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Article: The Valmiki family in Hathras defied caste order. Their dead daughter paid the price

Yashica Dutt

The Valmiki Family in Hathras Defied Caste Order. Their Dead Daughter Paid the Price.

The Hathras case, as it became known both in national and international media, played out in the exact same fashion as other cases of violence against Dalits, especially Dalit women, play out across the country. On finding her naked, injured and bleeding, her mother put clothes back on her and then sat her down on a motorcycle between her older brother and herself to drive her to the local police station. The family is Dalit. But they are not just from any ‘lower’ caste. They are Valmiki, a discerning term that barely conceals the disgust that people harbour against this caste, when what they really want to call them is Bhangi – the caste of manual scavengers, which incidentally is also my own.

When this Valmiki ‘Bhangi’ family reached the police station with their daughter who was in extreme pain, her eyes bloodshot and her tongue mutilated, they laid her down on the ground on a cold, hard slab. And in a typical manner of approach, failed to register a complaint of rape or even sexual assault, even when the Dalit girl suggested that she was sexually harassed and coerced. In fact, when the girl’s older brother pleaded them for help to transport her to the local hospital which was several kilometers away, they suggested the family take her how they got her there – on the back of a motorcycle; shored up between her brother on side and mother on another. The family got an auto instead.

The unwillingness of the police to register complaints of sexual violence and rape, especially when it comes to Dalit women, isn’t new. In fact, the idea of Dalit women as disposable, their lives insignificant and their sexual availability for the taking, is so common, that there have been instances when the police have themselves raped the Dalit woman who came to register their complaint. In late 1980s, when a Dalit woman named Suman Rani came to a police station in Haryana to report her rape, the police constables allegedly raped her again in the bathroom at the police station.

In the Hathras incident, if the police didn’t actively rob a Dalit girl’s dignity in life, they certainly did so in death. After she passed away in Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital after weeks of fighting for her life, the police refused to hand over her body to her family and cremated her body in the dead of the night before anyone could find out. In a case as closely monitored as this, the rushed cremation of a Dalit girl, snatched from her family even in death, justifiably caused outrage, online and in real life. The police and the state machinery responded by imposing Section 144 (to prevent large gatherings) and actively stopped any Dalit and opposition leaders, reporters or supporters from meeting the family by filing FIRs against them.

However, neither the police (likely the same officers who had prevented the Valmiki family from performing the last rites on their deceased daughter) nor the state stopped men from the Thakur and other dominant castes along with leaders from right-wing outfits like the Bajrang Dal, Karni Sen and All India Kshatriya Mahasabha to openly gather and protest to demand justice. Not for the Dalit girl who had been brutalised and was now dead, but instead for the rapists who they believe were ‘wrongfully accused’ of the crime.

Members of the Valmiki community during a protest over the death of a 19-year-old Dalit woman who was brutally gang-raped two weeks ago in Hathras (UP), in Mathura, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. Photo: PTI

This sympathy for ‘upper’ caste men, regardless of the heinousness of their crime, would be puzzling if we didn’t live in a society that openly dehumanises Dalits and degrades Dalit women. In a social order where Dalits are never intended to prosper, thrive or even exist in a state that’s anything but depleted, Dalits are always under attack. Our success, whether it’s within the caste-based professions we’re forced to follow or outside of them, is an immediate threat to our so-called culture and penalised harshly.

In Boolgarhi village where the Valmiki family lived, their house was in close proximity to the four rapists’. According to the judgment report released after the verdict, the Dalit girl’s father and grandfather had previously filed a case under the SC/ST ACT against one of the three acquitted accused, Ravi Kumar, and his older brother, Narendra, for assaulting the Dalit girl’s grandfather with a sickle and chopping his fingers when the Dalit elder had objected to them leading their buffaloes to graze on the Valmiki family’s land. Ravi Kumar is also the uncle to the Sandeep Sisodia, who earned the lone conviction in the Hathras case, and his brother Narendra is Sandeep’s father.

While the case dates back to the early 2001, both Ravi and his brother Narendra were acquitted of it only in 2015 and allegedly spent three months in jail at the time of the crime. Ravi, Sandeep and the second acquitted accused Ramu (Ravi’s cousin and Sandeep’s other uncle) all cited this old case as the reason behind why the Valmiki family had ‘framed’ them in the fraudulent case of rape and subsequent murder in their individual testimonies. They also mentioned how in June 2020, about three months before the incident of rape and subsequent murder of the Dalit girl, their family along with the family of the fourth accused, LuvKush had filed a complaint against the Valmiki family for spreading garbage and dirty drain water in the locality. They also cited this recent complaint, which the accused and their families had made and not the other way around, as the reason why the Valmiki family had ‘implicated’ the four dominant caste men in the case.

In 2021, the Indian Supreme Court noted that cases filed under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocity Act often fail to reach conviction due to ‘shoddy investigations’, and witnesses often remain vulnerable to abuse, social boycotts and even violence. They also mentioned that the low conviction rate was often mistaken as proof for these complaints being false, while in reality most SC/ST folks are hesitant to even register complaints for the fear of vengeance from the dominant caste perpetrators.

Dalits, especially ‘Bhangis’, who dare to move out of their segregated spaces and share land with dominant caste neighbours are often blamed for spreading garbage, spilling dirty drain water and contaminating the area. Often, even the local municipal bodies will choose the areas near their houses to place an open sewage drain, since they are assumed to be habituated to filth, muck and smells of sewage. Dalit women often end up paying the highest price for it as the tax on disrupting the caste order that confirms the superiority of dominant castes is often levied on their bodies, either verbally, emotionally or physically.

In the charge-sheet that the CBI produced in the Hathras case, their investigation revealed that the slain Dalit girl seemed to be romantically involved with Sandeep Sisodia, the main accused in the case. In a relationship that allegedly lasted over a year, witnesses confirmed that Sandeep had reportedly stolen gold hoops and another religious trinket so he could sell those to buy her gifts, which had led his family members to strike him as punishment. When both families discovered their relationship, they forbid the couple from meeting, with the Dalit girl’s family complaining to Sandeep’s, and a witness suggested that Sandeep was sent away to Delhi to create some distance between them. Their relationship ended. However, things deteriorated when Sandeep allegedly discovered that the Dalit girl was possibly in a relationship with someone else and as a result, along with his uncle, Ravi, had tried to rape her once before the incident.

Several newspapers and media channels, especially those who feel responsible for maintaining the caste order and defending the dominant caste rapists, have tried to twist this revelation to claim that it was the Dalit girl’s family who killed her for defying their wishes – even as the CBI report makes it clear that the relationship had seemingly terminated several months before incident.

Inter-caste heterosexual relationships, especially when the female partner is Dalit, are often isolating and abusive, and, as evident from this incident, can be even dangerous for women. Patriarchy in India guarantees men a vile entitlement over women that can just easily turn vengeful at the slightest hint of rebuke or scorn. Dominant caste men in particular feel beyond reproach when it comes to assaulting Dalit women, likely knowing that they’ll have their communities defending them for putting Dalits in their rightful place. Like the five dominant caste men, out of which two had been convicted for gang-raping a 20-year-old woman in Bhawani, Haryana. When they were released from jail three years later in 2016, they raped her again to punish her for complaining.

India runs on caste, and anyone who suggests otherwise is either too blinded by the privilege their dominant caste provides them or is simply being dishonest because they fear losing their caste status. There is no scenario in 2023 India, in which a Dalit ‘Bhangi’ family can exert more power or status against Kshatriya Thakur men, especially if they live in the same village, and possibly share similar class structures. (In the Hathras case, the skewed power equation was more than evident when the Dalit Valmikis were barred from even saying goodbye to their dead daughter while dominant Thakur openly had rallies held in their support despite a curfew.)

This Valmiki family did not directly engage in manual scavenging, the profession ordained to them by their caste, but instead had cleaning jobs in local businesses. One of the Dalit girl’s older brothers worked in a lab in Ghaziabad (dealing with human excrement and blood are often the natural progression for Dalits in the caste order that dictates our culture), and her father was a sanitary worker in a nearby pharmacy. Their house was also not in a segregated part of the village, where Dalits are often relegated, but instead near the houses of the accused. Both reared buffaloes and the Dalit family owned two bighas (a little over half an acre) of allotted land– a discernible status symbol, especially for Dalits who until not too long ago were barred from owning any property, including land and cattle. In an interview to The Hindu, a relative of the family admitted their bigger house and relative prosperity caused animosity among the families of the accused.

Family members and relatives mourn the death of a 19-year-old woman, who was gang-raped, in Hathras district, Tuesday, September 29, 2020. Photo: PTI

In 2016, a dominant caste neighbour in the urban colony where my family lives in Ajmer severely injured my mother, just missing her eye, when he flung a stone at her face. He had retaliated to her closing the open sewage drain that was leaking into the foundation of our house over months. The municipality had allotted the sewage pipe to drain in front our house, the only Bhangi family in the area, clearly because they assumed we were the only ones ‘habituated’ to living with sewage that sometimes smelled like death.

Even my urban, college-educated family that lived in the city for generations was pressured into not filing an SC/ST POA case against our neighbour, who was arrested and then shortly released. The courage that the Dalit Valmiki family from Hathras showed by not just filing the complaint but also fighting it out for months in court, living under constant threat of violence and assault while standing up to immense pressure from an administration that is more likely to blame international media’s conspiracy theories for its own inaction, is exceptional. They have refused to scatter their daughter’s ashes until she gets the justice she deserves. And if this latest verdict is any indication, it seems like they’ll be waiting for a long time to come.

Yashica Dutt is a writer covering issues of gender, identity and culture.

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