The conference took place some years ago, but the reality of living as a Dalit woman in India hasn’t changed. Tucked inside the newspaper — if at all — it filters through stories of everyday, routine indignities. Somewhere a sarpanch is denied a chair on the podium during a Republic Day function. A bride’s palanquin takes the long route home so as to not ‘pollute’ the roads that dominant castes tread on. Shopkeepers fling purchases made by Dalit customers to them. Temples and common water sources barred. Just another day in the life of a Dalit.
The outrage over Hathras is justified and necessary. But there is nothing new about the systemic oppression of Dalit women aided by state-backed institutions: police who won’t file FIRs, lawyers who urge ‘compromise’ to rape survivors, a legal system that exhausts the patience of the most stoic victim and a media that finds no merit in these stories.
To say, ‘don’t make this about caste’ is ignorance and privilege. Of course it is about caste. Of course there is a power dynamic. Would there have been mere outrage and not a raging lynch mob if four Dalit men had attacked a Thakur woman in similar fashion? Would police have locked an upper caste family inside their home and denied them access to their daughter’s cremation?
Caste is modern India’s dirtiest little secret. It has a grip so insidious that parents will kill their own daughters for falling in love with men from the ‘wrong’ caste; a grip so normalized that in 2014, one in four Indian freely admitted to practicing some form of untouchability in India’s biggest caste survey.
Of all the ghastly visuals that emerged from Hathras, the one that broke my heart is the one where the sister-in-law of the 19-year-old Dalit girl, is running behind the district magistrate’s official white car as he leaves the village in a plume of dust.
An Indian citizen, guaranteed equality by the Constitution, is chasing India’s new rulers like a supplicant in a feudal autocracy, begging for the most basic human right: dignity in death. Or at least an answer. Of course, the car does not stop.
This article was first published in the Hindustan Times on October 2, 2020