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An Oppressed Dalit and a Suppressed Woman 

By: Apurva Kandpal

Abstract In our society, Dalit women have been victims of caste, sexual, and political violence. They are most vulnerable to social atrocities committed by men who are stationed at the top of the traditional hierarchy. If one ignores the intersections that form between caste and gender of the Dalit women, it becomes impossible to understand the intricacies of the violence committed against them. Severe limitations to justice from both the State and the Judiciary towards Dalit women have further aggravated their situation.


The caste system in India has been a ground for the systematic oppression of Dalits based on their social identities like caste, class, gender, disability, and sexuality. In this social hierarchy, Dalit women lie at the very bottom of it. Crushed under the weight of caste and gender construct, they are one of the most vulnerable communities in India. When the first phase of feminism started in India back in the 19th century, the struggles of Dalit women were not incorporated. Even today, the Indian feminist movement fails to be inclusive. The narrative of Dalit women facing both gender and caste oppression has rarely been raised by feminists. They see such oppression towards Dalit women, from a very narrowed-down perspective of gender, while completely ignoring the caste angle. Historically advantaged groups like the Brahmans hold enormous power in terms of both social and economic. Dalit women who are placed even lower than Dalit men in the social hierarchy have been the ultimate receiver of brutality at the hands of society.


The term intersectionality was coined by American scholar-Kimberle Crenshaw in her TED Talk “The Urgency of Intersectionality”. She used the term intersectionality to define the overlapping of social and political justice problems like racism and sexism which further creates multiple levels of social injustice. Intersectionality helps in looking at social identities from a much wider angle and observing how they are affected by them. If we see the socio-political condition of Dalit women from a single framework, it will become impossible to recognize the struggles they have been facing since the very beginning. 

While taking America’s and India’s social situations together, multiple parallels can be found between black women in America and Dalit women in India. The notion that ‘all women are white, and all blacks are men’ becomes ‘all women are upper-castes, and all Dalits are men’ in the Indian context. In India, cisgender upper caste women are at the frontline of the social movement and while in America, it’s the cisgender white women. There will always remain an identity that receives all the focus. Removing these intersectionalities becomes very important as they are so deeply internalised in Indian society. They are entwined in a way that separating them from each other becomes a very gradual process.

Brahmanical Patriarchy 

Brahmanical patriarchy has continued to systematically degrade Dalit women for centuries. In India, the category of ‘women’, excludes Dalit women. Women have been portrayed as figures of chastity and virtue, which is preserved by the Brahmanical hegemony. Upper-caste women have to conform to these gender norms to get accepted by society but Dalit women, on the other hand, do not even fall under the construct of caste and sexual purity for them. Upper-caste men believe they have easy access to Dalit women’s sexuality because raping a woman who is impure and unchaste is not considered rape at all. Incidents of sexual violence against Dalit women have been so normalized that we have come to a point where rape against them is not considered rape anymore. The irony of the situation cannot be ignored when upper-class men target Dalit women as their prey of male lust but call them virtue-less and promiscuous in the same sentence.

Women are considered the honour of their family and if the ‘honour’ is taken away from them, the whole family is left honourless. Hence, upper-class men feel it is their responsibility to shield the purity of upper-class women. They feel emasculated if they fail to protect women in their families. The same men consider themselves owners of Dalit women’s sexuality and social identity. The atrocity against five Dalit women in Sirasgaon is among the thousand cases where caste-based violence was used to dishonour and humiliate Dalit women. The five women were stripped naked by twelve upper-caste men and paraded throughout the village for the mere act of filling water from a common well. The village sarpanch and a policeman were among those men, who speak volumes about the status quo of Indian administration towards Dalits. By stripping those women naked, they wanted to display their authority and supremacy in society. The concept of dishonour and shame attached to women’s bodies is the cause of decades of sexualization. The idea is that once clothes are stripped off women’s bodies, they become an object of impurity and shame. Through this action, they declared their position in the society and imparted a lesson to other Dalits. Those men did not hold even an ounce of fear about the consequences and the simple reason being the political support upper caste people receive from the state. 

Violence Against Dalit Women

Violence against Dalit women exceeds far more than any other social group, as reported by NCRB, the National Federation of Dalit Women (NFDW) and the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR). According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, on average four Dalit women are raped daily. Nationally, rape cases against Dalit girls and women rose from 1,346 in 2009 to 2,536 in 2016, which was a massive increase of 88.4 per cent. Besides these statistics, we cannot ignore the hundreds of caste violence cases that go unreported. When one talks about ‘violence’, it does not solely refer to physical forms of violence. We cannot disregard the multitude of violence that Dalit women suffer every day like political violence, emotional violence, economic violence, and psychological violence. 

The most recent case of violence against Dalit women that gained media attention was the Hathras rape case in Uttar Pradesh. A 19-year-old Dalit was brutally gang raped by four Rajput men. They cut her tongue, broke her spinal cord and attempted to murder her and eventually she succumbed to her injuries. The police involved in the case consistently denied the occurrence of the crime and later burnt the body of the Dalit victim at night after putting a barricade on the woman’s family. “They took the body away without our permission, without the permission of my parents, and cremated her. We didn’t even get to see her one last time”, her brother told the media. The family was treated with no dignity by the police, before and after the death of the victim. Furthermore, they received multiple threats of death and ostracization from the savarna (upper-caste) men in the village. The Allahabad High Court recently came out with a judgement that speaks a great deal about the deplorable state of affairs. The court denied any occurrence of rape and went on to acquit three out of the four accused. In 2020, when the case was transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), they filed a chargesheet against all four and charged them with both rape and murder. But the High Court only convicted the main accused of Culpable Homicide not amounting to Murder under the Indian Penal Code and the Prevention of Atrocities (PoA) act. The PoA or the Scheduled castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was passed in 1989 to prevent the commission of atrocities against the members of the SC and the ST and to provide for Special Courts and the Exclusive Special Courts for the trial of such offences. 

The Indian Judicial Response to Caste Atrocities 

The concept of raping a woman has been associated with humiliation and dignity. Rape or any kind of sexual violence against women, specifically Dalit women, is a social way to control and disempower them. When upper-caste men rape Dalit women, they not only do it for the purpose of taking away the honour of the woman but also to ridicule Dalit men of not protecting the Dalit women. This again brings back the inherent patriarchy present in the current system where men are considered the ‘protectors’ of women. 

The legislature, executive, and  judiciary are all part of the caste issue. They have been actively involved in the suppression of Dalits. The Khairlanji massacre case is by far, one of the most barbaric acts of sexual and caste violence. In the incident, a forty-four-year-old Dalit woman along with her teenage daughter was mutilated and gang-raped to death and the two sons were brutally murdered. Due to massive Dalit agitations across the state wanting justice for the victims, the Bhandara session court was appointed a fast-track court. Although the death sentence was granted to six persons and life imprisonment for two, the judgement completely ignored the caste angle. Hence the case was not filed under the Protections of Atrocities (PoA) Act. The Khailanji judgement also disregarded Section 354 (assault or criminal force with intent to outrage the modesty of a woman) and Section 375 (rape) of the Indian Penal Code. Despite the presence of a phantom amount of facts about the rape and torture in the reports of the fact-finding reporters, these Sections were not invoked by the judge. The Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court agreed with the reasoning of rejecting the caste angle and went on to further commute the death penalty for the six accused. 

Such cases where the judiciary does not recognise the  evident caste angle help the accused to evade getting booked under the PoA act. A person being charged with the PoA act will have to face a much higher degree of punishment but the conviction rates are extremely poor. A report on caste atrocities tabled in Rajya Sabha, “stated that while there has been an increase of 15.55 per cent in crimes against women and children from SC/ST communities in the years 2017-2019, the conviction rate under Prevention of Atrocities (PoA) act in the same period has been as low as 28.86 with pendency at an alarming rate 84.09 per cent.’’ With a population like India, where hate crimes against Dalit women are very frequent, such dismal conviction rates are depressing. The Khairlanji massacre, which is by far one of the most appalling cases of caste and gender atrocity, was treated like any other criminal case by the judiciary. If such recurring judgements do not change, Dalit women will continue to be the most vulnerable section of society.  

The Indian system is designed in a way where people with power will continue to remain in power and the oppressed will continue to remain at the bottom of the pile. Upper Castes in India have access to both power and political influence, while Dalit women on the other hand have neither of those. The State and the Judiciary have been actively involved in suppressing them and one can easily find common points in all the incidents of caste and gender violence against them. There is a grave need for social reform in India’s caste-embedded society, where the upper caste does everything in their power to crush Dalit women. 


Apurva is a second-year law student at Jindal Global Law School. Her areas of interest are gender studies, intersectional feminism, queer theory, and criminal law.

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