When will Dalit lives matter? A cry from the bottom of India's caste system

by Priyanka Samy | @PriyankaSamy | National Federation of Dalit Women
Friday, 9 October 2020 11:18 GMT

FILE PHOTO: People shout slogans as they attend a protest against what they say are attacks on India's low-caste Dalit community in Mumbai, India, August 12, 2016. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

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The death of a 19-year-old Dalit woman following a gang-rape highlights the cruelties of India's ancient caste system

Priyanka Samy is a Dalit rights activist associated with India’s National Federation of Dalit Women.

On a humid day in October, 1929 in a village in southern India, a girl was born to a young Dalit couple.

Soon after her birth, her parents took her outside and rolled her in a heap of garbage.

The act conveyed to the gods their displeasure at not having been blessed with a boy.

The girl named Kuppamma, or 'woman born to garbage', was my maternal grandmother.

Last week, a young Dalit women in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh succumbed to her injuries after she was gang raped.

The 19-year-old's family say police cremated her remains without seeking their permission.

The two seemingly unconnected events, separated by a near century and more than 2,000 kilometres, are in a nutshell what it means to be born a Dalit woman in India. Our bodies, our dignity, our rights continue to be unabashedly betrayed in life and in death.

The caste system is the world’s longest surviving social hierarchy, over 3,000-years-old.

Dalits, formerly known as ‘untouchables’ or ‘outcastes’ are those who fall outside the four rigid stratifications of the Hindu caste system.

There are 260 million Dalits worldwide and about 200 million in India, 80 million of whom are women.

Despite 70 years of constitutional safeguards and equality before the lawDalit women remain at the bottom of the social ladder and face everyday discrimination.

And in 2020, nine decades after my grandmother made her way into this caste-ridden society, it feels like the worst is yet to come. 

The night the Dalit girl’s body was cremated by the police, I received a call from a veteran  women's rights activist, Syeda Hameed. .

Grief-stricken and agitated, she said: 'we, Muslim women stand in rage and in solidarity with our Dalit sisters and daughters’.

As a Dalit woman I'm overwhelmed with pain but also anger. I feel violated by the repeated indignities, sexual violence and ostracism we suffer at the hands of the dominant castes.

How many more of us need to be gang raped, stoned, tonsured, and paraded naked in public to appeal to the collective conscience of the dominant  castes?

What will it take for DALIT LIVES TO MATTER?

Last week's assault is not an isolated episode. Rather it fits into a centuries-old pattern of impunity enjoyed by dominant  caste men who violate Dalit women to enforce caste hierarchies and silence the Dalit community.

In recent days, several cases of sexual assaults against Dalit women have been reported in Uttar Pradesh and other parts of the country.

Nationwide protests have broken out decrying the state's failure to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of Dalit women. Having engaged with innumerable cases of caste-based atrocities on women, I've come to understand how Dalit women negotiate caste and patriarchy in their everyday lives.

I remember the fear in a Dalit woman's eyes who I met in 2001 .

She had gone to a police station to plead for the release of her husband who had been arrested for a petty crime. Instead of helping her, four dominant caste policemen gang raped her.

My mother brought her to our home for a week to protect her from abuse and false accusations hurled at her during a trial into the assault. Due to pressures from the dominant caste families, she withdrew her case half-way into the trial and the policemen were acquitted by the court.

Caste is omnipresent in Indian society. It manifests in many guises depending on context from manual scavenging to being forced into prostitution in temples to being offered tea in broken cups in tea stalls  to an unmerited rejection in a job interview. 

And yet, among these women one finds extraordinary stories of courage and resilience.

At the age of 11, my grandmother fought her very conservative and patriarchal father and left home to get an education.

Her conviction to escape the shackles of her caste, patriarchy and poverty, gave her the strength to fight for her access to education, and above all, to live a life with dignity.

As a school teacher, she campaigned for women's education her entire life. Her daughter, my mother, became one of India’s most prominent human rights activists  known for defending the rights of Dalit women. 

If there is one thing I have learnt from my grandmother, mother, and my Dalit sisters – it is RESILIENCE. 

Bama, a Dalit poet powerfully sums up our struggles, “In trying to break shackles, and propel themselves forward, Dalit women have had to roar their defiance and learn to mock the class that oppressed them, finding through this, the courage to revolt”.