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Sexual Violence Against Dalit Women and the Pattern of Impunity

In this Samvaad discussion, Dr. Sowjanya Thamalpakula from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences guides us through the sexual violence committed against Dalit women and the pattern of impunity one can observe. She starts with discussing the Nirbhaya case that happened in 2012. In the process, she discusses in length of what might have actually moved the conscience of the nation in the nationwide protests that erupted post the Nirbhaya rape case. According to Dr. Sowjanya, the brutality of the event pricked the middle class, or the dominant caste, as she points out.

Dr. Sowjanya uses the idea of brutality to question the very reason why the Khairlanji Massacre, that involved the brutal rape of Surekha Bhotmonge and her children, did not evoke a similar response across the nation. To explain this, she uses the idea of how India doesn’t consist of citizens but rather of different caste groups. She further substantiates this by arguing that it is this very discourse of India’s social fabric that gets constituted by the dominant castes and is morally sanctioned by the Brahmanical value system. For Dr. Sowjanya, this value system teaches one about the sexual purity of women and thus decides who deserves empathy and who doesn’t. She thus deciphers how the Nirbhaya rape case was seen as an undeserving victim whereas ironically the victims of the Khairlanji Massacre were seen as ‘deserving’ of the brutality meted out against them.

In the process, she stitches the narrative of how caste determines the sexual purity of a woman. Dr. Sowjanya speaks of how structurally Dalit women are stripped off their rights and are deprived off their sexual purity. The same structure also grants a dominant caste man access to the body of the Dalit women, only because it has been sanctioned by the caste system. She discuss in detail about how Dalit women are portrayed as being sexuality available as opposed to an Upper caste woman who is seen as pure, innocent and therefore must be protected. Whilst discussing the Khairlanji Massacre, Dr. Sowjanya also busts the myth of economic mobility being as the panacea for reducing caste based atrocities.

In fact, she argues with economic upward mobility, the aspect of caste becomes even more glaring and thus makes one more vulnerable to such caste based atrocities. Dr. Sowjanya then discusses the ever-growing attention that the idea of “Dalit Patriarchy” is gaining in the academic world. She further unfolds how the Dalit movements have been shaped and appropriated by patriarchal norms. She then goes on to vividly draw the example of the personal narrative of Baby Kamble, a Dalit activist and how she was not allowed to go outside by her own father. Through this, Dr. Sowjanya highlights the plight of the Dalit women and how they face a double whammy in the sense of being born both as a woman and having a certain caste ascribed to them.

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