By Jaimine V.
Art by Smish Designs
*Content warning - rape and sexual assault*
A Note from the Editor:
There’s this term in theatre, for the pause that sometimes takes place at the start of a sentence. A Pinter Pause it’s called. It’s what happens when the emotions being felt are too strong, too bold, too much to funnel through the synapses into concrete words. And as writers, it’s hard to believe that there are moments that can’t be put into words. But Manisha Valmiki. Manisha Valmiki makes us pause.
We stare at our screen, watching the spacebar blink, searching for the right way to convey the depths of horror, the magnitude of anger, the nuance, and texture of an act so brutal, and in our search, we find the page hopeless, empty. Manisha Valmiki.
The truth is that there isn’t anything we could say that would further convince you of how vile the act of rape is. There is no need to wax poetic about how demeaning the Caste system is. And when these two lines intersect, there is little we can say about how dismissive of life itself those that abide this system continue to be.
We all know.
No further nuance, no profoundly shed light, no new bold angle should be needed. It should be enough to simply say “This is wrong.”
So. This piece isn’t for us to sit here and talk about how sexual assault is wrong. We already know that. The conversation has already been started, but we need to give it momentum. When we cause outcry about another senseless act, we also need to talk about the root of the problem. We need to gather different perspectives and use them to move forward. In our search for answers, for solutions, for fresh perspectives, we came across a great many voices that gave us hope for the possibility of a different future. This is one of the voices we found. What is written here is neither the starting point nor the closing of this conversation, but it’s one perspective, one possible solution. It’s one strand of the conversation that needs to keep on being contributed to, and we hope it gets you talking.
The recent gang-rape case of Manisha Valmiki tells us about how deep the rabbit hole is when it comes to committing atrocities or sexual violence against Dalit women. The nineteen-year-old girl from Hathras district was raped in a field near her house, and she died two weeks later. Her body was cremated despite her family saying it was against their wishes, with none of them present. The authorities have been accused of trying to cover up the case, with police claiming the victim wasn’t even raped because there was no semen present. What’s worse, this gut-wrenching case isn’t the only one. As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) 2019, nearly ten Dalit women are raped every day in the country.
These cases once again unmask the violence that takes place at the intersection between patriarchy and casteism. Rape culture is something India has conserves, excuses, and ignores when crimes are committed against women. It’s the system and the society that has vociferously failed to emancipate and free the Dalit community from a web of oppression. More than ever, it is brutally important to make people aware that casteism, not just caste alone, remains a bitter reality today that stimulates bigotry and sexual exploitation of vulnerable communities.
Discussions around abolishing the caste system have been long ongoing. One seminal text is Annihilation of Caste by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, written in 1936. Ambedkar was part of Jat-Pat Todak Mandal (Society For The Abolition Of Caste System), an anti-caste platform that challenged conventional societal norms and orthodoxy of Hindu Society. There is a dire need to think out of the box in abolishing casteism and freeing people from the age-old matrix of slavery. The Annihilation of Caste was a radical work for its time, and it continues to be. The book’s theme revolves around the effect of casteism (as it matters for ‘untouchables’ like Ambedkar himself). The caste system is a conventional, misogynistic, and a very rigid social order that discriminates and exploits people, except the upper-caste (Brahmins), on the basis of birth, color, gender, identity, and community. It is proven that casteism lynches the very scope of social mobility, cultural emancipation, and freedom of individuality. Fast forward one hundred years, and still today the book continues to trigger orthodox minds and is rarely discoursed in the social and academic space. As a professor based in Mumbai, I can attest to the courage and boldness it takes to scorn the idea of casteism in social life and professional life, despite the brouhaha over the volume of literates produced in our nation.
Ambedkar highlights a particular case, where Hindus demanded that Balais follow rules such as “Balai women must attend all cases of childbirth of Hindu women, but render services without demanding remuneration, and must accept whatever a Hindu is pleased to give.” If they do not abide by these terms, they must leave the village. These rules still persist today. India Untouched, a documentary from 2011, saw Dalit people in various districts talking about the same rules that Ambedkar discusses. They can’t wear shoes in upper-caste parts of the village. Dalit women deliver babies for upper-caste women with no payment for their labour. Young Dalit girls who do get to attend school are assigned chores, unlike the Pagel and Shiroya children. And when asked why, most people respond with “because we are Dalits”. Nothing more, nothing less.
This is why I believe that the possibility of rewriting this entire dynamic must begin with a rethinking of how we educate our children about the systems, norms, and histories that have contributed to casteism. It is of utmost necessity to include discussing the Annihilation of Caste from secondary-level schooling onwards. Education is one key to cultivating a generation of critical thinkers who do not feed and subscribe to the ideas of racism, casteism, patriarchy, and homophobia in any form or in today’s India. Parents, in my view, are not going to verily tell their kids about the horrors of casteism, especially the privileged class, while at the same time, benefitting from that same system. As long as teaching about caste remains excluded from education systems across India, we will continue to see honor killing and endogamy, rape and sexual assault as issues endemically link to the caste system. Even debates on casteism rarely find space in TV journalism, print media, and radio, thus the social consciousness on smashing casteism is lowkey. Inter-dining or reservation alone would not downsize casteism, as many people ‘assume’ it to be. It’s mere tokenism, highly used to score political points over one another. The ground reality has something else to say.
Ambedkar sought to comprehend and thrust the inequality of casteism into the Hindu consciousness, to divulge social and economic inequality. This question or the social question of political reform is coupled with economic reform, thinking through the characteristics of ‘Indian’ society, but from the perspectives of Dalits. For Ambedkar, it is casteism that prevents a human being from practicing humanity with other humans and nevertheless deprives ‘segmented’ individuals in the hierarchy of caste from experiencing empathy and fraternity. And when two Dalit women are raped and killed in Uttar Pradesh in one week, and when it is necessary to define them as “Dalit Women” altogether, these values are needed more than ever.
Sexual assault encompasses both a male-female power dynamic, but also a dynamic of privilege between castes. It is not lost on those at the top of the hierarchy that they possess a level of power, which allows for domination through both the avenues of gender and caste. Dalit communities have little protection, and with men often traveling to the urban centers for long hours of work, women especially are at the center of vulnerability and exploitation of upper-caste men. Part of the issue is the denial by those who benefit from the system, especially its tangled relationship with Hinduism. “This is a system that leads to the betterment of society”, says one man in India Untouched, “what will befall on us if we don’t follow tradition?”.
Ironically, that question answers our question of why schools are resistant to include Annihilation of Caste in their curriculum. Teaching how caste structures Indian society risks the stability of “tradition”, restricting thinking beyond what we’ve been conditioned to perceive. Small steps of progress have been made, such as in 2019, while commemorating the 63rd death anniversary of Ambedkar, Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal announced that school pupils of 6th, 7th and 8th grade in the public schools of Delhi will learn about the life and contribution of Ambedkar. But if it’s not accessed by all, would that bring sound justice to the noble idea as anticipated? This book is a cornerstone, but surely not the only part of this conversation. It is time that we start educating and informing our own children of the ways in which their power and privilege shape and are shaped by those around them. There is a need to talk about it in conjunction with the changing political and social landscape of contemporary India. The paradox lies in placing the label “untouchable” on the very people who have their bodies abused and exploited. Bringing the ideas of Annihilation of Caste to the forefront of education is a crucial ingredient to developing a better, more holistic education and socialization for the next generation to not accept the system we’re in, to challenge tradition, and to envision a better society.
About the Author:
Jaimine is a libertarian professor from Mumbai. Loves nonfiction books, Buddhism, and food. He meditates too. Follow him @jaiminism