Social justice activists question silence over sexual violence against Dalit women

Published: January 28, 2013


Dalit women

Activist wonder why there has generally been silence over ongoing sexual abuse of poor Dalit and tribal women in rural India. Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

The social justice activists representing Dalits or oppressed groups also known as “untouchables” in caste-ridden Indian society have questioned the silence over continued sexual violence against Dalit and tribal women in the world’s largest secular democracy.

The outrage sparked by the gang rape and murder of a student, 23, in New Delhi in December came into question at a seminar organized Sunday by several groups at Douglas College in New Westminster, B.C.

While the speakers agreed that the Delhi tragedy was “unacceptable” and “brutal,” they wondered why, in contrast, there has generally been silence over ongoing sexual abuse of the poor Dalit and tribal women in rural India.

Selected clips from the famous film “Bandit Queen” were also shown at the event, which was jointly organized by Chetna Association, Ambedkar International Co-ordination Society of Canada, Indian Buddhist Society and Sant Sarwan Dass Charitable Trust.

The film was based on the life of Phoolan Devi, a prominent female rebel from India, who joined bandits to avenge gang rape by the so called upper caste men.

She eventually murdered those who outraged her modesty.

Devi later turned into a politician and was murdered in 2001.

Jai Birdi of Chetna Association said that Devi was forced to take matters into her own hands when Indian society and the state failed her.

“I still remember that the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, went to offer her condolences to the families of those who were gunned down by Phoolan Devi, but the Indian state never came to her support when she was subjected to sexual violence.”

He added that because of this selective and prejudiced approach towards the victims of violence, the stories of oppression against Dalit women have largely remained unheard.

The seminar was held close to the 64th Republic Day of India, which fell on Jan. 26.

Since the Indian constitution was authored by Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, a Dalit icon, the function was dedicated to him.

“Though Indian constitution bars caste-based discrimination and oppression it continues against our community. Dalits and women being the weaker sections of the society suffer the most,” according to Birdi.

MLA Raj Chouhan, who was one of the speakers, said with a choked voice, “I have seen this film many times. It has always turned me emotional.”

He linked the pitiable situation of Dalit women in India with the plight of aboriginal women in Canada, who have also remained vulnerable to sexual violence.

Kamlesh Ahir, a prominent social justice activist in the local South Asian community, recalled that she had participated in rallies that were organized in support of Phoolan Devi following her arrest.

“What choice does a poor and oppressed woman have when she is raped and there is no justice? She will either commit suicide or take the law into her own hands.”

Sita Ram Ahir, another Dalit activist, said that his father faced persecution in his village when he had testified against those involved in a rape of a Dalit girl.

Kuwant Sandi listed many recent cases of rapes involving Dalit victims that have either remained unreported or did not spark outrage or anger in the civil society.

Others who spoke on the occasion were Paramjit Kainth, Paramjit Banga, Surjit Bains, Kanwaljit Jassi, Barinder Bhatti, Ravi and Mohan Banga.

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