On Sept. 30, the Dalit Women’s Self Respect March (DWSRM) came to Mills College to break the silence about the caste system in India and how sexual violence has affected Dalit women.
The group is on their North American tour, going to different cities to bring awareness to the violence of the caste apartheid system in India. Their goal is to start a discussion on the sexual violence perpetrated against Dalit – the lowest caste category – women’s bodies as a way of the upper caste levels inflicting oppression upon the Dalit people.
After the opening remarks, the women giving the talk led a discussion describing India’s caste system. The caste system was defined as a “social categorization of human beings into a structure of grave inequality” by Vee Kay, a member of the group. The caste system falls into five categories with Brahmin at the top, followed by Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra and Dalit.
According to Kay, upper castes consider Dalit people “untouchable,” and they are not guaranteed safety by the police or the government. Since India Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a member of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata party, rose to power in 2014, Hindu fundamentalism has been on the rise, creating an even more dangerous atmosphere for Dalit people.
Caste-based sexual violence was the main topic of the evening. DWSRM member Sanghapali Lohitakshi presented the statistics of the traumatic subject. According to her, every day four Dalit women are raped and every week five to seven Dalit men are killed.
“Dalit women’s bodies are used as a battleground for the caste war,” Lohitakshi said.
Lohitakshi explained there is not a single perpetrator in caste-based violence. In addition to the higher caste levels, the police and the state are also part of this violence by ignoring the cases brought to them and not implementing the law to protect the Dalit people. She advocated for global unity to eradicate the caste system.
“The media is not ours, the administration is not ours, the state is not ours. It is not implementing the rule of law,” Lohitaskshi said. “If we are to end this caste system in our lifetime, then we’ll have to work together.”
Another group member, Asha Kowtal, called out the Indian government, saying the country has the “most hidden form of human rights abuses” in the world today. She said that when people think of India, they think of the country as exotic. However, in truth they are not seeing the “caste apartheid and gross human rights violation” that is generally ignored.
“We are here to speak the truth of this nation, which is actually an atrocious nation,” Kowtal said. “You point to any place on a map [of India] and you will find the location of a heinous crime committed against a Dalit person. The list is endless.”
Kowtal also mentioned how dangerous it can be to fight for an end to the caste system. Activists can face threats and intimidation for speaking about the injustices of the caste system and Hindu fundamentalism.
In addition to the speakers, a panel of Dalit women spoke about their experiences with fighting for justice.
Sushma Raj is a young woman who joined the cause in order to fight against the violence that she has seen against her community since her childhood.
Lohitakshi reported that the caste system even invades the universities in India. Lists of which caste each student belongs to are posted in classrooms. Every year, one to two Dalit students across the country commit suicide because of the discrimination they face in academic circles.
Audience members asked questions about how to show their solidarity with the Dalit struggle. The panel responded that the best way to show support is to acknowledge that the caste system is very real and to help spread the word that it must be stopped.
“The death of the caste system will be our liberation,” Kowtal said.