Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Violence against women is ‘Caste’ in stone

Written by Sharda Vishwanathan for the 16 Days Activism against Violence against Women

Designed by Raghavendran Ramachandran
Understanding VAW in the Indian context is incomplete without exploring the widespread caste and social inequalities that continue to haunt the lives of many.

#GenderBasedViolence, #Women’sRights, #FightForEquality, #Violenceagainstwomen have been some of the most trending topics in the recent few years. Citizens across the globe are constantly making evident their anger as huge public outcry continues to occupy online as well as offline platforms in protest against gender violence and discrimination. And India has always made it big in the news with every international media house describing violence endemic to this country of elephants and snake-charmers. But when one talks about violence against women and India, it becomes imperative to understand that this issue cannot be understood without dwelling into the country’s diverse religion and caste dynamics which most of the narratives blatantly ignore.

The caste hierarchy still continues to define the lives and times of many in the country. Oppressed and degraded for centuries, people belonging to the lower strata in this hierarchy continue to face violence and humiliation from the community of upper castes.  While it is true that the women belonging to the backward caste are often at the receiving end, it is not uncommon for men and children to face lynching and witch-hunting at the hands of the higher caste. A Dalit or any person belonging to the schedule caste/ tribe is often humiliated for reasons ranging from daring to cross a dominant caste person on the road to speaking out against any form of violence or resisting the sexual advances of a male from the higher caste.

The recent case where a 15 year old goatheard was burnt alive by an individual belonging to the higher caste and the 2006 Khairlanji Massacre where the members of a Dalit family were lynched and the women raped and murdered stand testimony to this. While the boy’s only fault was that one of his goats strayed on to his perpetrator’s paddy field and grazed on his crops, the Dalit family in Khairlanji paid for their attempt to speak out against the dominant caste in a land dispute.

Most of the caste based attacks result from a sense of authority that the upper caste, (in most of the cases the land-owing caste) has over the Dalits. Be it the case of Khairlanji or the gang-rape of four Dalit women by the Jat community in Haryana, the land dispute between the communities formed the bedrock for these gruesome attacks. As Asha Kowtal, a Dalit activist rightly points out, rape and violence are often used to assert power and influence and have often become means of retribution to silence any kind of protest or resistance. While for years this has been the case in inter-caste disputes, India has also had a long history of using rape as a weapon of war in inter-religious disputes and in regions like Kashmir that are synonymous with incessant conflict and strife.

A discussion on caste based violence is incomplete without talking about the legislation and accountability on part of the police and judicial authorities. Caste alliances and religious affiliations have been a prominent feature of India’s political system. In most constituencies it is either the caste, the religion or the tribe factor that determines who becomes the face of the party in the elections.  And it is this factor that is further used to one’s advantage in times of conflict as is evident from the Badaun gang-rape case where the police and the accused belonged to the same caste, resulting in the police authorities’ refusal to file any complaint. Thus, caste loyalties are a major challenge for the low caste people when they seek any legal recourse. 

At the United Nations Human Rights Council side-event held in June 2014, Juliette De Rivero, Geneva Advocacy Director rightly observed: “Dalit communities have long suffered serious abuses, but the state response has fallen short. The government should undertake systemic changes for proper enforcement of laws, and ensure that public officials, including the police, are held accountable when they fail in their duty.”  While the 1989 Prevention of Atrocities Act was implemented to address caste based violence and protect the rights of the marginalized, the numbers tell a different story. At the national level, the NCRB data reveals a higher conviction rate in IPC cases as compared to special cases such as the ones under the Atrocities Act. For instance, in 2001, the conviction rate in IPC cases was 40.8 per cent, whereas it was only 34.1 per cent in special cases. The situation worsened by 2009 with the conviction rate declining to 29.6 per cent in special cases and increasing to 41.7 per cent in IPC cases, further widening the gap. While tighter laws and legislation are definitely the need of the hour, addressing systemic and structural discrimination needs immediate consideration on part of the government to put an end to caste based violence.

Jackson Katz took the world by storm when he shared his paradigm shifting perspective on violence against women by calling it a men’s issue, which otherwise often is perceived as a woman’s issue.  While it is absolutely important to engage with men and women to address issues around gender, it is equally important to engage on the lines of caste, race, religion and nationality to undo the stereotypes that are weaved into most of the narratives on gender violence and abuse.