Dalit women and village justice in rural India
The vast majority of India’s 1.3 billion people live in its 630,000 villages. They have seen little or no benefit from the country’s economic growth. Over 80 per cent do not have “approved sanitation”, according to the United Nations children’s fund, UNICEF, and are forced to defecate in public; village health care, where it exists at all, is poor and inaccessible; education is basic, with large class sizes and schools lacking desks and chairs, let alone books.
The caste system dominates all areas of life and, despite the fact that the Constitution of India prohibits discrimination based on caste, violent exploitation and prejudice are the norm. Add economic and gender divisions to this medieval Hindu social system, and a multi-layered structure of separation begins to surface. At the bottom of the social ladder are girls and women from the Dalit caste (previously known as the “Untouchables”), who are born into a life of exploitation, entrapment and potential abuse: “discrimination and violence systematically deny them opportunities, choices and freedoms in all spheres of life”, the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) report for the UN makes clear.
The police are negligent, discriminatory and corrupt, and village justice, as dispensed by the village council, or Panchayat, is archaic. The Panchayat “consists of five members… [that] sit as a court of law” and adjudicate in cases which the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes as relating to “caste offences”. These “offences” are trivial one and all, and range from a Dalit woman taking water from a well reserved for higher caste families, breaching eating, drinking or smoking restrictions or, God forbid, having a relationship with a man from a neighbouring village. The punishments meted out by the Panchayat are extreme, often brutal, and always unjust.
The most common victims of village justice are Dalits (of which there are an estimated 167 million in India – 16 per cent of the population): poorly educated, landless with few employment opportunities, they are dependent on the very people who mistreat them – men and women of the higher castes. It is a dependency based on vulnerability, allowing exploitation and abuse.
Dalit girls and women are victimised and violated in villages, towns and cities up and down the country: the Dalit Freedom Network (DFN) records that they are murdered and burned alive, “raped, held captive in brothels and temple ceremonies, and forced to work as bonded labourers”; young girls are kidnapped and trafficked into prostitution or trapped into domestic servitude. All because they happen to have been born into a particular family, in a particular place.
Kessi Bai has lived in Thuravad village in Rajasthan for 21 years. In November last year the 45-year-old mother of five was accused of murder, with no evidence whatsoever, by a mob of villagers led by the village council and violently punished: stripped naked, her face was blackened with charcoal, her head shaved and she was repeatedly beaten with wooden sticks. Her husband and son were locked inside their home while she was paraded for six hours around neighbouring villages on a donkey.
The procession returned to Thuravad at around 8 pm, she was thrown from the donkey and again beaten, before the police finally arrived. When I met this frail, desperately poor Dalit woman in December, she would not show her face, wept repeatedly and had not left her house since the distressing incident.
In a similar recent case in Utter Pradesh, the Mail Online reports “15 Other Backward Castes (OBC) villagers stripped five women of the Dalit community, paraded them naked, caned them and then put them on show on the highway because one of their daughters had allegedly eloped with a Dalit’s son”.
And, most shocking of this trinity of injustice: last January in the remote village of Subalpur in West Bengal, a 20-year-old Dalit woman who was “found in the company of a married man from another village”, was, the Guardian reported, “dragged out by her neighbours… tied to a tree then raped by up to 15 men as punishment for the illicit liaison”.
The woman, known only as “W” has since been regarded as a “woman of bad character” who “’spoiled the atmosphere of the village’ by going against local customs” – medieval customs of suppression and division enforced by the Panchayats, which are widespread in India’s villages and support a deeply patriarchal society that has no place in any civilised country.
The Panchayat is elected by villagers and paid by the Indian government: it is in effect the first level of local governance; all members are duty bound to maintain communal harmony and discharge their office, the legislation says, in “a fair and judicious manner without fear or favour, affection or ill-will”. This all seems democratically sound; however, as with many areas of Indian life, what is universally lacking is the implementation of such liberal legislation.
Complacency and corruption are two of the major obstacles to the observation of universal human rights and the realisation of democracy in India. If the Indian government, under the leadership of the Hindu nationalist Naredra Modi, wishes to build a truly democratic state, it needs to enforce its legislation on caste, ensure village Panchayats operate within the law, and provide Dalit women with the justice and support that they so badly need.