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We Must Call It What It Is: 

Caste-Based Violence

A nineteen-year-old girl who belonged to a Dalit community was brutally raped and killed by four upper caste men. This is not just a case of rape. It’s a caste atrocity.

Words by Jyotsna Siddharth

October 01, 2020


I want to talk about how I’m feeling. When we look at acts of caste-based violence, and when we hear the news, our immediate thought is to respond. There is a performance we feel like we have to do – to respond and share our views on what happened. In that performative process we forget that we are feeling things; that what has happened evokes certain emotions within us. It is important to talk about our feelings, our emotions, and what these incidents of unbearable violence are doing to our emotional and mental health. 


These cases of caste-based violence are not new, this is not something that is an external act or violation that has happened. This is a repetition of the constant violation of Dalit communities, and especially Dalit women. 


I’m tired of grieving. Every act of atrocity, loss, murder, and rape, is a moment of grieving. It’s not just that a person was murdered, or that a person was raped – it’s also about grieving for a person who belonged to your own community. Grieving for the Dalit community as a whole. Grieving for the loss of these women who would have done so much with their lives, but were lost to gruesome violence. I find it really frustrating and sad that even the media sees this just as rape or murder, and not as the caste atrocity that it is.


Rape and abuse are about power. About violating the Other’s body. These graphic descriptions of what happened to the woman’s body are rooted in caste. It is one of the rare times that the media is representing a Dalit woman’s body, but then representing it as a body which has no agency, and which has no dignity. It is merely a body that has to be now dealt with because it is a dead body. 


How many women do we have to lose from our community to make our voices heard? How many trans people, how many young girls, how many queer people, how many Dalit men? When will our deaths make a difference? 


The way we look at the aesthetics of a Dalit woman – by those upper caste dictated standards – we do not allow her body to be desirable, we do not make it so that her body is something that needs to be protected, to have safety and security guaranteed by the state. 


The police locked up the murdered girl’s family in their own home. I don’t even have the words to understand or describe what that means. This would never happen to an upper caste family, of course. The treatment that the state, the police, and upper caste-led society inflicts upon Dalit people is beyond reproach, beyond humanity. Incidences of caste-based violence are so rarely even seen as legitimate. There is never a moment of relief from this violence.


I am deeply hurt. In 2020 a person has to go through such brutal violence to evoke respect, compassion and love from people. A Dalit woman or girl just on her own accord, without acts of violation, appears to not be deserving of this dignity or respect. She has to go through horrors, she has to die, in order to incite compassion.  


The extensive discussions of the graphic nature of this incident needs to be remarked upon. Why does it need to be continuously reiterated? Why do we need to circulate images of the violence inflicted upon a Dalit woman’s body?   The treatment that is given to the body itself is horrifying. Can we not feel her pain without such explicit morbidity?


This is not the first time such violence has occured. There is no end in sight to caste-based violence. I feel so grateful and so privileged that my family was able to break away from caste-based occupations a generation ago. But when I think about it, I feel like I could have been that girl. I see what is happening to my sisters, I see what is happening to the women of my community, and I feel helpless. 


This violence is feeding into how we already understand caste – and that too in a very myopic way. We don’t see the interlinkages of caste and aesthetics, we don’t see the interlinkages of caste and desire – and we don’t understand them. We don’t understand why the same act of brutality and rape is so different when it comes to a Dalit woman as opposed to an upper caste woman. 


The treatment that has been given to the Hathras case, the treatment that was given to the body, is itself horrifying, and we don’t grieve. We may grieve as individuals, but we don’t grieve as a society because we don’t value the lives of Dalit women, or of the Dalit community. 


Dalit people have made and shaped this country. We form the structures that inform dissent. But still, our lives are not valued. Dalit bodies, especially Dalit women’s bodies, are just seen as bodies to be played with, to be toyed with; bodies that become the recipients of the erratic whims of upper caste violent behaviour, because nobody is going to stand up and protect them.


Dalit women’s bodies are seen as the bodies that are there to do the work nobody else wants to, to satisfy society’s needs by remaining in caste-based occupations – that are available to exert power upon, to be raped. I am exhausted and fatigued by my grief. How many times are we supposed to grieve? We’re constantly grieving, we are grieving every day for the people who have been killed in the past, the people who are being killed today – and we know that there will be more incidents tomorrow. It’s not going to end today because we are not challenging the casteist mentality that supports, upholds and grants impunity to these acts of violence. 


You need to talk to your own people. Upper caste people need to talk to their own families. They need to talk to their own friends, they need to talk to their own employers. Rather than constantly talking to Dalit people and Dalit communities. We know that we bear the brunt of it. So I would really urge all people who come from caste-privileged backgrounds to really engage with their people, to engage with their relatives, especially those who are doctors, lawyers, who are in the police. To really talk to them and say that look, before anything else, this is about dignity. It is about respect, it is about sharing the experience of being alive, of being human. 


It irks me – you see your own people die and you can’t do anything about it. It really impacts everything. It is not like I, a Dalit woman, have to die or go through abuse in order to understand an experience of violation of another Dalit woman. It is not like we’re all the same, but I know that there was somebody who died for no fault of hers. The more the Dalit community is asserting itself, is getting educated, the more the community is raising its voice, previously unheard stories are surfacing, and we see that there is no end to the violence.


 I completely understand that it is important to also be critical, to show your support, to write on social media, to contribute your thoughts – it is extremely important, but what is more important is that if you come from a caste-privileged background, please talk to your people. You need to engage with your family members, who are in the police, in the army, in all kinds of works that impact society. Engage with them on how to bring sensitivity – challenge their ideas. 


Every day you wake up, every day you live knowing that there are these young girls and women just being killed. We need to talk about sex education, we need to talk about love, we need to talk about desire, we need to talk about how we relate to one another – all of that is caste. Caste is not just untouchability. Why is the media not reporting this as caste-based violence? Why are they constantly just putting it out as a case of rape and murder? It is not just that.


This nineteen-year-old girl belonged to a Dalit community and has been brutally raped and killed by four upper caste men. This is why it’s not just a case of rape. There is an inherent power dynamic to it, and there is an abuse of power. How dare the state not let the family see the girl’s body, or bury her body, or be given the chance to perform the last rites? The state and upper caste folk feel that Dalits are not humans, that they can be treated like objects; be locked up in their own homes. Ultimately they make the decision on how someone grieves. 


We are surrounded by brutality, we are surrounded by violence. We are living in an atmosphere in which very little is politically motivating or encouraging of our dissent. We need to deepen our thoughts, we need to deepen our practices. We need to nuance our work because the challenges we are encountering are not so simple. They require rigour. They require a critical view. 


All this love and all this solidarity that we show only when an incident happens, why can’t we show it everyday? Why don’t we work enough everyday to ensure that these cases don’t recur? 


When people from Dalit communities venture into different spaces and work, say, in the arts, or in music or dance, of course they bring with their trauma, of course they bring their own experiences of violence. Of course they bring deeper issues – and of course these issues are difficult. We are living and grieving not only our own experiences of violence, but also of our larger community. It is a collective pain, and a collective suffering. It is intergenerational. There is no way out of it. I want to break away from it but I cannot. 


If upper caste people are really committed, if they want to change the system, if they want to break the caste system, they must start by talking to their families, their relatives, because talking to us is not going to help. There is nothing new you can tell us about our pain, but you can definitely tell your people that the normalising of our pain is not okay. This abuse of power, it is not okay. 


I don’t have anything positive to say today, but I do want to say that we need to feel more. I don’t think we feel enough. We don’t feel enough for ourselves, we don’t feel enough for our people. We don’t feel enough for anybody. We are thinking, we are constantly thinking, and that thinking is not helping. It is not the prerogative of just the Dalit community to keep highlighting these cases, to tell upper caste folk how miserable we are. It’s not our prerogative. 


This is not the failure of one person, or just the police or the state. No. This is the failure of us as a society. It’s all of us. This is not about one person, this is about everybody. This is about all of us. We are perpetrators of a system that is gruesome. There is systemic violence that is constantly breaking our soul, our heart and our body. Upper caste society and the state need to take accountability. I’m sorry, but where is the accountability? 

JYOTSNA SIDDHARTH is an Actor, Activist, Writer, Artist.  Jyotsna holds a Masters in Development Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and Social Anthropology from School of Oriental and African Studies, London and also a recipient of British High Commission’s Chevening Scholarship (2014-15)

Further Reading

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The Tamil film, Kanchivaram, explores the exploitation of weavers in Tamil Nadu through the story of its protagonist Vengadam, who belongs to the traditional silk weaving community, and is set within a period that saw weavers struggling with economic inequality and rapidly rising suicide rates.


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