Twenty two years ago, in Bhateri village in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, Bhanwari Devi was gang-raped by five men. The reason was neither lust nor just patriarchy. Devi’s fault was that as a lower-caste woman, she had dared to transgress the age old strictures of caste – by protesting against the practice of child marriage, which was a staple among the upper-castes. Hence, he was meted out a “deserving punishment”.
When the matter finally reached the court, the judge acquitted all the five rapists, holding, among a host of other reasons, that since the upper castes practised strict untouchability, it was inconceivable that any of the five would touch a lower caste woman. Till today, Devi remains deprived of justice.
Now that there is a tidal wave of opprobrium and condemnation against the gang-rapes and murder at Badaun in northern Uttar Pradesh state and the gang-rapes in Bhagana, Haryana, the next question one is confronted with is – will justice be done? And if so, how?
While investigations are still on, and arrests have been made, it is only the first step. The final outcome in the courts is all that matters, and it is here that there is cause for much alarm and disappointment. For, India’s courts have consistently failed the Dalits (untouchables) by steadfastly refusing to acknowledge that sexual violence is perpetrated because of a woman’s caste.
The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, commonly known as PoA Act, recognises rape and other forms of sexual violence as an “atrocity”- an aggravated offence, as opposed to the general crime of rape. The reason is that an atrocity, as philosopher Claudia Card defines it, is a “gross evil – the widespread toleration of wrongfully perpetrated intolerable harm to individuals”.
Because Dalit women’s bodies are stigmatised – they are considered expendable and justifiably available for recreational (pleasure-seeking) or punitive purposes of upper-caste men, the law seeks to bring in substantive equality by recognising the lived reality of the victims.
Therefore, it is imperative for courts to recognise that the sine qua non for the deeming rape as an atrocity under the law is that the violence was perpetrated on the ground that the victim hailed from a lower caste.
Tragically, it is here that the judicial record is one of abject failure. Not only have the judges refused to acknowledge the reality of caste, but have also attributed reasons such as “unrequited passion”, “exploration of sexuality” and let off the accused. Even if there is a conviction for rape, an acquittal from the charges of atrocity renders justice not only incomplete, but also as a travesty.
Khairlanji village in western Maharashtra state stands out as the most infamous example in recent times. On September 26, 2006, four members of Suresh Bhotmange’s (a Dalit) family were killed in the most gruesome manner. His wife and daughter were stripped, thrashed, and paraded naked through the village, before being subjected to a fiendish gang-rape.
Nothing was left….knives, iron rods, spikes of bullock cart wheels- everything was thrust in their private parts. Bhotmange’s “crime” was the police complaint that he had lodged against the upper-caste Hindus grabbing the plot of land that was rightfully his.
The autopsy was done in the shoddiest manner – no efforts were made to test for rape, even though the naked bodies of the two women lay in the village for a considerable period of time. All the accused who were arrested were convicted by the trial court of murder and other offences, but not for rape.
Worse was in store in the Bombay High Court. In its 2010 judgement, the court put down the atrocities to reasons of personal rivalry and individual revenge. Shockingly, the court went to considerable lengths to hold that because there was no evidence, no rape had been committed – completely ignoring the harsh reality – that there would be no witnesses, and that the trial court had committed a glaring omission by ignoring evident facts. If the naked and badly mangled bodies of Dalit women did not stir the court to acknowledge sexual atrocity, perhaps nothing else could have. The appeal against the high court’s judgement remains undecided till this date.
The case of Hanamath was an appeal to the Karnataka High Court against the conviction of four men for gang-raping a 15-year-old Dalit girl. The court upheld the conviction of rape because it could have done little else – all the proof – eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence were stacked against the accused. But when it came to holding the culprits guilty under the PoA Act, the court not only demonstrated its blindness to caste, but took the “boys will be boys” line of reasoning, holding that the gang-rape was “a lustful act of misguided youth”.
Leave aside convictions. How does one prove to the court that a rape was committed because the perpetrators wanted to exercise their upper caste power and pelf? There cannot be any rule of evidence, except that of social reality – that the caste system, in all its vicious manifestations, exists.
Hence, the Supreme Court’s judgement in Ramdas (2006) rankles, and rankles hard. In the dead of night, three men dragged out a young woman of the low-ranking Pardhi caste and raped her. This was after she had refused to obey their summons, belonging to a landowning upper-caste, who wanted her to satisfy their carnal desires.
Of course, they wouldn’t have had the temerity to exercise the same obnoxious power on a woman of their own, or a higher caste, but then, Dalit women are fair game!
But the court was not inclined to accept this, and held – “The mere fact that the victim happened to be a girl belonging to a scheduled (lower) caste does not attract the provisions of the (PoA) Act.”
When a judgement of the Supreme Court deals a body blow to the very foundations of the law which aims to protect, impunity will certainly continue, unabated.