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CBI team reaches the spot where the victim of the alleged gang rape was cremated (Photo: ANI)
CBI team reaches the spot where the victim of the alleged gang rape was cremated (Photo: ANI)

Gender and caste inequality could hobble our economy

The Hathras case telescopes dismal social conditions that might get in the way of India’s emergence

After a summer in the US defined by protests against racism after cases such as the killing of George Floyd by a police officer kneeling on his neck, Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste: The Lies that Divide Us, ought not to shock anyone quite as much as it does. The accounts of lynchings and murders of African-American men for such trespasses a century ago as writing a flirtatious note to a woman colleague of a different race, as happened in one instance, are critical in understanding part of US President Donald Trump’s appeal. It is not coincidental that Trump’s first political “success" was the lie that Barack Obama was not born in the US.

But the thunderbolt for many Indian readers will be the equation of India’s caste system with racism in the US and Nazi Germany’s genocide. Asked why she felt the word “racism" was insufficient to describe the US’s condition, Wilkerson replied that notions of purity and pollution, of dehumanizing large sections of the population, and the occupational hierarchies that African-Americans had been subjected to for generations in the US from the time of slavery onwards needed a more accurate metaphor: India’s caste system. India’s mistreatment of Dalits being used as a global standard of oppression was discomfiting. As a privileged, urban Indian male, I initially recoiled when I heard this. America’s great civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr felt something similar when, on a visit to a Dalit school in Kerala in 1959, he was introduced as a “fellow untouchable". King wrote that he was initially “peeved" before agreeing that “every [African-American] in the USA is an untouchable."

Just a few weeks after Wilkerson’s book was published, the gang rape of a 19-year-old allegedly by four upper-caste men in the village of Hathras plumbed new lows for caste oppression in the 21st century. The insensitivity with which both government agencies and large sections of the media have handled the case reeks of prejudice. As the Allahabad High Court observed on Monday, the cremation of her body in the early hours of 30 September by the police amounts to a trampling of her and the family’s fundamental rights. Speaking before the court, the victim’s mother wept while speaking of being unable to see her daughter after her death, and her father of the pain of not being able to conduct last rites. As Wilkerson observes, “The forced surrender of the target’s own humanity [is] a karmic theft beyond accounting."

The judges also censured officials for speaking to the media about the forensic report, but the damage had been done. Never mind that India’s rape law does not require proof of semen and that there are recordings of the victim saying she had been raped, a flurry of loud headlines declared that the “report" showed no “evidence" of rape. “The public declaration by a senior UP police officer that no semen was found feeds into the biases and myths that surround rape in our society, and contest the Dalit rape victim’s testimony with so called ‘scientific’ evidence while glossing over the fact that the [forensic] samples were collected more than nine days after the incident, when no semen, etc, can possibly be found," says the lawyer Vrinda Grover. Some TV channels have since been pursuing an absurd honour killing theory. Grover argues that police be prosecuted under the Indian Penal Code and Atrocities Act because the burning of the victim’s body was destruction of evidence.

The Hathras case is a microcosm of the medieval India that lives on. Last weekend, police in Tamil Nadu took action against the secretary of a local panchayat who had forced the Dalit woman head of the panchayat to sit on the floor during meetings.

Hathras telescopes the oppression of caste “inferiors" and of women, and is yet another reminder of how unsafe women are in this country. Between the vigils after the Nirbhaya rape and the Hathras victim’s brave denunciation of the men who allegedly raped her, the proportion of women in India’s workforce has dropped perceptibly, to 20%, among the lowest in the world, against Bangladesh’s 36% and Vietnam’s 79%. Both countries are India’s competitors for multinationals seeking to diversify production from China. India’s global reputation for crimes against women and lower castes is a human rights outrage, but also a handicap for the economy. After being in and out of factories as a business reporter in East Asia, mostly in southern China, what I find noticeable in Indian workplaces is that women are poorly represented—and lower castes reportedly even more so. The chances of a country characterized by gender and caste inequalities becoming the next Asian tiger range from low to negligible.

In Daughters of Destiny, a Netflix documentary about Shanti Bhavan, a caste-pyramid defying school, Karthika recounts her family’s misfortunes. Her father was from an upper caste family, but was murdered and his body thrown in a ditch, likely for the “crime" of marrying her lower-caste mother, who now works in a quarry and routinely faces discrimination. “It is unfair. If people can’t see this and people aren’t working against it, I cannot understand what kind of humans they are," says Karthika.

India’s social tragedy remains caste and patriarchy, as Hathras shows. Watching the media’s manhandling of that story and the alternately uplifting and depressing footage of Daughters of Destiny is a reminder of the privileges most of us take for granted.

Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent.

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