The Sunday StoryWhile voices were rasied against the brutal gang-rape of the 23 year-old woman who tragically died on Saturday, what about the daily occurrences of rape and assault in the lives of Dalit women?

Who will listen to the voices of the margins? Margins mean those who are not in the capital, those who are not part of the urban middle-class, and those who are not in the gaze of the TV camera. Margins mean those who are silent because they have no one to tell their stories to.

Delhi citizens rightly raised their voices against the brutal gang-rape of the 23 year-old woman who tragically died on Saturday morning. But what about the other statistically established truth? That rape and assault are daily occurrences in the lives of Dalit women? Most crimes committed against Dalits remain unrecorded because the police, the village councils, and government officials reflect the biases of the Hindu caste system. Crimes against them also go unreported because of fears of reprisals, intimidation by the police and their inability to pay bribes.

A report released by the Amnesty International in 2001 found an “extremely high” number of sexual assaults on Dalit women perpetrated by the powerful combine of landlords, upper-caste villagers, and police officers. The study estimates that only about 5 per cent of the attacks are registered, with 30 per cent of the rape complaints dismissed as false. The study also found that the police routinely demand bribes, intimidate witnesses, cover up evidence, and beat up the women's husbands. Even where rape victims are murdered, the culprits go unpunished.

Often rape and assault happen as part of caste warfare with militia-like vigilante groups, assisted by the local police, conducting raids on villages, burning Dalit homes and raping the women. Legal records, media reportage and personal testimonies reveal that upper-caste men claim sexual access to Dalit and lower-caste women as a matter of caste privilege. Consider this recent incident at Sheetalpur Tikari village under Tharwai police station, around 30 kilometers from Allahabad. Lalli Devi, 45, was constructing a house allotted to her under the Indira Awas Yojna when a local money-lender arrived there with other influential people and demolished the house. As Lalli tried to reason with the man, she, her husband Gulab and her son aged 12 years were beaten mercilessly by the goons. Her hut, where she used to sleep and cook, was razed to the ground. Even today marks of the Brahminical violence are visible on Lalli's body. And yet, the police kept her in the thana for 24 hours and denied that any violence had occurred.

Worst victims

Dalit women are the worst victims of sexual violence because they face oppression at three levels — caste, class and gender. Indeed she faces atrocities as a Dalit, as a woman and as a member of the working class. Dalit women undergo sexual oppression, economic exploitation and socio-cultural subjugation. But the judicial system routinely fails them.

Immediately after V.P. Singh became Prime Minister in 1989, his constituency, Fatehpur in Uttar Pradesh, was rocked by the news of the gruesome murder of Dhanraj, a Dalit, by some Thakurs in whose fields he worked. Dhanraj had been ordered by the landlords to let his wife spend a night with them. When he defied the diktat, he was dragged out and burnt alive. Singh, who projected himself as a messiah of the oppressed classes, rushed to the spot and offered the widow Rs. 1,000 from his welfare fund and some land as compensation. However the land that was allotted lay within the boundaries of the land of the Thakurs, making it totally inaccessible to her. In the court case that followed all the Thakurs were acquitted of the crime.

In another case that occurred in village Dauna near Allahabad on January 21, 1994, Shivpatia, an old Dalit woman was paraded naked in the village because her son had objected to her vegetable field being plundered by some boys from the dominant Kurmi (OBC) caste. This incident happened when Mulayam Singh Yadav and Kanshi Ram were in an alliance and had formed a government in U.P.. The incident hit the national headlines, prompting both men to rush together to the spot. The victim was offered land and money as compensation and the culprits arrested.

Seventeen years have passed since the incident but the case is still pending in the sessions court even as Mayawati became Chief Minister of the State four times. The irony is that the case was on fast track. In reality, the harassment has increased for Shivpatia and her relatives who are forced to visit the court for their ‘sunwai’, thereby reliving the incident over and over. Today all that they want is that the case should come to an end so that they do not need to forgo their daily wages in order to answer summons from the court.

Dalit women are invisible not just for the media and the police but also seemingly for the judiciary, considering the glaring lack of genuine efforts to resolve their cases. For the public outrage against the Delhi gang rape to have real significance, it must also lead to the victimised Dalit women also getting justice.

(Badri Narayan teaches political science at Allahabad University)