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A Virus More Dangerous than Corona

After the horrifying gang-rape of Delhi in 2012 and Unnavo in 2019, the conscience of the country was turned to Hathras, a village in Utter Pradesh. On 14 September 2020, four upper-caste men of Thakkur caste raped and assaulted a Dalit girl of Valmiki caste at Hathras in Utter Pradesh. Although she was taken to the hospital, she died on 29 September. But, her body was hastily cremated on the wee hours of the morning after her death without the consent of her parents and without allowing them to perform the last rites.

People are coerced into asking, are there any virus dangerous than the Corona Virus? It seems that the caste system and patriarchy are more vicious and dangerous than the corona virus. Wearing masks and sanitization may protect humanity from the Covid pandemic but the girls and women of the Dalits in India are unsafe due to the traits of patriarchy and caste system that prevailed. The brutal gang rapes that happened in India these years were clear pieces of evidence of this pandemic virus.

The Pandemic of Caste System in India

The word ‘caste’ comes from the Spanish and Portuguese word casta means race, breed or lineage. Often, another term also is used to denote caste, i.e., jati. In India, it is reported that there are more than 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes based on a specific occupation. These different castes fall under four basic varnas, namely, 1. Brahmins which includes priests and teachers, 2. Kshatriyas which includes warriors and rulers, 3. Vaishyas which includes farmers, traders and merchants and 4. Shudras which includes labourers. The Sanskrit word Dalit means oppressed, crushed, broken or scattered. It refers to those people who belong to the lower castes who have been subjected to untouchability. These people are considered as those who are losing their original identity. There are around 166.6 million Dalits in India and they are also known as scheduled castes in legal and constitutional terms. Although the Catholic Church in India condemned all sorts of discriminatory and exclusionary practices including the different forms of castes and sub-castes (CBCI, Policy of Dalit Empowerment in the Catholic Church in India, 96.a), it is a fact that there exists the traits of the caste system within the three Catholic denominations

How a caste is formed? In his essay, “Castes in IndiaDr B. R. Ambedkar opines that those who are high in the caste enclose themselves and socially distance themselves from others who are around them. These high-class people socially detach themselves from the rest of society and make a closed-door policy. In this way, a caste is formed. Besides, it is shocking enough to notice, how they insist on certain practices such as; even the shadows of the lower caste people should not fall on the higher class. Thus the social distancing creates a kind of untouchability and impending demand to remain inconspicuous. The pandemic of caste is even worse than the corona virus because like a virus, caste has the “virtue of self-duplication…inherent in it.”

Most of the people in India are deeply disturbed, disappointed, and infuriated by the continuous violence perpetrated on the caste-oppressed communities. Caste tension remains to simmer on the ground with its unavoidable cycle of dishonour, violence, inequality and discriminations. The Dalits in India have been experiencing several exploitive acts and oppressive atmosphere over decades. The situation of Dalit women is worse than anything. The recent issues in Hathras show that the security of the Dalits and the lower castes, especially the girls and women of these groups are under threat due to the traits of the caste system. A report named, The report of the National Alliance of People’s Movements states that these gang-rapes are due to the result of the “cumulative effect of caste, gender, inequality and injustice.” The atrocities that happened in Hathras is a reality and is the result of caste discrimination, oppression, untouchability, disgrace and caste violence. Besides, this inhumaneness reveals the depth and the scale of oppression, hatred and disregard towards Dalits and their human rights by the upper caste men.

Against Human Dignity

Every human being has a fundamental right to life and to live with dignity. Article 21 of the Constitution of India ensures Right to Life and a Dignified Life as a fundamental right. The spirit of the Constitution affirms that the right to dignity and fair treatment under Article 21 is not only available to a living person but also his or her body after his or her death. It means that the dignity of a person is expanded even after his or her death. So everybody, irrespective of caste, creed, colour or gender has a right for a decent burial or a decent cremation. This fundamental right is denied to the girl at Hathras. The Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court emphasises that “such valuable rights cannot be trampled or trifled casually or whimsically especially when those likely to be deprived are of the downtrodden class, uneducated and poor.”

Every culture and religion has its customs to dignify the body of a dead person. The victim of Hathras was denied every dignity accorded to a dead person. There was no religious ceremony. The right to have a decent cremation is denied due to the understanding of caste. For them, it was a body as profaned in death as it was in life. Perhaps for the policemen, it was not at all a human body. It was a Dalit body, worthless and disagreeable to be provided with any kind of ritual purification. Caste system denies all sorts of human dignity. The upper caste men assaulted her knowing that a girl from a lower caste was not a valuable human person. According to them, only the upper caste people have the dignity of a human person. The dignity of the human person is the core of human rights, and therefore, the forced cremation of the victim at night without observing proper rituals and against the wishes of the family injures the dignity of the dead.

Every man and woman is precious and valuable in the eyes of God and fellow human beings because every human being is created in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, anything that violates the dignity of a person is against the plan of God. We have to reject the traits of caste discrimination or untouchability since they contradict the very nature of human dignity. The recent Encyclical of Pope Francis’ “Fratelli Tutti’ invites every people irrespective of the borders of the caste to experience the universal fraternity (9). He says that sincere and humble worship of God “bears fruit not in discrimination, hatred and violence, but in respect for the sacredness of life, respect for the dignity and freedom of others, and loving commitment to the welfare of all (n.283).”

Against Justice

Since the victim of Hathras is from a lower caste, the upper caste men deny what is due to her. The state agencies played an important role in protecting the upper-caste culprits and making wrong propaganda of victimisation. The Lucknow bench of Allahabad High Court asked the Additional Director General of Police that whether he would have allowed his daughter to be cremated the way Hathras victim had cremated. This observation shows that the state was denying basic justice to the family.

There is a difference between a Valmiki girl and a Thakkur girl. If it was a Thakur girl, then the whole story would be altogether different. Every institution of the state would have sought justice for the suffering of the Thakkur girl. Neither the policemen would cover the issue nor would the district magistrate have dared to deny her family the respect and collective support they deserved. The parents would not be locked but they would be allowed to mourn their daughter’s body. But, a Valmiki girl is different. (The Valmikis caste traces their tradition to the Hindu sage Valmiki who is traditionally known as the writer of the epic named Ramayana). She is a caste-marked daughter and her fate is decided at the time of her birth. The whole systems of the state were against her and the family. The state, the police, the medical team etc. were denying what is due to the family. Until the victim reveals the truth, all of them were trying to cover up the issue of this brutal assault. It demonstrates and re-affirms the all-pervasive upper-caste hegemony in India. It happens now and then. It is not only violent misogyny of men and the oppressive patriarchal nature of the society. But, it has to be considered as the age-old prerogative of upper-caste men to the labour and the body of a ‘low caste’ woman.

The Hathras issue is against the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The “Concluding Observations (2007), of CERD, points to the fact that the “discrimination based on ‘descent’ includes discrimination against members of communities based on forms of social stratification such as caste.” When the police quickly cremated the victim in the midnight, without the consent of the family, they were violating another rule of the International Convention. CERD forces that the state parties have to take measures and to ensure the protection of human rights (Article 2, para 2). What the authorities could have done is the fast-tracking of the investigation and thereby ensure justice to the family.

To bury the Caste System Makes Women Safe in India

The recent sexual assaults bring our attention to the importance of gender sensitivity and questions of women security. The safety of women is not guaranteed unless there is a powerful law. After the Nirbhaya gang-rape, the Govt. of India set up a committee in 2012 and based on its recommendations, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act was amended in 2013. It brought changes in the Indian Penal Code and other laws. Based on the new law, the four convicted of the gang rape of Nirbhaya were hanged to death on 20 March 2020. Does it mean that the threat of the death penalty bring women safety? May not be! The reason is that immediately after six months of their death, another brutal gang rape was reported in the country. So the plea for ‘hang the rapists’ only makes convictions less assured, and cover-ups more definite. The death penalty does not make any safe environment to women of the country. The call for ‘hang the rapists’ may be a quick relief or a feel-good medicine and not a challenge to this crime. This shows the limitation of the law of the land. Although these women are protected by the constitutional guarantees such as the Untouchability Offences Act (1955) and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (1989), the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance 2013, often they remain in the conceptual level and legal thoughts. Their efficacies have remained poor, owing to India’s caste impunity culture. This caste license is customary in all sectors of the government and judicial bodies. People from the oppressed castes experience the indifference of the state and outright caste discrimination in their everyday life.

Indeed, rape in itself is intrinsically an evil act (CCC 2356). At the same time, it is an instrument of oppression and an exercise of power. In the case of Hathras, it is a demonstration of the power and authority of a rich and powerful higher caste over the weak and the poor lower caste. Rape undoubtedly denies all kinds of justice and charity. It deeply wounds the respect, freedom, and physical and moral integrity to which every person has a right. Besides, no one can justify these kinds of assaults because it damages life. The Hathras gang rape not only damages and mutilates the life of an innocent girl but it destroys the dreams of the girl and the family.

In short, the Hathras case reveals the resilience of caste as a permanent obstacle to women’s security. The caste spirit is a barrier to justice in India. ‘Hang the rapists’ may not do justice to her death but ‘bury the caste system’ can do justice to her death. The virus in the society is menacing and venomous than the virus in our bodies as it jeopardizes the whole system. Educating the future generation and empower them to go beyond the idea of castes could come up as an aid. And thereby, we can try to wipe out caste-system in India and thereby protect the life of women in India.