Women, Peace, and Security in India: Caste as Structural Violence
By Kirthi Jayakumar
Photo: ‘Ab Bas’ (Now, Enough!) by Sunidhi Kothari. Image Credit: Sunidhi Kothari/Feminism In India [CC-BY 4.0 license]
India ranked 133 out of 167 countries, on the 2nd Women, Peace, and Security Index for 2019, released by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security (GIWPS). The WPS Index "systematically measures the wellbeing of women worldwide and ranks countries based on 11 indicators under the ambit of inclusion, justice, and security." The report does not mention caste, one of the major forms of structural and cultural violence in India, but if it did investigate deeper bearing caste in mind, it may not be entirely impossible to believe that the ranking may have been much lower.
The Report of the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, filed with the Human Rights Council during its 31st Session on January 28, 2016, explained how caste operates as a form of structural violence. It specifically articulates and highlights the process of “dehumanization” of individuals and groups on the basis of caste, and how this process forms the basis of widespread social segregation of individuals and communities who are confined to separate physical spaces, certain degrading jobs from which they cannot break free, and generations of imposed marginalization, which in turn becomes “an externalized and internalized social norm that eventually legitimatizes mistreatment and abuses against affected communities, perpetuating discrimination and patterns of human rights violations against them.” The report also went on to cite a study by Aloysius Irudayam and others (2006) that specifically names rape as one of 12 major forms of violence against Dalit women. Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, the Special Rapporteur, produced the first comprehensive UN Report on caste-based discrimination.
Recent events in India – particularly the brutal gang-rape and murder of a nineteen year old girl in Uttar Pradesh – only affirm this truth. Any attempt to address or respond to the crime without acknowledging caste and the role it played in its very execution is to enable the crime – for ignoring a very significant part of the narrative is nothing shy of complicity through silence. No crime can take place without an enabling environment: and crimes of sexual assault are seldom about the “sexual” part as much as they are about power and dominance. While gender itself is the basic substratum for that inequality to manifest, other contextual and identity dynamics come together to exacerbate the inequality.
The brutal gang-rape and murder of the nineteen-year-old girl in Uttar Pradesh cannot be isolated from caste-based discrimination and violence. Following her death, the police cremated her body without her parents’ consent. The police did not let her family see, bury, mourn her passing, or even perform the last rites.
Women’s bodies have long been at the receiving end of violence across the peacetime-wartime continuum. Several historical records show that sexual violence against women in armed conflict is carefully aimed at breaking the fabric of society through a show of power, dominance, and in relevant contexts, ethnic purity. No narrative in “peacetime” is any different – the same factors motivate sexual assault where social inequalities like casteism and racism are normalized and operate like “business as usual.” The larger narrative of marginalization also means that those that are targeted not only face cultural and overt violence, but also structural and systemic violence in the form of gatekeeping: access to justice, to the security sector system, and to social capital all remain exclusive to those in positions of privilege.
As a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, India is under an obligation to prevent discrimination and to condemn apartheid. The convention defines racial discrimination “... any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”
The idea of "human security" calls for a shift in the referent for security from the state to the individual. The UNDP's Human Development Report of 1994 broke the gestalt by calling for the protection of human security, centering the focus on ensuring freedom from want and freedom from fear. Seen from this important yardstick, it is hard to imagine the idea of "human security" in the Indian social context as guaranteed so long as caste exists. State apathy and complicity, police brutality targeting particular castes, the added vulnerability of women and non-binary persons from lower castes, and the continued subsistence of marginalization only affirm the harsh truth: that the human security dream is still far from reality.
The UN Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination has specifically indicated that “descent” is not limited exclusively to “race,” implying that caste is also read into this definition. As a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women, India is under an obligation to guarantee the human rights of all women, and to prevent discrimination against women. As a member state of the United Nations, India is bound to follow and implement the Security Council’s Resolutions under Article 25 of the UN Charter – a clear indicator that it is bound by the WPS Agenda. As a member of the United Nations, India is also part of the global community that is pursuing the Sustainable Development Goals with the goal of leaving no one behind.
And yet, all we see is a thriving hotbed of impunity built and augmented on systemic, structural, and cultural violence that ensures that more and more are left behind.
1) Aloysius Irudayam and others, “Dalit women speak out, violence against Dalit women in India” (National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, 2006), pp. 3-4.
2) Stung by UN Report on Caste Discrimination, India Cries Foul (Read)
3) Report of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues (Read)
4) Women Peace and Security Index 2019/20 (Read)