Impurity, Violence, and India’s Growth

Photography by Koustav Basu as part of the ‘Rainy Day’ project available to view on Behance

India’s Constitution is one that promises equality and justice for all people no matter their religion, race, sex or caste. Following independence in 1947, the country created vision of a fair and just society for a population that had endured indescribable exploitation and injustice under the British.

At the forefront of the new vision of India was a system of social welfare and equality that would redress codes of inequality strengthened by the British and the discriminatory caste system which stripped millions of people of their humanity.

The Constitution (which you can read here) prohibits discrimination based on class or caste. This includes any exclusion of a person from shops, restaurants and hotels. In addition, all people were promised access to resources of necessary public use, such as wells and roads, which would be maintained and funded by the state. In employment, all people, it was written, would be offered equality of opportunity and could not be victims of discrimination based on their background. Most importantly, the Constitution aimed to protect all people from violence.

Like many Constitutions around the world, India’s vision reflects an ideal that unfortunately has not been successful in protecting millions of the country’s citizens from injustice and discriminatory or violent practices.

This article is about the Dalit population of India. In the Hindu caste system, the Dalit are ‘outcastes’, a fifth category created to describe the lowest in the social hierarchy. They are otherwise known as ‘untouchable’ and are regarded by many as being cursed, and have been oppressed for thousands of years. The Dalit population of India is over 200 million, and for an overwhelming majority of these people marginalisation, aggression and violence are everyday realities.

From being burnt alive for trying to enter a temple to being asked to clean one’s own coffee cup due to impurity, the Dalit experience of violence pervades aspects of everyday life. The severity of the violence one might become a victim of does not depend on the extremity of an act by a Dalit person, but by the hate and prejudice of the perpetrator. In 2015 an infant and a two-year-old were burnt alive in their home in an act of aggression and violence against their caste.

Although the cases listed above caused major outrage both in India and across the globe, a majority of offences against Dalit populations go unreported. It seems that the anti-discriminatory and protective framework provided in the Constitution are not an incentive enough to encourage Dalit people to report crimes committed against them. This may be due to their marginalised status in Indian society, but is also influenced by the internalised inferiority of Dalit people that is reinforced through many Indian social institutions.

Despite unreported figures, statistics show that violence against the Dalit community is on the rise. It is clear that the social mechanisms in place to protect citizens, such as the police, healthcare services, courts and local councils are not doing enough to end violence against this segment of the population.

The conviction rates for those who commit crimes against Dalit people are shockingly low.

There are many organisations in India who work to offer people from the Dalit community protection and justice. However, the extent of prejudice, violence and discrimination cannot be covered simply by charitable aid. It is necessary for lawmakers in India to strengthen acts of protection for the Dalit people. This may include enhancing public services for Dalit security and opening further opportunities for the Dalit population. In addition, social norm change must take place throughout society, but crucially within the police force and legal bodies to allow Dalit people to feel comfortable and safe reporting crimes committed against them.

Many amendments have been suggested in order to improve the protection and justice the law offers for Dalit people. The country has recently elected a Dalit president, which could be a sign of progressive change. However, India’s presidential role is mainly ceremonial, and has predominantly shown it’s influence in forming governments in times of political uncertainty. It is the Prime Minister who has responsibility for the government of India, a role that has never been held by a person from the Dalit community.

What seems evident in a time of increasing injustice and violence is that the basis of caste relations in India needs to be redressed.With the changing landscape of India, and drastic shifts in economic, social and political life, now is the time to tackle this issue of injustice. The opportunities springing up for most people in the country should be available for all people, no matter their sex, class, race, religion or caste.

Find out more:

India’s Constitution with Amendments in English and Hindi

Atrocities Against Dalit Women

Internalised Inferiority – Education and the Disprivileged 

Dalit Goods

Dalit Solidarity 

International Dalit Solidarity Network

Rising Violence Against Dalits 

New Light Shelter

 

Where Rape Defines the Victim

Image captured by Nadia Shira Cohen via The Guardian ‘The Perils of Pregnancy in a Country Where Abortion is a Crime’

Radical feminists have for years commented on the ways in which legal systems around the world come to prosecute both rapists and rape victims in ways which reinforce the power of the rapist and the act of rape over the victim. Notably, Catherine Mackinnon (1989) in her analysis of Pleasure Under Patriarchy outlines how definitions of both rape and sex, legal deterrents, and the law construct a social violence that maintains oppression and violence against women whist simultaneously confining and dictating notions of female sexuality. These ‘radical’ ideas remain hidden in current debates around law reform and practice; as outlined in the case of Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez Cruz in El Salvador.

This case has received global attention from NGO’s, human rights organisations and the press. It stands as a clear example of the way the law can be an instrument of violence against women.

Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez Cruz, a 19 year old woman from rural El Salvador, had been repeatedly raped by gang members spanning several months.

Evelyn began to experience illness and discomfort and eventually gave birth to a child in a bathroom stall. The baby was stillborn and Evelyn claims that she did not know she was pregnant until the stillbirth. The baby was found in the bathroom and Evelyn was arrested and hospitalised for her illness.

In court, a female judge found Evelyn guilty of murder for failing to seek antenatal care. Evelyn has been sentenced to 30 years. Activists and humans rights organisations are currently campaigning for Evelyn’s release. An appeal case has been opened.

In El Salvador, it is illegal to receive abortions under any circumstance. The government has expressed a concern about self-induced abortions, and has taken measures to reduce these risks through promoting access to contraception.

Before 1997, women could receive abortions in certain circumstances, including following rape. Abortions caused by the negligence could not be punished.

The conviction of Evelyn, and the attitudes towards abortion in El Salvador reflect the tight control of the female body by a patriarchal state.

Evelyn’s inability to receive help or protection from her rapists is the first indicator of this oppression. It is painful to hear that in El Salvador, the perpetrators of rape can be given a maximum sentence of 20 years, but that a sentence this high only applies to certain classes of victim — such as children or persons with disabilities. For a stillbirth, Evelyn received more time than her rapists would ever receive for their violations against her body.

Despite Evelyn’s testimony, the court held that Evelyn had known about her pregnancy, and had thrown the baby into the toilet with the intention to kill it. Examinations of the child after the birth were inconclusive, yet the court treated this as a sign that beyond reasonable doubt, Evelyn had murdered the baby.

If we take the perspective of the court, and assume that Evelyn had killed her child, we must heavily scrutinise the oppressive nature of El Salvador’s abortion laws and attitudes towards women. If a woman cannot make decisions about her body and receive a safe abortion, she ultimately has no control over her future, her past or the crimes enacted against her.

Research has found that many cases of rape in El Salvador remain unreported due to societal pressures and ineffective or unsupportive responses from authorities. For a majority of the population surveyed, sexual violence or rape was held to be ‘socially acceptable’, whereas abortion is seen as highly immoral. In addition, if a woman becomes pregnant through rape she has no choice but to accept the consequences of that rape for the rest of her life. From that moment on, the rape defines the victim.

Evelyn’s case is not unique. Hundreds of women find themselves imprisoned for up to 50 years following a miscarriage or still birth in El Salvador. María Teresa Rivera was convicted for 40 years following her miscarriage in 2011. Although released after four years, there are appeals to send her back to prison.

Fortunately, there do seem to be signs that legislators in El Salvador are under increasing pressure to legalise abortions under certain circumstances. Although the move would not offer full freedom for women in regards to their right to control their bodies, it would at least offer victims such as Evelyn and María justice.

Oppressive abortion laws are causing harm to millions of women around the world. Their liberty and rights restrained by legislators, and the risk of of incarceration looms if they choose to make a decision that concerns nobody but themselves. These laws are efforts by patriarchal institutions to limit the freedom and agency of women — they excuse sexual violence and rape, often carried out by men, and persecute the victims of this harm.

Find out more: 

Centre for Reproductive Rights, The Total Criminalisation of Abortion in El Salvador

The Guardian

The Guardian (2)

The UN – Abortion Law in El Salvador 

Amnesty 

Time 

Agrupación Ciudadana

Collectiva Feminista

Facebook – Justicia para Evelyn

 

 

Why I Write

For many people around the world, every day carries the possibility of becoming a victim. Countless people will be wrongly accused and prosecuted for crimes they did not commit due to their marginal, minority or oppressed status. In the UK alone, around 11 adults will be raped every hour. In countries from China to Ireland, citizens will be discriminated against through the law based entirely on their sex. Individuals will be assaulted and harmed by others because of their religion, and held by police unfairly on the same grounds.

This is why I write. Through this blog, I hope to raise awareness of some of these injustices, and highlight the ways in which inequalities are maintained within systems of government and the law. In doing so, it is my aim to encourage reflection, and hopefully inspire change.