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Rape and other atrocities against Dalits: Why the road to justice is difficult

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(This story originally appeared in on Oct 04, 2020)

From trouble with registering FIRs and hostile panchayats to long court delays, Dalit women face several obstacles. Sunday Times does a reality check

In January, a 14-year-old girl in Kurukshetra, Haryana discovered she was five months pregnant. She had been raped for the last one year by a group of dominant caste men. While the POCSO Act which deals with sexual offences against children guarantees her rehabilitation provisions, she was not given any counselling or a safe place to stay. “She couldn’t have stayed in the village because she was pregnant and it was unsafe,” says Manisha Mashaal from Swabhiman Society, an organisation of Dalit women that helps rape victims and survivors in North India, mostly Haryana.

“They kept her for three months in the hospital against her will in a room that was the size of a toilet and she was given no personal security.” The case is still ongoing in court. Mashaal, who has been doing this work for 15 years, says she’s worked on almost 300 cases. Of those, justice was served in maybe 10. Yet, each of those 10 families had to move away from their village as it was no longer safe.

As the family of the 20-year-old Dalit woman in Hathras who was allegedly gangraped, brutalised and killed were told in a video doing the rounds, “The media will leave. Only we will be here with you.” This threat is just one of the reasons why activists like Riya Singh, part of the core leadership of collective Dalit Women Fight, say NCRB figures about assaults on Scheduled Caste women and minors – 3,366 in 2019 – are just the tip of the iceberg. Survivors and families of victims face roadblocks in every step of the process to get justice.

Hurdle 1: Filing an FIR
“In 99% cases, the police hand over an acknowledgement of a non cognisable offence instead of a FIR under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. External pressure is needed in each case at the level of filing a FIR, then again more pressure to get the FIR done under the accurate sections of the PoA act and not the just IPC,” says Singh, whose collective provides legal aid and counselling for survivors.

Hurdle 2: The village nexus
Mashaal, whose organisation Swabhiman Society comprises 100-odd young Dalit women, many of them rape survivors, says obedience to the existing caste nexus in the village is a big problem. “Khap panchayats play the role of local supreme courts. When someone tries to file an FIR, upper caste people reach the police station at the same time.”

“The woman’s testimony is often changed while being written down and there is pressure on them to compromise. Victims are often at the receiving end of casteist slurs by police officers too,” the 31-year-old says.

She remembers a 2012 case where a 15-year-old girl was gangraped by 12 people. “Her father was forcibly shown a video of her rape and he later killed himself. She was tortured in court, was constantly told the accused were “bechaare” and was she sure she wanted to pursue this.” The girl, now a college student who lives at their shelter, has forgotten the first 15 years of her life because of the trauma she went through.

Hurdle 3: Filed under wrong act

Rahul Singh, director of the National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ) confirms the struggle with getting FIRs lodged, especially under the PoA act. “Either they don’t invoke the whole act or they won’t invoke the correct sections. The problem with this is if the trial reaches court and it isn’t under the PoA act, then victims won’t get the full benefit,” he says. The act outlines that these cases are meant to go to exclusive special courts and the survivor or their family are entitled to compensation and travel allowances. The investigation is also meant to be completed within 60 days.

Hurdle 4: Compensation delays

Compensation, Riya Singh adds, is a problem they face. “According to the provision, the first installment of the compensation should be provided right after the FIR is registered and the second on filing of the chargesheet and the last installment on conviction. In majority cases, we are able to get only the first installment. That too after hundreds of follow up calls and door knocking,” she says.

Cases are also piling up in courts with the pendency rate of cases under the SC/ST Act at 94%. “Even though the atrocities have gone up from 2018 to 2019, the number of exclusive special courts have reduced. In 2016, there were 195 but there were 157 in 2018,” Rahul Singh of NDMJ adds. The NDMJ provides legal aid and connects survivors with special public prosecutors, who are guaranteed according to the PoA act but rarely provided.

Mashaal says she has seen many cases where court-appointed lawyers don’t tell survivors their court dates, and others where the survivor has no idea who her lawyer even is.

Despite the hashtags and outrage over the Hathras case, sexual violence against Dalit women is hardly a new phenomenon. Kalpana Sharma, journalist and author of The Silence and The Storm, an examination of violence against women in India, points out that women have been the collateral damage in feuds between men forever, but this is particularly the case with Dalit and Adivasi women. “The 2006 murder of Priyanka and her mother Surekha Bhotmange is the perfect illustration of this. It was a dispute between men of the higher caste and Priyanka’s own family and their struggle to come out of their poverty. Women were used to show other Dalits that this is what will happen if you lose your ‘aukaat’,” says Sharma. A 1999 Human Rights Watch report documented the use of sexual abuse against Dalit women “as tools by landlords and the police to inflict political “lessons” and crush dissent and labour movements within Dalit communities.”

There seems to be a narrative that positions the caste identity of survivors as purely incidental, yet this is clearly false and myopic. NDMJ’s Singh says, “If you go to villages, everyone knows each other and each other’s castes. The homes of Dalits, Adivasis and dominant castes are separate.” Sharma says of the Hathras case, “It happened because she was Dalit, no question.”

While the Hathras case shares outrage and protests with Nirbhaya, there is a stark difference in the administrative response as well as its possible impact. The response to the Nirbhaya case led to legislative reform, but will the same happen here? After all, if we are unwilling to recognise the problem as what it is, how can work towards solving it? Activists say the first step is just implementing the laws that already exist. Riya Singh says, “Strict adherence to the procedures laid under the PoA act is important. Instead of showing so much outrage, the upper caste folks should sensitise their communities and build a positive public discourse on affirmative policies like reservation that assures our fair representation within systems and right away withdraw their biases towards the PoA act.”

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