Op-Ed: Say her Name—Manisha Valmiki

The intersection of caste, class and gender make Dalit women the most unsafe women in India, their official rape figure of 10 rapes per day is nowhere near the truth, do Dalit Lives Matter?

Another day, another gang-rape story. A victim, whose biggest fault is being a woman, in a culture that regards women as lesser humans. Several perpetrators, whose biggest strength is to be men in a society where might makes right. Politicians, whose sole concern is power. TV news anchors, whose sole aim is ratings.  Amidst the cacophony of agendas, a girl fights for her life; her tongue cut off, her neck broken, her body racked with pain. She probably knows she won’t make it but she fights nevertheless. She must live long enough to tell her story, to tell their names.

Can you say for sure which story I am talking about here? The Hathras gang rape case? Or the Balrampur rape case? Or the Hyderabad rape case? Or the Unnao rape case? Or the Badaun rape case? Or the Nirbhaya rape case? Or any of the myriad rape cases that never make the news, yet we are all too aware that they happen, in villages, towns, cities and communities all across India, almost always with impunity? Thousands upon thousands of stories of nameless women. If our conscience was shaken every time a woman was raped in India, we should find ourselves buried under an avalanche of conscience-triggering earthquakes.

[Read Related: Hathras Case Highlights Ongoing Discrimination and Sexual Violence Against Dalits]

When it comes to sexual violence, India is the world’s most dangerous country for women, with four cases of rape reported every hour. Sit with this for a second. Imagine a woman you know as the face of that number. In the time it takes for you to finish dinner tonight, four women you know would have had their lives upended; many left to die, others to live in disgrace, for in Indian society the shame of rape falls upon the victim, not the perpetrator. In almost all of the cases, those women were simply going about their daily lives—cutting grass, riding a bus, hailing a taxi, shitting. They were not trying to navigate their way in a dangerous war-torn country like Afghanistan or Syria, or as proud proponents of Hindutva would claim, surviving in a “backward Islamic state” that doesn’t care about women’s rights. They were living in the world’s largest democracy, in which the predominant religion teaches men to worship female Goddesses. And to rape female humans. The gut-wrenching story of a Hindu girl who lived in a village called “Valmiki” and was raped by four men, two of whom were named “Ram(u)” and “Luvkush” makes it too hard to ignore the cruel irony of events in a state whose leaders have publicly called for a new “Ram Rajya”.

Do Dalit Lives Matter?

Yes, the story I am talking about is the Hathras gang-rape and murder, where her Dalit identity made a poor young girl vulnerable in such a perverse way that she could be subjected to any manner of indignity, and that is exactly what happened. The 19-year-old girl lived in the lower class “Valmiki” colony; most villages in India are divided into upper caste and lower caste colonies. The men who raped her are Rajputs/Thakurs, upper-class land-owners, who lead their lives awash in an entitlement that sees those belonging to lower classes as mere objects. Dalits are forbidden to participate in village functions, their children are prohibited from mingling with upper-caste kids, often forced to bury or cremate their dead in a separate graveyard or cremation ground. In almost every meaningful way, they are treated as “untouchables” except when it comes to raping their women, then touching seems to be acceptable. Often the rape of a Dalit woman is done by upper caste men to teach the former community a ‘lesson’, it’s unclear if this was the primary motive in this case, although the victim’s family has claimed of a family feud going back two decades with one of the accused assaulting the grandfather of the victim some years ago. 

After the rape, the men having left her for dead, the family found their grievously injured daughter and went to the local police station to report the case, but their claims were rejected. This was not unusual. According to Dalit Women Fight, India’s largest and only Dalit-women led Collective, in 99 percent of crimes against Dalit women, the police hand over an acknowledgment for a Non-Cognizable Offence aka misdemeanor instead of filing a First Information Report (FIR), and only file an FIR when activists or lawyers exert pressure, or the case starts getting traction as what happened in this case. The police finally registered the complaint on September 20th, SIX days after the crime had occurred. They recorded the victim’s statement on September 22nd and her forensic samples were collected on September 25th, a full ELEVEN days after the incident, even though government guidelines strictly call for samples in rape cases to be collected within FOUR days. Yet that discrepancy didn’t stop the Additional Director General of Police, U.P. from making the claim that the absence of semen/sperm on the victim’s body in the forensic report proved that there was no rape. When it comes to protecting or absolving upper-class perpetrators, the state seems to leave no stone unturned, whether it is through delaying FIRs, impeding the collection of forensic samples or giving false/misleading statements to the media. 

[Read Related: The Horror Story That Began at Home: The Shattering Child Rape Case in Chennai]

The indignity of being a Dalit followed the victim not just in life, but also in death. After she passed away and an autopsy performed, her body was taken over by the police, instead of being given to her inconsolable family, who were seen in photos & videos on social media, sobbing and begging for her body to be returned to them. In a shocking turn of events, she was subsequently cremated in an open field in the middle of the night, in the presence of nearly two dozen police officers and other officials, but in the absence of her own family who claimed they were locked in the house while her body was doused with petrol and burned. In the days that followed, the police seized the cell phones of her family members in an apparent bid to prevent them from speaking to the media, sealed their village and barred entry of media and opposition politicians, turning the village into a fortress. A video emerged in which the Hathras District Magistrate himself can be seen pressuring the family into changing their statement, his words a veiled threat against the family’s precarious existence in the community. 

One is forced to ask why such extreme steps were taken by the state; starting with utter indifference, which was then compounded by criminal negligence, then blanketed by obstruction of justice, if not to provide protection and immunity for the upper-class perpetrators and/or the machinery of the state itself. Dalits languish at the bottom of India’s unbending and harsh caste hierarchy, with Dalit women among the most oppressed women in the world. Many of us are willing to see this gang-rape case as oppression against women, which it is, but have a hard time seeing how the intersection of caste, class and gender make Dalit women the most unsafe women in India; harassed, abused, molested, raped and murdered with impunity. According to “official” figures, 10 Dalit women were raped every day in India in 2019. However, in a survey done in four states in 2006, nearly half of Dalit women reported being sexually harassed and nearly a quarter reported being raped. The numbers didn’t add up, so I did a little research myself (you are welcome to check my math here and write to me if you think I have made an error). If the survey figure is to believed by extrapolating for the population of Dalit females in those four states alone, the approximate number of rapes per day would be about 417, a 99 percent under-reporting, which is exactly in line with what Dalit Women Fight have been asserting for years. This is not just a matter of all Indian women being unsafe, it is a matter of highly marginalized Indian women being highly unsafe and crimes against them hideously under-reported. Every report on the exploitation of Dalit women underlines how Dalit rape cases unfold, with the police refusing to lodge the case, delaying an investigation, the rape itself questioned and doubts sown as to whether caste played any role at all, with authorities often shielding or siding with the upper-class perpetrators. The enormity of the problem is often misunderstood because although 17 percent of the country is Dalit, they have hardly any representation in police or administration or media-houses, leaving their voices unheard. If we take off our blinders and pay attention, we would hear their voices screaming “Dalit Lives Matter.” 

Say Her Name

While we think about the voices that are struggling to be heard, let’s also take a moment to question the very idea that rape victim’s identity MUST be kept secret. In India, it is a criminal offence to disclose the identity of victims of offences committed under sexual assault. A few states in the U.S, have similar statutes. No doubt confidentiality is a human right when it comes to any victim, but an unfortunate effect of such laws is that they serve to support and perpetuate the stigma and shame of rape, so pervasive in India that the first response to rape is often silence, a close second victim-shaming. The mother of Jyoti Singh, the victim in the world-famous Nirbhaya rape case of 2012, for which the entire country came together, publicly revealed her daughter’s name stating that she felt no shame in announcing it, and her father said on record that the laws that come out of her case should be named after her, to ensure she is immortalized in public’s memory. Many countries including the United States have a history of naming laws after the victim. Family members in the Hathras rape case have also expressed their wish for the girl’s name to be revealed. Other rape victims, tired of being victimized, and feeling suffocated by the shame & silence around the topic, have courageously reclaimed their names, instead of being known as “city/place victim”. 

When we name someone, we honor them as a real person with a real identity.  We say their name not just so they hear it, but so we remember that the person who was raped or killed lived just like us; a flesh & blood human, we are forced to acknowledge and honor their humanity. This is the reason why there are walls of remembrance in cities around the world, whether inscribed with the names of innocent citizens such as the ones that died at the site of 9/11 in New York, or of soldiers who lost their lives in battles such as the ones inscribed on India Gate in New Delhi. We take the names of heroes; we hide the names of victims. We are proud of the former, while the latter live in ignominy. We also take their names as a call for justice; this is why cities across America and the world are ablaze with chants such as “Say Her Name: Breonna Taylor.” 

The criminals that raped and killed Manisha Valmiki cut off her tongue so she couldn’t say their names, but she did nevertheless. She told us their names: Sandip, Ramu, Lavkush and Ravi. In honor of her undying courage, and as a call for justice in the names of all women and especially Dalit women, let’s come together and say her name: Manisha Valmiki.

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