They were once called Untouchables. There are an estimated 260 million of them across the world and some 100 million women in India.
A new campaign is taking on caste violence, though, and they’ve been reaching out to activist movements like Black Lives Matter in the US. The Delhi-based All India Dalit Women’s Rights Forum has just wrapped up a two month tour of college campuses and other venues, where they exchanged strategies and told some harrowing stories of people they’ve tried to help back home.
First, though, the activists have to explain India’s 3,000-year-old history with the caste system, especially Untouchability. It’s the practice of upper-caste people not touching anything that has come into physical contact with Dalits. The practice is now outlawed, but the activists say its history still leads to everything from discrimination to outright crimes against Dalit people — especially against women and girls. According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, the top two crimes last year against lower-caste people were sexual assault and rape.
At the University of Texas, Activist Sanghapali Aruna Lohitakshi explained one of the cases the group got involved with three years ago, that of a 12-year-old Dalit girl who had been raped by 16 men. The men actually videotaped their crime, Lohitakshi says.
“Then they took the footage of the rape and then circulated it in the whole village so that she will be humiliated, her family will be humiliated, and she will not be sent to the school. After the footage was shown to her family, her father committed suicide,” Lohitakshi says.
It’s the kind of incident so horrible that some people, both in India and in the US, might not believe it. But just as video evidence is forcing the US public to contend with police brutality against blacks, it can make the reality of caste violence in India much more apparent. Still, Lohitakshi says, prejudice against Dalits is so pervasive, even video is not always enough.
“This girl took this footage as an evidence in the courtroom to show that she was raped, gang-raped. And then the judge said — he laughed out loud — and he said, ‘Wow. We know. You enjoyed the act. And you should be glad they touched you,’” she says.
In this case, the Dalit women activists helped the girl move to another village, where she now lives with her grandmother. She’s enrolled in school there. But the lack of justice in her case is all too typical, they say. There’s even a saying in some parts of northern India: “A man does not know his land unless he has had the women who work on that land.” Historically, caste governed where a person lived and what she did for a living. Lower-caste people lived in poorer places and had the most menial and labor-intensive jobs, such as working in the fields owned by upper-caste men.
“When somebody is raped, it is said that she has lost her respect, her respect is stolen, or something like that — you know, looted,” Lohitakshi explains. “So, rape is associated with respect.”
Often when a Dalit woman is raped, she says, “Nobody bothers. Not even the police, not the administration, not the doctors, not the state. Because how can you take away respect from someone who doesn’t even have the respect? Who is actually made for that?” she says, her voice trembling.
So to talk about sexual violence in India without mentioning caste would be like talking about rape during the time of slavery without mentioning slavery, the Dalit activists say. But they find many people in India are reluctant to talk about the problem of caste violence at all.
“Everywhere we go, the moment we talk about caste, no one wants to talk about it,” Lohitakshi says.
The Dalit women see a parallel between this discomfort with caste at home and the discomfort in the US around race. A big reason they raised money to come here was to exchange strategies with US activists.
Brianna Gibson, a movement leader in the Bay Area, says the similarities to their experiences are striking.
“So, someone saying you know, ‘We’re post-caste,’ versus ‘post-racial.’ It’s like ‘Wow, that’s exactly the same thing.’ Or they’ll tell you, ‘You’re being divisive.’”
The exchange between the two groups was at times emotional, but also really educational, as Nikita Mitchell*, another movement leader, told the audience during the discussion.
“I know in my experience, growing up in deep East Oakland, everybody who was South Asian or Asian in general were wealthy people in my mind, because that is what I was taught,” Mitchell said. “That they all came here as tech workers and that they didn’t understand our struggles. Well obviously, we’ve been lied to.”
The San Francisco meeting ended with a rousing chant and the historic civil rights song “We Shall Overcome” in both English and in Hindi. The Dalit women know they have a lot of difficult work ahead of them. But they say the fresh energy and support from activists here has given them new ideas to train more women back home — so they can continue to raise their voices.
*UPDATE: A previous version of this story misattributed Nikita Mitchell's quote. We regret the error.