Hathras: Caste-Based Sexual Violence and the Dalit Feminist Movement with Kiruba Munusamy Janya Gambhir (A’23)

by tuftsigl
Jan 11

In September, a 19-year old Dalit girl was brutally raped by four upper-caste Thakur men in the Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh, India. She was found lying barely conscious, naked, badly battered, and bruised in a field; within two weeks, she died from the injuries sustained during the rape. Despite the overwhelming evidence to back up her story, there has been an overwhelming sense of denial across various sects of the population. The Uttar Pradesh police keep insisting that the rape was a fabrication. They even burned the victim's body without the family's permission to perform the last rites, denying her of dignity even in death. Upper-caste Thakur men have been protesting to claim the innocence of the four accused men, and right-wing media continues to deny that the assault was caste-motivated.

The Tufts South Asian Regional Committee invited Kiruba Munusamy to discuss the intersections of caste and gender-based violence in light of the Hathras case. Kiruba Munusamy is a Dalit advocate, practicing in the Supreme Court of India and working against various human rights violations in India, including caste and gender-based discrimination, caste-based atrocities against Dalits, violence against women, discrimination in academic spaces, the death penalty, state repression, and prohibition of the inhumane practice of manual scavenging.

Munusamy began by explaining how the denial of caste in the legal system has deprived the victims and their families of justice for decades. The court has claimed in other caste-based violence cases (such as in the case of Bhavuri Devi) that upper-caste men cannot rape Dalit women because Dalits are too undesirable. While the legal system has introduced new legislation to support violence against women in recent years, violence against Dalit women is still not being recognized. Munusamy mentioned that this issue is not just "evidence of ignorance of the judicial system, but a clear case of impunity that is being enjoyed by the upper-caste groups for centuries." It saddens her that when she is asked to speak about Hathras, she keeps having to explain why the violence is caste-motivated. Even Indian feminists believe that women's oppression has nothing to do with caste, many of whom openly dismissed the role of caste in the Hathras case.

When asked about whether the existing Dalit feminist movement should be viewed as separate from the feminist movement due to this denial, Munusamy mentioned that Dalit feminists exist more like isolated voices, speaking about their unique experiences relating to caste and gender. The ultimate goal would be to join hands with the feminist movement, creating collective voices about caste-based gender violence, as Ruth Manorama, the Dalit feminist movement's pioneer, sought to do. However, this is only possible if feminists can recognize that gaining equality is not merely about standing against men but also standing against the caste system, an institution that denies women freedom and justice. Violence not only originates from the patriarchy, but it also comes from the very women who support their upper-caste men.

Munusamy concluded the discussion by teaching how upper-caste people—which are many of the South Asians that attend Tufts— cannot simply sympathize with Dalits but need to engage with the issue in depth. This does not just pertain to South Asians that grew up on the continent, as even upper-caste people in the Indian diaspora reinforce the caste system by upholding the same hierarchies. We must all develop the courage to re-examine ourselves and reject the toxic mindsets we have grown up with. This effort starts with speaking up about the unfair privileges that we experience in our daily lives. Sharing the upper-caste narrative in conjunction with the lower-caste narrative is key to exposing truths about the caste system in modern society and to change the notion that the caste system is a relic of the past. Moreover, we also have the responsibility to provide spaces for Dalit people to speak and take leadership roles. We cannot appropriate their spaces; we need to pass on the mic and leave the platform open for Dalit people to use their own voices to spark change.

As Munusamy aptly stated, "This is the moment that India should realize that Dalit lives matter. We should all engage in an active and honest effort in ending caste-based discrimination in Indian society." The Hathras case is a symptom and consequence of the caste system that pervades our country and is just one example of many, proving that the age-old institution is still alive today. In the aftermath of this incident, it is our job to understand how Dalits in India live without respect for their human dignity, where women experience the "triple burden" of caste, class, and gender. We thank Munusamy for an engaging and eye-opening discussion that has provoked us to question our biases, so we can practice being actively anti-caste in our daily lives.