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Members of the Valmiki caste play an important role in many areas, disposing off dirt and muck. But their low caste status makes them vulnerable to crimes like the recent rape of a 19-year-old in northern India.
Mallika* returned to her parents' house earlier this year after being abused by her husband Amar*, who belongs to a higher caste, for over a month.
"He used to rape me every day. He forced a cloth into my mouth so that my screams couldn't be heard outside when he beat me. It's like he wanted to destroy my very existence," she said.
Like many women in India’s conservative areas, Mallika married her rapist. Although she filed a complaint at a local police station, the group of village elders or khap panchayat intervened to save him and forced them to marry.
After the marriage, Amar's family physically and mentally abused her, in the hope that she would die and Amar could marry again."I was on the verge of dying. They didn’t give me food to eat or water to drink. They used to constantly refer to me as achoot [untouchable], because of my caste," she told DW.
Mallika ran away from Amar’s house and filed a report alleging domestic violence and criminal intimidation, among other charges. Her case was disposed by the district court, but she is contesting the judgement. However, she is under immense pressure to retract her complaint.
"The female police officers keep telling me that I should settle the matter outside the court. They say I will lose my case as I am powerless against an upper-caste family," Mallika said. She is being supported by Manisha Mashaal, an anti-caste activist and founder of Swabhimaan Society, an NGO.
In a nutshell, the caste system is a classification of people into four groups or Varnas: the Brahmins, who are priests and teachers, are on top, followed by Kshatriyas or the warriors, the Vaishyas or the merchants and the Shudras, including groups like cobblers, butchers and so on. The last group is considered outside the caste system and comprises the so-called untouchables, who were traditionally involved in cleaning, disposing off corpses and similar work. In the past and in several parts of India today, untouchables – known collectively as Dalits – have been marginalized, forced to live outside villages in deplorable conditions and have little or no access to health, education and sanitation.
Mallika belongs to the Valmiki caste. In several parts of India, Valmikis engage in manual scavenging - the manual cleaning of septic tanks and sewers, and the removal of human excreta from streets and public toilets. Their ‘dirty’ work is often cited as a reason for them being at the rock bottom of the caste hierarchy and makes them susceptible to discrimination from both upper castes and other Dalits, who may be slightly higher placed in the caste hierarchy.
"People of the Valmiki community are referred to as suar or 'pig' by members of upper castes, owing to the nature of their profession," Vijay Kumar, a Dalit rights activist in New Delhi explained, adding, "Most people in the Valmiki community are extremely poor, and existing caste hierarchies and discrimination impede their social upliftment.”
People protest against Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath following the rape of a 19-year-old in Hathras
The plight of Valmiki women has come into focus after a 19-year-old woman belonging to the community was raped in Hathras, a city in Uttar Pradesh in north India recently. Their low status makes them particularly susceptible to violence from upper caste men in villages because they go out of their homes to work, according to JP Chaudhary, a writer and commentator on Dalit rights.
"Almost 80% of India's manual scavengers are women, because gender discrimination within the Valmiki community forces women to take up work such as sweeping. They sweep homes or streets, making them vulnerable to violence from upper-caste men, as they are seen as easily available," he told DW.
For upper caste men, raping a Valmiki woman isn't just a sign of their caste privilege – it also establishes power over the untouchables. "There is this feeling of entitlement among upper caste men that they can do anything to a Valmiki girl and get away with it," Dalit rights activist Vijay Kumar said.
According to activist Manisha Mashaal, women from the Valmiki community are usually missing from the mainstream narrative around gender-based violence as the voices that speak up for women are mainly upper-caste.
"Caste-based violence is quite common, but it doesn't receive coverage in upper-caste dominated newsrooms. It's common for Dalit villages to be burnt down, for the cops to refuse a post-mortem for women who have been raped, for the local administration and upper caste people to suppress cases filed by Dalit people. The atrocities are immense, and the rape case in Hathras is just the tip of the iceberg," added Mashaal. Also, India's National Crime Records Bureau does not separately detail data on rapes against women belonging to specific Dalit communities, making it difficult to ascertain how many Valmiki women exactly have experienced assault.
According to Leslee Udwin, who directed India's Daughter, a documentary on the 2012 gang rape of a 23-year old woman in Delhi, violence against Valmiki women cannot be prevented by dealing with just the violence and not its cause, which is the caste system.
"Rape isn't an India-specific issue. Caste and caste-based gender violence is specific to India,” she told DW, adding, “If you're born as a Dalit, you can't even walk in the shadow of someone who is sacred just because they were born into an upper caste family. The rest of the world shouldn't ignore this blatant discrimination and should impose economic sanctions on India for this discriminatory practice."
But even Dalits as a community are hardly homogeneous and often divided into hierarchies of upper and lower-rung castes. "Other Dalit communities also discriminate against the Valmikis. They don't even allow marriage with the Valmikis owing to the caste difference," writer-activist Chaudhary, who is a Valmiki himself, said.
Valmikis have traditionally voted for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has exploited the marginalization of the Valmikis within the Dalit community for its benefit. Valmiki support for the BJP has come into question following the rape in Hathras, but according to JP Chaudhary, the case won't make much impact, because Valmikis vote according to economic need.
"This community is very poor. They can't even afford more than one meal in a day. A day before the election, if someone pays them to vote, then they vote for that person,” Chaudhary said, adding, "Valmikis can put India to a grinding halt if they choose to not work for just a week. But they can't afford to do that, as they are too poor. That's the tragedy of being a Valmiki."
*Names have been changed to protect privacy