Case Study: Bringing Perpetrators of Caste Violence to JusticeAccording to a 2014 study by the R.I.C.E. Institute, nearly 99% of incidences of violence against women go unreported in India. Police corruption and hostility, in combination with the marginalization of women in traditional Indian society, have a chilling effect on the willingness of victims to report incidences of assault and abuse. This is particularly true for women from historically disadvantaged backgrounds such as Dalits (considered “untouchable” within the Hindu caste system), Muslims and other religious minority groups, and indigenous tribal peoples. In the case of Sunita Devi, a Dalit villager from the state of Bihar, the actions of Parivartan Kendra led to justice in one such case that would have otherwise gone unreported.
On January 16, 2011, two men entered Sunita Devi’s home in Chakfateh village during the meeting of a micro-credit women’s lending group organized by Parivartan Kendra. As money-lenders from the village’s upper castes, the pair were angered by the prospect of economically empowered Dalit women, fearing that it would obviate the need for their business in Chakfateh.
The men began a confrontation with Sunita in which she was insulted with epithets against her caste and threatened. “They said, ‘Come out of this house right now, you washerwoman whore, or I’ll grab you by your saree and drag you out,’” recalls Sunita. The two made good on their threats, dragging Sunita into the street and beating her and threatening further reprisals if her actions continued.
Sunita brought the assault to the attention of Parivartan Kendra’s founding secretary, Varsha Jawalkgekar, who urged Sunita to go to the police and register a case against the attackers. In spite of the threats of further violence against her, Sunita and a group of women from the village bravely traveled to the police headquarters in the nearby town of Mahua to file a First Incident Report. Initially refusing to even register the case, the police were eventually pressured into doing so by the combined influence of the women present at the police station and by Varsha’s communication with the commanding officers via phone.
Parivartan Kendra determined that further action was needed when it became clear that the police had no interest in pursuing any investigation of the case. “They initially said they would come to the village,” says Sunita, “but later they said, ‘What’s the need to investigate such a small issue?’” A protest was organized in the town square of Mahua in which supporters of Parivartan Kendra demanded justice against Sunita’s attackers.
In order to pressure local media outlets to provide coverage of the protest and the attack, Varsha Jawalgekar created a short video report entitled “Microcredit Incites Caste Violence” detailing the attack and the inaction of local police. “I came to know there was a meeting after the protest by the people who attacked Sunita and they bribed the press,” says Varsha. We wanted pressure on the government and the police and the mainstream media was shutting us out, saying nothing about what had happened.”Varsha’s video report was published by community news organization Video Volunteers in conjunction with a national campaign demanding justice for Sunita. The campaign resulted in front page coverage in Mahua’s local print media as well as coverage by the national Hindustan Times. Additionally, Varsha and Sunita were invited to Patna, the state capital, where they gave on-camera interviews to Bihar’s E.T.V. news network. The press coverage led India’s National Human Rights Commission to take cognizance of the case, resulting in the arrest of Sunita’s attackers and allowing legal proceedings against them to move forward in the courts.
Although the court case will not be resolved for some time, the actions taken by Sunita and the community members of Chakfateh village have already galvanized support for Parivartan Kendra’s message of empowerment. “I realized that I could fight a case despite being a woman,” says Sunita. “I want everyone in the organization to work together and fight for this case.”
“You can see Sunita speaking so fearlessly, acting so fearlessly, and inspiring other women to act fearless as well,” observes Varsha. “This village saw that Dalit women can come out of their injustices and say, ‘We’re together, we have power; you can’t do anything against us!’”