“Don’t shout and cry about it,” the mother of a 9-year-old Dalit girl was reportedly told by a crematorium priest, after she found out her daughter was allegedly gang raped and murdered.
Last week, the girl was asked by her father to fetch water from a nearby crematorium in India’s capital and she never returned. Hours later, her mother would go to the crematorium only to be told that her child was dead and forcibly cremated. The priest and three others have been arrested for child sexual abuse and committing crimes against scheduled castes and tribes.
India is a society deeply divided by caste. As Re:Set writer, Vaishnavi Suresh explains, “The multifold caste system divides people into two large sections: Brahmins and savarnas or communities with immense social capital and Bahujans, an umbrella term for Dalits, Adivasis, Vimukthi Jatis and some Shudras. The latter have been violently oppressed by the former for centuries.”
While Delhi and other parts of the country once again erupted in angry protests over the rape of yet another Dalit girl, the mainstream narrative, fuelled by major news outlets and politicians, started diminishing the fact that the child’s caste had anything to do with it, drawing criticism from Dalit activists and people from the community on social media.
News outlets like The Indian Express and Hindustan Times did not mention the girl’s caste identity in their headlines while leaders from the ruling party didn’t address the case and many on social media only focused on the gender aspect of the crime.
When someone from an oppressed community sees that their identity, which is used to discriminate against them, is being conveniently ignored in the context of an atrocity, it adds to their experiences being invalidated. Not acknowledging the caste motivation behind a crime erases the fact that caste-based discrimination exists and is as prevalent as ever in a country where your caste determines your social capital, thus gaslighting an entire community about the centuries-old violence and discrimination they continue to face.
“The popular discourse, mainstream media and political leaders only recognize the identity of our community when the election approaches. They don’t recognize the plight of the community otherwise,” Siddhesh Gautam, an artist and Ambedkarite, told Re:Set. “They only portray us as weak and dependent which gives power and motivation to the oppressor castes to oppress us more.”
According to the 2011 census, Dalits account for 12.6% of India’s population, and 28% of those who lived in urban India lived in the slums. According to the 2018 Crime in India report, there is a violent crime committed against a Dalit every 15 minutes and crimes against them have increased by 66% in the last decade.
Manjula Pradeep, a human rights activist and co-founder of the National Council of Women Leaders, says it’s the systemic and long-term oppression that leads to severe trauma, which is often ignored.
“Bahujans are discriminated against since childhood. They’re bullied in school, denied access to basic resources like food and water. So they develop an inferiority complex as children, which leads to a majority of them dropping out of school and being unemployed,” Pradeep said, adding that this continuous cycle of discrimination often leads to a high rate of suicides among those belonging to the community.
“[The discrimination and invalidation] has been taking a toll on our mental health since our birth,” Gautam said.
But when it comes to gruesome crimes like that of the 9-year-old Dalit girl or the Hathras gang rape last year where both families have had to fight for justice and basic redressal, caste acts as a major obstacle in even calling attention to the crime.
“Dalit women, of course, are worst affected as they are most vulnerable which is why we see such a high rate of sexual violence against them,” she said. According to the 2019 report by the National Crime Record Bureau, out of the total 405,861 reported cases of assaults on women, 13,273 were against Dalit women.
While the impact of such horrific discrimination is deep and multi-layered, to say the least, what makes it worse is the lack of access to resources to address the mental health effects.
“Those who are directly affected by these discriminations and violence are most vulnerable to bad mental hygiene. They do have their own ways and spaces to acknowledge what they are going through, such as viharas, unions, societies, local community events and get together, festivals, celebrations, functions and NGOs, but most of these spaces don’t have professional help and resources,” Gautam said.
As protestors take to the streets and the media narrative takes shape in the 9-year-old’s case, what is still missing is the acknowledgement of the caste motivation and its impact on the community. According to Pradeep, it would have to start with accepting the intersectional aspect of the crime which is rooted in caste-based gender violence.
“To address the mental trauma suffered by the community, one must first acknowledge the existence of the trauma. But this trauma is not even recognized by Indian law to begin with,” she said. “Additionally, mental health by itself is still a taboo topic. So we need to first become conscious about the impact on the oppressed communities.”