‘Am I not a citizen of India?’

An inner cry of a Dalit from the heartland of India

Why I am asked about my caste when I go to the police? Am I not a citizen of India?” The father of one of the girls gang raped and brutally murdered asked the Samajawadi Party leader and Badaun Member of Parliament Dharmendra Yadav. It is time that this pertinent question needs to be answered not just by few politicians across the party lines but by the nation itself. What happened in Katra village in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh is a horrific crime of brutality against women.

Millions of Indians everywhere must be feeling the shame of India in the news on the continuing assaults on women. However, it is more than just isolated incident of criminal wrong doings but rather emanating from an entrenched caste-driven mindset of these mad men who feel that they have the god-given right to them and are a privileged sect who can therefore get away with murder. According to press reports, in Badaun District, U.P, on the night of 28 May, two girls, cousins aged 14 and 15 years, stepped out of their house in Katra village to relieve themselves.

When the father, a farm laborer went to police last week to report that his daughter and her cousin had gone missing, a constable slapped him in the face and sent him away. Hours later, he found the two girls hanging by their necks from a nearby mango tree. An autopsy revealed that they had been raped and strangled. The reaction from Akhilesh Yadav, the Chief Minister of the state while questioned on the brutality of this Taliban type of execution was nothing but a cold, callous and insensitive one as he chided the woman journalist who asked the question — ‘you aren’t in any danger are you?’.

It is reminiscent of his father and the Samajawadi honcho Mulayam Singh Yadav’s statement in the past that ‘boys make mistakes, should we hang them for it? What is in it with these political leaders who have taken the oaths to uphold the law? Are they plain incompetent or willfully negligent in carrying out the responsibilities as elected representatives? His inaction during and after the Muzaffarnagar riots is on record that has already left a huge question mark on his leadership credentials as well as his impartiality in dealing with these human tragedies.

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This case has shocked the nation for a number of reasons; first and foremost, it once again shows the ugly truth about the age-old caste system which is not only thriving in India but exploited by various political parties. Mr. Shashi Tharoor, a former Congress Minister and Member of Parliament recently was quoted as saying ‘when India castes the votes in an election, it is voting the castes’.

The family of the victims belongs to the Dalit community whereas the perpetrators of this heinous crime belonged to the higher caste Yadavs. If one looks at the history, the Dalits have been at the receiving end for centuries being discriminated against by the higher castes with impunity often being harassed and murdered without having a price to pay. Sadly, Uttar Pradesh is the epicenter of these crimes targeted at these helpless women who were taunted and raped at will, many times, just for the simple reason that they belong to the Dalit community.

The recent election of Modi appeared to have given a boost to the upper caste majoritarian sentiment as evidenced in the current makeup of the Cabinet that consists two-thirds of the Ministers belonging to the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Samaj), a powerful ultranationalist grassroots movement raising serious doubt that whether an egalitarian shift would take place under this new Administration. At a rally in Muzaffarpur in March, BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi had stood beside Dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party, and declared that the coming decade would be a “decade of dalits” and weaker sections of the country.

Back in Gujarat however, over the last decade nearly Rs 3,689 crore of funds for targeted programs to uplift Dalits and economically and socially backward classes, went unutilized, according to Dalit group Navsarjan. The December 2012 gang rape in New Delhi, the country’s capital shook us all that prompted Congress-led UPA government to pass stricter laws. However, the rapes and abuse of women continue to occur unabated. Recent reports show that a rape is committed every 22 minutes though, the statistics and official records would never reveal the true picture as many of these cases go unreported.

The social stigma attached to a rape often results in silencing the victim who might be ostracized or ridiculed publicly if they choose to go public. The law enforcement system is not geared to provide sympathetic ears, if anything, they impart fear. On that fateful night, the route these two girls took is familiar for the women of the village. It is probably the only time in the day when they step out alone, unaccompanied by the men of the family, in the dark. “Men go out in the day, so women can go only early in the morning or late at night” said one of the neighbors.

This is a familiar, every day routine in rural India where the acute shortage of basic toilet facilities forces women and girls to venture out to open fields that makes them obvious targets for sexual violence. Nearly two months ago, four girls from Bhagna in Haryana who had stepped out to answer nature’s call were picked up from right outside their residence. They were raped and then dumped at the Bhatindia railway station in Punjab. It took the families an entire day to get the FIR registered and the medical examination took even longer. Five people were arrested in connection with that case, though the man alleged to be the main culprit, the village sarpanch continues to roam free.

Most of that family fled the village fearing for their lives and they have been holding a protest at Jantar Mantar, for nearly two months. To those observers, the horrific crimes in both Badaun and Bhangana display the power politics as well as the prevalent caste and gender discrimination and there is no relief in sight with caste oriented policies of those who are in power. The National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights states that over one-sixth of India’s population, some 170 million people, live a precarious existence, shunned by much of Indian society because of their rank as “untouchables” or Dalits – literally meaning “broken” people – at the bottom pf India’s caste system.

Dalits are discriminated against, denied access to land and basic resources, forced to work in degrading conditions, and routinely abused at the hands of police and dominant-caste groups that enjoy the state’s protection. Among the Dalit community and its supporters & sympathizers, Dr. Ambedkar’s statement resounds today more than ever; ‘My final words of advice to you are; educate, agitate and organize’ have faith in yourself. With justice on our side I do not see how we can lose our battle.

The battle to me is a matter of joy. This battle is in the fullest sense spiritual. There is nothing material or social in it. For ours is a battle not for wealth or power. It is a battle for freedom. It is the battle of reclamation of human personality’. Are the NRIs only ashamed of the News itself or this entrenched system of enslavement? Will we ever show the courage to join this ‘ battle for freedom’ as Ambedkar called it for the sake of India?
(The author is Chairman, Indian National Overseas Congress (I), USA)

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