The aggravated sexual assault and brutal murder of two young dalit girls in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, on Wednesday fills us with anger, raging grief and a deep sense of failure. It is so easy to spirit girls away, like the two cousins were; so routine and everyday to torture them in unimaginable ways; and yet so easy to proclaim that India has moved beyond caste.
We believed, as advocates of women’s rights, that laws would show the road to social change, to “notional change”, to use Babasaheb Ambedkar’s words. So we fought, long and hard, to secure reforms in rape laws in the early 1980s; to wrest more effective protections against domestic violence through criminal law and, more recently, a civil legislation; to secure protections for children against child sexual abuse; to curb the practice of sex selective abortions; to secure property rights for women; to fight relentlessly in courts for better recognition of women’s dispossession in the family through main-tenance claims; to claim a space of dignity at work-places.
These struggles grew in new directions to recognise the entitlements of adivasi women to forest rights, dalit women to land rights and the rights of women with disabilities to reproductive choice, freedom and bodily integrity. At a broad level, one witnesses a cascading of women’s rights in law and a sharpening of their rights claims.
A closer and more careful look, however, points to a stubborn persistence of aggravated targeted violence against women belonging to vulnerable social groups, forcing us to ask: Have we really achieved anything through all these years decades, in fact of struggle?
At every level, women and girls from dalit communities and vulnerable social groups live in conditions of far greater insecurity aggravated by structural violence. Each of the landmark rape cases were in fact brought to court by Muslim, adivasi, dalit women, Rameeza, Mathura, Bhanwari and so many more. Discussions around the Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013, in the context of the Justice Verma Committee, raised the specific question of sexual assault as part of targeted violence against women belonging to scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and minorities.
Khairlanji, Vakapalli, Gujarat, Kandhamal and Chhattisgarh were troubling reminders that in India all women faced the threat of sexual violence, but a large number of women faced aggravated sexual violence as part of the everyday, with no recourse to redress or even recognition of a wrong and harm being done because they were dalit, minority or adivasi.
The caste system guaranteed impunity to those in dominance in the constitutional era. Yet, this problem, although powerfully articulated, remained unaddressed in the law.
Finally, in 2014, the SCs and STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Ordinance, promulgated as a result of relentless campaigning by dalit groups, broadened the definition of caste atro-city, questions of dignity, of self-respect and bodily integrity, of the freedom from exploitation and sexual subjugation, and freedom from sexual assault were opened out in the framework of a law that symbolised the demand of dalits and adivasis to make the right to non-discrimination non-negotiable and non-derogable. In an important sense, the ordinance is a dalit manifesto.
A few steps before this the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013, broadened the definition of sexual assault and recognised the gradation in seriousness in crimes of sexual assault. So there have been significant shifts and developments in the law, particularly where it concerns sexual assault. These shifts are recent and fresh in public memory after the “Nirbhaya” tragedy and Justice Verma Commission’s report. The debates on sexual assault have been loud and clear and widespread. One would assume from this that there is a “climate of deterrence” because women do not seem to want to keep quiet about these matters any more.
Paradoxically, our assumptions are without basis. Despite the rapid-fire action after December 2012, the new laws in place and vibrant resistance movements pulling out all stops to force a new commonsense on caste, both caste dominance and the subjugation of women (and caste dominance through the subjugation of women) are getting stronger and more violent. Impunity remains the order of the day. When young girls go missing in the dead of night, and families rush to complain fearing the worst and hoping to prevent it, policemen sit back voyeuristically, making a spectacle of grief and fear. That is impunity at its worst. And with all our struggles and our “victories”, we have not changed that.
There is a routinisation of administrative action following these episodes of gruesome violence. Suspensions, official proclamations of sympathies, official fact-finding missions by statutory bodies, arrests. All of these roll into action the moment it is clear that families and communities will insist on justice.
The sound bytes are steady in their frequency and their monotony, and we know that once those children are laid to rest, these actions will roll back sooner rather than later.
The family and community will be diminished by their suffering, crippled by pain and the memory of harm and loss, while the agencies of the callous and criminal state will sit back waiting for its next voyeuristic experience. For those of us who struggle against violence, the fear of where “they” will strike next persists.
“The life of the law,” said America’s Justice Holmes, “has not been logic, it has been experience.” Who will take a count of the experience of dalit women and girls in terms of lives lost and a collective future facing annihilation through the violence of normal times? Which then is the road to justice? How do we annihilate caste, so that dalit girls may begin to live again that they may live to show us the way to a better future for India.