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Why It Is Crucial to Examine India’s Rape Epidemic Through the Lens of Caste

Posted on Jun 19, 2014

By Sonali Kolhatkar

  Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) women workers raise slogans and burn an effigy of Akhilesh Yadav, chief minister of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, during a protest in Allahabad, India, on May 31, 2014. AP/Rajesh Kumar Singh

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.


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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.”


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