- Mohan Bhagwat spoke during a convention of RSS workers in Indore, Jan.6.
A debate has flared up recently on whether Indian women are safer in traditional, rural environments than they are in cities.
It all started when a senior leader of the right-wing Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh said that sexual crimes “hardly take place in Bharat but occur frequently in India.”
Bharat is Hindi for India but refers to rural and more conservative parts of the country. By “India” the RSS leader, Mohan Bhagwat, meant urban areas, which he sees as more morally corrupt because of western influence.
This was just one in a string of controversial comments made by Indian public figures and politicians in the wake of the closely-followed gang rape and death of a young woman in Delhi.
This distinction between Bharat and India is wrong as well as dangerous, say experts and activists, above all because it underplays the violence women in rural parts of the country regularly face.
Among the most common victims of abuse are Dalit women, who are discriminated for their gender as well as their social standing. Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, belong to the bottom layer of the Hindu social hierarchy. Around 17.5% of India’s 1.2 billion population, or around 210 million people, are Dalits, according to 2011 census figures.
Indian economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen is among those who say not enough is being done in support of Dalit women. “I am absolutely delighted that at long last the issue of violence against women is receiving the kind of attention it has,” Mr. Sen said in a speech in Delhi on Friday, with reference to the mass protests that followed the rape of the 23-year-old woman in Delhi. “But I would have been even more delighted if it was recognized that Dalit women have been undergoing real violence over a very long time with hardly any protests and any organization behind them. I think there is an absolute gulf in that picture.”
For many Dalits, rural India has been a preserver of caste oppression, while cities may offer a way to lessen the prejudice. This goes back to debates on the identity of post-independence India. B.R. Ambedkar, one of the authors of India’s constitution and a Dalit hero, was outspoken in his opposition to village life, which placed him at odds with another founding father, Mahatma Gandhi.
“Gandhi was a rural romantic, who wished to make the self-governing village the bedrock of free India; Ambedkar was an admirer of city life and modern technology who dismissed the Indian village as a den of iniquity,” writes historian Ramachandra Guha in his essay “Gandhi’s Ambedkar.”
Caste-based crimes are more common in small-town India than in cities, where there is greater anonymity. These include sexual crimes against Dalit women, who activists say are at greater risk of assault than others.
“In urban areas rape is more of a gender question. In rural areas it’s gender and caste. It’s a question of power relations,” says Jyotsna Chatterjee, the director of the Joint Women’s Programme, a Delhi-based women’s rights group.
In October, Ms. Chatterjee was among the organizers of a rally in the northern state of Haryana, following a surge in rape cases there. She said that of the 21 alleged rape cases they tracked, about half of them involved Dalit women.
Dalit and women’s rights activists argue that sexual abuse is often used as a way of humiliating the community as a whole, and to reaffirm the superiority of one group over another.
“Those who belong to upper castes and are financially more powerful often cause violence to women belonging to lower castes,” adds Ms. Chatterjee.
A 2006 study found that, of 500 Dalit women interviewed, 116 claimed they were raped by one or more men, many of whom were landlords, employers or people belonging to upper castes.
The study, carried out by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, a coalition of Dalit rights groups, found that most physical or verbal assaults against Dalit women occurred in public spaces, which it argued was a form of “collective community punishment.”
The women were from districts in Indian states including Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Bihar.
Reports of sexual violence against Dalit women surface almost daily. In one particularly brutal incident in September, a 16-year old girl was allegedly gang-raped in a village in Haryana, according to reports published in the Indian media. The assailants filmed the attack. After seeing the video, the father of the victim committed suicide, ostensibly because he felt ashamed.
This culture of shame and honor, which is generally more prevalent in smaller, rural communities than it is in cities, often discourages many victims of sexual abuse – Dalits and not – from reporting rape allegations to police, experts say.
In parts of northern India, “khap panchayats” – unelected, local councils – reinforce conservative attitudes to caste and gender. To address the problem of sexual violence against women, for instance, they often call for women to restrict their participation in the public sphere, notes Indrani Mazumdar, a fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for Women’s Development Studies, a research group. For women, they promote “a culture of confinement,” she says.