Caste and patriarchy are readily blamed for the phenomenon. After 70 years of working under a Constitution that promises all citizens equality, regardless of caste and gender, why do the oppressive power differential between castes and the genders persist?
Of course, the criminal conduct of the police in the Hathras case must be condemned and investigated, and the guilty brought to book. The brazenness with which rape has been denied, using the findings of a forensic investigation carried out, reportedly, 11 days after the girl was found battered, stripped and bleeding, and the hurry with which the victim’s body was cremated, forcibly keeping the family away, point to mens rea — criminal intent — behind the police action. But how come the police find the courage to act in the manner in which they have? How come, days after the Hathras incident, another Dalit woman was raped and killed in Balrampur?
Democratic failure is the short answer. Holding periodic elections is just one component of democracy. Realising democracy’s promise of liberty, equality and fraternity calls for a whole lot more than holding regular elections. That calls for robust institutions, their fair working, the routine accountability of all organs of state to the people and a break with the unequal tradition and culture of India represented by the caste system and, intrinsically, intimately linked to it, the oppression of women.
Everyone is equal before the law — in theory. A plutocrat, who can hire all the top lawyers of the country in a legal battle, is, in practice, a shade more equal — that is easy enough to appreciate. Similar inequality in how the state deals with different kinds of citizens is created by vast differentials in social and cultural capital.
Caste remains the most vicious form of institutional inequality. It has theological sanction, a moral explanation, in terms of the present plight of the “low-born” being the result of the sins of past births, material reinforcement (those without land or assets being too poor to access education, healthcare and other levers of upward mobility), cultural reinforcement (looking down on castes below yours offers some compensation for being looked down upon by castes higher up in the hierarchy, and valorisation of nepotism and discrimination in favour of those of your caste pass off as moral obligation and social solidarity) and political patronage.
Caste as vote bank
In the ferment of the freedom movement, anti-caste movements sprang up in different parts of the country. Even the mainstream national movement under Mahatma Gandhi accepted the need to ameliorate caste oppression, if not quite eradicate caste. After Independence, a dedicated, ongoing movement to move society from its pre-modern, savagely oppressive state to one better suited to the constitutional ideal of liberal democracy, was called for, but got swiftly abandoned as the pursuit of power found it convenient to cultivate castes as vote banks.
Radical land reform would have changed material inequality and eroded socio-economic hierarchy. That did not happen. Fast growth and structural diversification of the economy, creating urbanisation, would have created a mass of new, non-traditional jobs. Quality public education and healthcare, including clean drinking water, sanitation and nutrition, would have equipped younger cohorts to move into those non-traditional jobs and into towns. The correlation between occupation and caste would be broken. In the urban setting, people would learn to interact with one another disregarding caste — the focus is on travelling from point A to point B and getting the job done, not on the caste of the fellow traveller or the team member.
India’s urbanisation is still low: 32% in 2011. More than 40% of the workforce still toil on land. Changing these calls for faster economic growth and economic reforms Yet, it would be naïve to expect mere change in material life to erode caste. A cornerstone of caste is control of female sexuality. If women are free to choose their life partners, while working in towns and interacting with people of different backgrounds, there is no guarantee that they would choose only partners from their own caste. Autonomous women are a threat to caste.
If the poor and the low-born had political agency, they would force change and alter the status quo. They are, therefore, given slogans, tokens of patronage and some handouts, in return for political support to the status quo. How callous the state actually is to their condition was brought out in how migrant workers were treated during the pandemic lockdown.
Most political parties have colluded in this project of preserving caste and keeping women subjugated. But Hindutva politics disempowers the subaltern twice over.
It consolidates Hindu unity in hostility towards Muslims. It replaces institutional functioning with arbitrary departures from the norm to target “the enemy”. That loss of institutional integrity weakens the defence of the subaltern against the superior clout of their social and economic superiors vis-à-vis the organs of the state.
Further, it does not merely skirt the incompatibility of citizens’ democratic equality with caste but also reinforces it, albeit subliminally. Waging a campaign against the so-called Love Jihad against the Muslim promotes the notion that marriage outside the caste violates honour. Unquestioned valorisation of ancient glory celebrates regressive norms — for example, the Manusmriti, with its dogma of caste and male superiority. Conversion of Ram into an idol of Hindu supremacy and redefinition of Indian nationhood as Hindutva make it anti-national to criticise Ram for his decision to either execute Sambooka, the uppity Sudra who dared perform tapasya (focused spiritual meditation) or to abandon Sita. Only a sustained project of building democracy can prevent further Hathras-like incidents.