South Asia’s Caste System and its Effects on India’s Rape Crisis

“Rape is a weapon to silence the assertions of the community. A way to teach us a lesson. To show us, including our men, that they are helpless and cannot protect their own women” Asha Kowtal,  Dalit activist.


What is the relationship between sexual violence and caste-based violence? What role does the caste system play in India’s rape crisis? How does it put the peace and security of India at risk?

One of India’s most culturally visible and historically prevalent notions of culture is the caste system. The caste system is an ancient Hindu system of social hierarchy, which separates India’s population into layers and categories. Although at one point the caste system had a meaningful purpose in ancient India, allowing for order and balance within society, the caste system became highly institutionalized during the colonization of India, utilized by the British Raj as a way to divide and conquer the people of India. Still today, the caste system continues to be an oppressive and antiquated means of control in which the upper caste of India exploit for wealth and power. The South Asian caste system is one of the causes of India’s rape crisis, which threatens the peace and security of Dalit’s, women, and thus India at large.

Jati is the Hindu word for caste. There are thousands of different jati in India, all of which differ by religion. At the top of the jati pyramid are Brahmin’s who were typically the priests of India. Second down on the pyramid are the Kshastrias, who were the warriors and fighters. Third down on the pyramid are the Vaishyas who were typically the merchant class. These three castes are the twice born groups, which means they are able to participate in high caste rituals and ceremonies. The final category on the pyramid is the Sudras, who were the peasants and commoners. It is important to understand these four castes, and the role that they play in society, because there is a caste group that does not make it onto the pyramid, one that is so heavily discriminated against that they are eliminated from the entirety of the chart. These groups of people are called Dalits, which literally means, “to be smashed” (Zook, Lecture 8.) The former name for Dalits is “untouchables” as they were considered to be “so unclean that someone from a higher caste could not touch them.” Mohandas Gandhi gave Dalits the name Harijan, which meant “children of god.” Dalits did not favor this name as it snubs them, continues to be disempowering, and labels Dalits as inferior to the rest of society. Dalits were isolated from the rest of India. They participate in dehumanizing jobs such as cleaning up human waste. “Caste historically determined where you lived, what you did, whom you married, even what you ate. In many villages, those rules are still in place, decades after caste discrimination was banned” (Fontanella- Khan). 

In the 1930s and 40s there was an activist by the name of B.R. Ambedkar who used his education and power to liberate Dalits in India. Ambedkar himself was a Dalit and grew up in a princely state who was impressed by the untouchable liberation. There was a program though the state that sent Dalits to the United States to study. Ambedkar was one of these Dalit scholars, who attended Columbia for Economics and the London School of Economics for Law. On Ambedkar’s return from the west he was commissioned to write India’s constitution. In this document he made sure to make caste discrimination illegal. However, law and social practice differ greatly. Ambedkar became an advocate for the separate status of Dalits and wanted to create reservations for Dalit citizens. Gandhi, on the other hand, was not in favor of these reservations and believed that the Caste system must be kept in tact, regardless of the discriminatory status of Dalits. Gandhi declares a hunger strike against Ambedkar in 1932 and a few months later Ambedkar gave in. Ambedkar knew that if Gandhi died of this hunger strike, Dalits would be killed around India (Zook, Lecture 8).

Today, although caste based discrimination is illegal, violence against Dalits is still prevalent throughout India. The city-state where this is most prevalent is Bihar in the North-East of India. Bihar is the capital of village “justice” where if a Dalit receives a scholarship for university, the village justice system will order rape of the daughter or the murder of the son. If a Dalit student were to make it to University, they would most likely face discrimination. On January 17, 2016, a Dalit PhD student named Rohith Vemula at Hyderabad Central University killed himself due to extreme caste based discrimination. “One newspaper said the sequence of events leading to Mr. Vemula's death shows how he was steadily isolated by campus authorities and his appeals went largely unheard.

The university stopped paying his monthly stipend of 25,000 rupees ($369; £258) allegedly because he raised issues under the campus's Dalit-led students union” (Biswas). Vemula along with four other Dalit students were accused of attacking a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad a student wing of the Hindu nationalist BJP. However, many reports said that there was no conclusive evidence of the assault:

“Mr. Vemula's is not an exceptional story of caste discrimination on India's campuses. One report said eight Dalit students had taken their lives "unable to cope" with caste politics at Hyderabad University in the past decade. Between 2007 and 2011 alone, 18 Dalit students ended their lives in some of India's premier educational institutes, according to another estimate” (Biswas).

 In fact, many Dalit students are targeted within University institutions. Because direct abuse of Dalit students is prohibited, there were “vile abuses written on the doors and walls of hostel rooms where Dalit students lived” (Biswas). Many times professors discriminate against Dalit students, asking them their caste background, and unfairly grading their exams. “More than 90% of the students said they were routinely humiliated by examiners in practical and oral examinations” (Biswas). Upper caste students target Dalits and tribes-people because of the affirmative action set to create space for Dalits in university. “So the students are shamed and mocked at as "quota students", and their abilities mocked. In absence of effective student support groups or university structures, warning meltdown signals among suffering students are ignored” (Biswas).

            Some of these suffering students and individuals are not just harassed within the institutionalized setting but are discriminated against based on their gender. India has a major rape crisis, which was sparked in 2012 due to the death of Joyti Singh. Her death triggered nation wide protests across the subcontinent (Zook, Lecture 8). The role of caste in India’s rape crisis reinforces sexual violence as caste based violence, instilling insecurity and vulnerability to Dalit people, and thus the peace and security of India as a whole. “Dalit [women] have been routinely raped by the landowning upper castes […] An analysis of Uttar Pradesh’s crime statistics for 2007 by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties showed that 90 percent of rape victims in 2007 were Dalit women” (Fontanella-Khan). A common saying amongst upper caste men is “You have not really experienced the land until you have experienced the Dalit women” which perpetuates this idea of the exploitation of low-caste women, to be used and disposed by upper-caste men. Although upper-caste men are almost never held accountable for raping a Dalit woman, the defense case for many rapists is that “They would never touch a lower-caste woman for fear of being ‘polluted’” (Fontanella-Khan). In a 1995 case, gang rape of a Dalit woman was dismissed by a judge who claimed that: an upper-caste man could not have defiled himself by raping a lower-caste woman (Fontanella-Khan). Although this excuse is unacceptable, rapists are getting away with committing sexual assault solely due to heavily institutionalized, caste based discrimination, engrained into the minds of India’s judicial system. 

There are several solutions that researchers and experts have suggested to work to end India’s rape crisis. However, India will not be able to end the rape crisis without addressing how it is integrated within caste-based violence first. The world only becomes outraged when ghastly photos are released of the abuse. “Katra Saadatganj hangings attracted attention was that grisly photographs of the dangling bodies were published in Indian newspapers and circulated on social media [while] Dalit activists that this was disrespectful” (Fontanella-Khan).

There needs to be more visibility when it comes to Dalit women. In Shahnaz Khalil Khan’s research paper on Kashmiri women activists, she challenges the notion that Kashmiri women are passive victims: Cythia Enloe observed that “Women need to be made visible in order to understand how and why international power takes the forms it does” (Khalil Khan, 336). When we observe the rape crisis of Dalit women in India, we must recognize the immense complexity of the issue. “The utilization of feminist analysis enables us to receive ‘violence as a continuum-from domestic violence (in an near the home) to military violence (patrolling the external boundaries against enemies) and state violence (patrolling against traitors within)’” (Khalil Khan). Although there are few direct solutions when it comes to India’s rape crisis, by identifying the links between sexual violence cases targeting low caste women, we can understand how and why the crisis goes well unrecognized. By providing Dalit women with a speaking platform, and empowering India with the knowledge of caste based violence and equality, there will soon be an end to this system of oppression and violence.

Works Cited

Biswas, Soutik. "Why Are India's Dalit Students Taking Their Lives? - BBC News." BBC News. N.p., 20 Jan. 2016. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.

Fontanella-Khan, Amana. "India’s Feudal Rapists." The New York Times. The New York Times, 04 June 2014. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.

Khan Khalil, Shahnaz, “Discerning women’s discursive frame in CyberKashmir,” Contemporary South Asia 23/2 (2015):334=351.

Zook, Darren. "Cultural Forms of Power in India." PACS 135. UC Berkeley, Berkeley. 11 Feb. 2016. Lecture.