across India attempts were made by the university administration and the government in power to deny that Rohith was a dalit, so that the POA Act would not be applicable upon the VC's actions in suspending Rohith and other dalit students. The case has been through amazing twists and turns as Rohith's mother's caste and the caste of her ex-husband were scrutinized by the government in power to deny dalitness to Rohith even though he lived and died as a dalit. His last letter was clearly written in a mood of despair as Rohith wrote: ‘my birth was a fatal accident’. Caste blood and marriage were at the heart of the official response: dalitness was a convenient ‘label’ to be examined as and when discrimination was challenged. Whatever the administration may have tried to achieve the dalit and democratic upsurge is very visible in the public sphere in the years since Rohith's death.

    Some distance away in Una, Gujarat, another incident brought discrimination and violence onto the public sphere in dramatic ways. A group of right-wing men stopped a vehicle that was carrying cows, pulled down the 5 men from the vehicle and publicly flogged the men having stripped their shirts away. They also filmed the flogging of the men and circulated it on the internet. Una has become a metaphor for the caste hatred displayed by arrogant young Hindus against dalits who, in this case, were simply performing their caste-based duties coming down to them from the past. The anger and outrage amongst dalits and democratic Indians has led to the emergence a young and articulate leader: Jignesh Mevani who has created a new slogan, ‘You can keep your cows’ tails; give us five acres of land so that we may have a livelihood to pursue’. Similarly a section of dalits forced into manual scavenging is demanding an operative ban on manual scavenging and a means of working with dignity for a livelihood. The emergence of committed young women and men is leading to a transformation of politics as radical ideas are upstaging the tired leaders of the past who have failed to transform the political landscape for the dalits.

    But the backlash from those who are committed to uphold the dominant order and who have social power based on caste and class is also visible: they control the organs of the state. They are mobilizing as dominant caste groups seeking OBC reservation in many regions as well as challenging the POA Act on grounds of alleged misuse. We have just witnessed pitched battles between dalits and dominant groups in many parts of India following the Supreme Court's recent ruling regarding the alleged ‘misuse’ of the POA Act. The tragedy of India, even in the new millennium, is that the caste system does not look like it is dissolving: the relationship between caste, class and gender remains intact: the endogamous marriage remains the norm and is being reproduced with minor cosmetic changes at the top that we might see occasionally in inter-caste marriages, almost always between the upper-most castes. Ambedkar's agenda of the annihilation of caste is nowhere in sight even a century after he wrote his powerful essay on caste as his doctoral thesis, which became the basis of the 1937 book the Annihilation of Caste. He had outlined endogamy as the pivot of the caste system more than a hundred years ago; it has been the key to the unbroken reproduction of caste across the many centuries since it was devised to perpetuate the unique form of inequality that we have in India.


    1. Anupama Rao, ‘Understanding Sirasgaon: Notes Towards Conceptualising the Role of Law, Caste and Gender in the Case of an “Atrocity”’, in Anupama Rao, ed., Gender and Caste, Delhi, Kali For Women, 2003: 276–310.

    2. Anand Teltumbde, Khairlanji: A Strange and Bitter Crop, Delhi, Navayana, 2008.

    3. An errant woman is to be shaved and then paraded on a donkey, The Laws of Manu, trans. by Wendy O'Flaherty and Brian Smith, Delhi: Penguin Books, 1991:191.

    4. In 1981, Maya Tyagi, 5 months pregnant, was stripped and raped by policeman in Baghpat, near Meerut. Her unarmed husband and friends were shot dead by the police. The case created an uproar: From India Today, 15 Feb. 1988 on the judgement at Bulandshahr District Court: ‘Seven-and-a-half years ago, these men had appalled the nation. They were accused of shooting, in cold blood and with their service weapons, Ishwar Singh Tyagi, Surendra Singh and Rajendra Gaur in broad daylight near Baghpat police station, Meerut, where they were stationed. After the shoot-out, Tyagi's five-month pregnant wife. Maya, was paraded naked in Baghpat's bazaar and assaulted in the police station…. After going through the evidence, the judge concluded: “It reminds me of the primitive days of police raj where the people were at the mercy of the despot.”’ accessed 20 April 2018.

    5. NCDHR-National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ), A Brief Note on Status of Atrocities Against Dalits in Haryana, 2013.

    6. Mirchpur Carnage: Caste Violence in Haryana, compiled and edited by Sarita Bhoi, Delhi, HRLN, 2011: xiii.

    7. Anand Chakravarti, Social Power and Everyday Class Relations: Agrarian Transformation in North Bihar, Delhi, SAGE, 2001.

    8. Pratiksha Baxi, Public Secrets of Law: Rape Trials in India, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2014: 283.

    9. Ibid.: 285.

    10. Keezhavenmani massacre, 25 Dec. 1968, took place in Nagapattinam district, Tamil Nadu, 44 women and children of the families of striking dalit labourers were murdered by a gang led by landlords; Belchi village, Bihar, 1977, 14 dalit labourers killed by Bhumihars; Karamchedu, Andhra Pradesh, 1985, in a conflict between landlords and dalits, 6 dalits were killed and many injured.

    11. Baxi, Public Secrets: 287.

    12. There are different castes who are in a position of dominance across India. They are mainly from castes that now go under the category of OBC although in some places they can include other, upper castes such as bhumihars. Most of the OBC castes have emerged as a force to reckon with as they became land controllers and owners following land reforms as they were often tenants earlier.

    13. Information collected from Keezhvenmani in 2011.

    14. V. Geetha and Kalpana Karunakaran, eds., Haunted by Fire: Essays on Caste, Exploitation and Emancipation, Delhi: Leftword, 2013:198.

    15. Ibid.: 160.

    16. Baxi, Public Secrets: 304.

    17. Ibid.

    18. Summarized from V. Geetha, Undoing Impunity: Speech after Sexual Violence, Delhi: Zubaan, 2016.

    19. Teltumbde, Khairlanji: 27.

    20. Sabrina Buckwalter, ‘Just Another Rape Story, Times of India, 29 Oct. 2006, cited in Teltumbde, Khairlanji: 116, 138.

    21. See the report in The Hindu: accessed 27 April 2018.

    22. Personal communication, Vidrohi, Mumbai, 2010.

    23. Baxi, Public Secrets: 307–08.

    24. Ibid.

    25. Nicolas Jaoul, ‘The Righteous Anger of the Powerless: Investigating Dalit Outrage over Caste Violence’, South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, accessed 27 April 2018.

    26. Supreme Court ruling, given on 20 March 2018, on misuse of POA Act, leading to great outrage among the dalits. It has virtually placed the procedures in the Act where the officials of the state when accused of an Atrocity must be given prior sanction to proceed with the case from the appointing authority or a superintendent of police, like the AFSPA where the home ministry must give sanction to proceed against an army officer which of course is never given. Its consequences for women and sexual violence in particular are serious indeed. Thousands demonstrated, and nine people were killed in the demonstrations in police firings. The Act has become both the site of intense contestation and a site of a politics of resistance (Baxi, Public Secrets: 13).

    27. It is significant that the Verma Committee appointed in 2012 after the Nirbhaya incident gave women what might be regarded as a Bill of Rights but did not acknowledge the caste factor of many rapes and therefore it is not a feature of the 2013 Criminal Law Amendment of the law on sexual violence.

    28. Jayasree Mangubhai, ‘Violence and Impunity in a Patriarchal Caste Culture’, in Uma Chakravarti, ed., The Faultlines of History: The India Papers II, Delhi: Zubaan, 2016: 257–90.

    29. This paragraph is based on my participation in a fact-finding team that documented some of the cases of sexual violence, mainly of young dalit girls in 2013–2014. The investigations led to a report titled ‘Sexual Violence against Dalit Girls and Women in Haryana: A Report by Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression’, 2014. accessed 27 April 2018.

    30. Aloysius Irudayam, Jayashree Mangubhai and Joel G. Lee, 2011, Dalit Women Speak Out: Caste, Class and Gender Violence in India, Delhi: Zubaan, 2011.

    31. ‘India's Forbidden Love: An Honour Killing on Trial’, https// accessed 27 April 2018.

    32. accessed 27 April 2018.

    33. Arthur Bonner, Averting the Apocalypse: Social Movements in India Today, Durham: Duke University Press, 1990: 343–51.

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    About the Author and Series Editor

    Uma Chakravarti is a feminist historian who taught at Miranda House, University of Delhi, from where she took early retirement in 1998. She has been associated with the women's movement and the movement for democratic rights since the late seventies. She writes on Buddhism, early Indian history, the nineteenth century and on contemporary subjects. Among her films is Ek Inquilab Aur Aaya: Lucknow 1929–49.

    Maithreyi Krishnaraj, a pioneering scholar in Women's Studies, is senior honorary fellow, Research Centre for Women's Studies, SNDT Women's University, Mumbai, and steering committee member of the Dr Avabai Wadia Archives.

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