Prosecuting the guilty police personnel along with the accused is needed urgently to bring justice to the brutalised young girls and their grieving families in the Badaun case

The searing image of the bodies of two cousin sisters — just 14 and 15 years old — hanging from a tree in Katra Sadatganj village in Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh, brought home to the world the utterly despicable hypocrisy underlying India’s claims to being a democratic nation.

In this case, the girls did not belong to the Scheduled Castes (SC), but this does not mean that caste was not a major factor in the crime. The cousins belonged to a caste considered socially inferior to the one to which the criminals in the case belong. In this village, as in thousands of villages across the country, many men belonging to the dominant castes believe that rape of women or girls of castes lower to them in the hierarchical caste ladder is an inherited and an inheritable right. They also believe that to abuse, demean, defile, harass and exploit the so-called lower castes is part of an unchallengeable tradition.

Symbol of oppression

It is the arrogance of that tradition and inherited caste-based power which told the desperate parents when they were searching for their daughters, “you will get them back in two hours.”After two hours passed, the parents were told: “go to the tree and you will find them.” They were informed of this, not by the families of the accused, but by the policemen of the village police station where they had gone to complain. The police belonged to the same caste as the criminals and were reportedly close friends with the accused. They must be prosecuted for custodial rape.

What did the parents do? They waited for two hours.

The two hours symbolise the utter helplessness of ordinary citizens in the face of criminalisation of politics in U.P. under the Samajwadi Party (SP), the state of lawlessness driven by statements and actions of the leaders of the ruling party and the administration, and the impunity enjoyed by the police at various levels. If ever there was a case to implement the concept of command responsibility to hold senior officers responsible, it is in the Badaun case.

In thousands of villages across the country, many men belonging to the dominant castes believe that rape of women of castes lower to them is an inherited and an inheritable right

Equally, the two hours symbolise the burden of centuries of oppression, of the destruction of humanity, of a helplessness born out of lifetimes of waiting for justice, of a resigned belief that silence may save the lives of their daughters. They symbolise the horrifying systemic nature of caste-based hierarchies, and of supremacy and subordination determined by birth that remain a marker of social relations in India.

Those who believe that “development” represented by modernisation processes such as urbanisation or industrialisation automatically level out discriminatory caste-based practices, fail to see that caste as an instrument of power has been co-opted and used for modern goals of economic and political benefit. In the established patterns that pass for democracy in India, castes owe allegiance to some political party whose job is to defend members of that caste, regardless of the brutal nature of the crime they may have committed, in return for votes. The dominant castes in Badaun know well that they have the strong backing of the SP, just as the dominant community in Haryana’s politics continues the system of khap panchayats as they have the patronage of the Congress and other parties. In the Khairlanji case in Maharashtra, it was an open secret that the community involved in the dastardly crime had the backing of the Nationalist Congress Party. In the recent caste-based atrocity in Ahmednagar, where a dalit youth was brutally murdered for daring to speak to a Maratha girl in his class, a similar pattern of caste-based political patronage to the criminals emerged.

In the Lok Sabha election campaign, although the issue of women’s security did figure as an important one for most political parties, it is striking that caste-based atrocities on women of oppressed communities did not form part of public discussions. The interface between patriarchy, caste and economic power makes women of the oppressed castes most vulnerable to sexual violence. Yet their voices went unheard, even by those parties who claim to represent them.

It is equally striking that organisations based on religious mobilisations, like the Sangh Parivar which claims monopoly in representing “Hindu” interests, maintain a deafening silence on caste-based crimes against Hindu women. In Muzaffarnagar, the issue of sexual harassment of women became a powerful tool in the hands of the Sangh Parivar to shred a long-standing harmony between Muslims and Jats. This tool would enable the Bharatiya Janata Party to reap the electoral benefits of the communal violence against the Muslim community.

In this diabolical plan, the rape of Muslim women was a justified response to the alleged sexual harassment of Hindu girls. The sweep of seats for the BJP is an example of cold-blooded communalisation of secular issues such as sexual harassment. This issue is now being seen by the Sangh Parivar as having a huge potential to garner votes — the issue of defending the chastity of “our Hindu” women in which the perpetrators are always from the “other” community almost as powerful in its message as the defence of a religious symbol.

But for years in this same area of Muzaffarnagar, there have been within Hindu communities, killings, lynchings, revenge rapes and terrible violence against young couples who have dared to cross the caste barrier to marry people of their choice. In such cases, the boy is usually of a lower caste than the girl and therefore both must be punished. The Sangh Parivar, active in the area, has maintained a deafening silence on these crimes because they too subscribe to maintaining the “purity” of lineage that is so deeply embedded in casteist ideologies. Casteism and communalism not only co-exist, they feed into and strengthen each other.

he economic benefits derived from continuing caste-based professions is well-known. Even today in the so-called unclean jobs, SCs are overrepresented. In fact, a reverse reservation takes place in which some low paid jobs — the jobs of sweepers for instance — are almost exclusively reserved in practice for SCs or for Most Backward Castes. Second, among casual and contract workers, and manual labourers who have no security of service and who earn meagre wages, a disproportionate number belong to SCs and Scheduled Tribes (ST). On whether education can crack caste discrimination, a study conducted by IIM Ahmedabad in 2006 found that graduates belonging to the SC/ST category earned significantly lower wages than those in the general category. This shows how historical inequalities created by caste structures have been strengthened by the present trajectory of capitalist “development” to intensify the exploitation of labour of the “untouchables” for profit.

Fast-tracking the case

In the Badaun case, the fathers of the two cousins owned small plots of land, 2.5 bighas each, which they found unviable to cultivate. They depended on casual agricultural work and one of them also used to ply a rickshaw. On the days they got work, their average earning was around Rs. 150 a day. For the youth of more powerful castes, the children were easy prey.

Fast-tracking the case and prosecuting the guilty police personnel along with the accused is needed urgently to bring justice to the brutalised young girls and their grieving families.

Equally, the case once again highlights the urgent necessity for those who believe in alternative politics to work together to bring about radical social change. This is needed to reverse the present framework of economic and social policies and alter the polluted face of India’s democracy.

(Brinda Karat is a member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau.)

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