India, the world’s largest democracy, has a PR problem.

Despite the effort of politicians to present India as a rapidly modernizing state, gruesome incidents of rape keep making news, generating bewilderment among analysts. Take the latest instance of a double rape and killing of two young girls in a tiny rural village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The girls were 12 and 14 years old and were last seen alive leaving their home in the middle of the night to relieve themselves. Were it not for footage of their bodies hanging from a mango tree the next day, the incident would likely not have made much news.

That incident is not isolated. Within days, more reports surfaced from Uttar Pradesh of a 19-year-old woman who was lynched and a 45-year-old woman who was raped and also hung. Additionally, a woman in the same state said she had been gang raped by four police officers after she went to the station to plead her incarcerated husband’s case. In fact, since the 2012 violent gang rape and killing of a young woman on a bus in the country’s capital, Delhi, India has been grappling with high-profile rapes and sexual assaults making news like never before.

Obviously rape itself is not a new phenomenon in India. But treating it as a heinous crime deserving of public revulsion is relatively new. Most attempts to make sense of the violence miss one crucial element however, and that is India’s caste system.

Why would the rapists and killers of the two young girls in Uttar Pradesh go to the lengths of hanging the victims’ bodies from a tree? The answer to that question is hidden beneath layers of India’s caste-based sexual violence. The victims at the center of that crime were from the Shakya caste while the alleged perpetrators were from the Yadav caste. Although both castes are designated as “lower castes,” the Yadav caste is dominant in the village where the crime was committed.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan is a Dalit-American filmmaker, transmedia artist and co-founder of the international women’s media technology collective Third World Majority. For the past several years she has devoted herself to exposing the injustices of India’s caste system. In an interview on Uprising during which she helped place India’s rape epidemic within the lens of caste-based violence, she told me, caste “is an insidious system that traps over 200 million people.” That’s the equivalent of two-thirds of the U.S.’ population dealing with an entrenched system of oppression. She cited the grim statistics that “every hour [in India], three Dalits are murdered, two are raped, and two [Dalit] houses are burned,” adding, “this is one of the most under-reported human rights crises of our time.” Most Americans will be unfamiliar with the word “Dalit.” But it is an increasingly common term of self-identification used by India’s Adivasis or tribal communities who have historically been at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy as “untouchables” or “scheduled castes.” “Just like within the Black Power movement, the assertion of being black was that first step toward self-determination, for Dalits, we reject the epithet of ‘untouchable,’ ” Soundararajan said. “Dalit,” she added, “means ‘broken by a system of oppression,’ but is also a term of struggle, meaning ‘we fight to survive, we fight to thrive, and think of ourselves as a people defined by this struggle.’ “

The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) explains in its brochure that India’s lower castes, also known as “untouchables,” “may not use the same wells, visit the same temples, drink from the same cups in tea stalls [as upper caste Indians], or lay claim to land that is legally theirs. … Dalit children are frequently made to sit in the back of classrooms and communities as a whole are made to perform degrading rituals in the name of caste.” Additionally, “Dalit women face the triple burden of caste, class and gender.”

Despite the fact that only a handful of media outlets in India or the U.S. have examined India’s rape epidemic through the lens of caste, Soundararajan told me, “the reality is that caste is everywhere South Asians are. If we’re able to talk about and break the silence on caste-based sexual violence, we’ll really be able to make headway in terms of ending this system in our lifetime.” India has outlawed caste-based discrimination in its very constitution. But just as rape is outlawed and yet essentially condoned by many politicians, caste-based violence and discrimination are rampant in villages and cities alike and laws remain unenforced.

In studying Dalit communities, the United Nations found some years ago that women “face targeted violence, even rape and death, from state actors and powerful members of dominant castes who used [their power] to inflict political lessons and crush dissent within community.” The NCDHR, in its 2012 report to the United Nations, cited tens of thousands of cases of violence against Dalit women each year. Soundararajan said to me, “when we’re talking about caste-based sexual violence, it’s not a crime of just lust, it’s not a crime of individual power. … [It is] a systemic way in which caste is enforced through Dalit women’s bodies.”

She gave a typical example of how “anytime the Dalit community [tries to] exert their rights like going out to vote or going to school or trying to access common resources that have been segregated in the caste apartheid that exists in rural and urban India, what will happen is there will be reprisal violence.” She echoed the dominant upper-caste sentiment: “Because you guys decided to step out this way, we’re going to emasculate the men of the community, we’re going to target your women, we’re going to humiliate them.”

The collective punishment against Dalit communities for daring to exercise their right to exist includes, according to Soundararajan, “an entire spectrum of sexual violence [against Dalit women] that includes being stripped and paraded naked, having your head shorn, raped and murdered in these heinous, humiliating ways that are designed to tell over and over to the Dalit community, ‘you are not human, you will never be one of us, don’t ever try this again, we have total control over your bodies and your lands.’ “

Seeing India’s sexual violence against women through the lens of the caste system clarifies the reason why the 12- and 14-year-old Dalit girls were lynched. The presumably Yadav perpetrators were sending a message of collective humiliation to the entire lower-caste Shakya community. Upper-caste violators of the law often get away with crimes of sexual violence because, according to Soundararajan, “there are two Indias: one India where there is a rule of law for those that are upper caste and wealthy, and another India where there is no rule of law, particularly if you’re Dalit.”

Soundararajan indicted all levels of Indian society for the crimes of caste-based violence, saying “we have to examine the culture of impunity that goes all the way from that village [in Uttar Pradesh] to the top levels of Indian diplomacy.” India is a strong U.S. ally and a lucrative market for transnational capitalist enterprises. Although gendered violence is a convenient excuse for foreign intervention in countries like Afghanistan, India’s caste-based apartheid is dismissed by the international community and major Western powers like the U.S. as part of the country’s own internal affairs. In fact, neither President Obama nor U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has made any mention of caste-based violence in condemning the recent incidents of rape in India.

Soundararajan had strong words for outside commentators about India’s sexual violence, saying, “Stop talking about the rape culture without mentioning caste!” Drawing an analogy with the West, she said, “It would be similar to looking at the U.S. under slavery and wondering why black women were experiencing rape much differently than white women without talking about slavery. That’s how critical it is to have a structural analysis and to name caste as one of the core origins of this rape culture in India.”

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