How Dalits from villages across India protested the Hathras crime with a funeral ritual

As part of a tribute to the Hathras victim, Dalit communities across India applied turmeric on representational images of the 19-year-old woman. Her mother had hoped to apply turmeric on her as part of the last rites, but local police prevented the family from doing so. Courtesy Dalit Foundation
30 October, 2020

In October, Martin Macwan, a Dalit activist organised a tribute to the 19-year-old Dalit woman who was gangraped and assaulted in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh. Macwan is one of the founders of a Gujarat-based non-profit, Dalit Foundation, which works for the empowerment of Dalit communities. In a programme named Bhim Kanya, people across villages in several states including Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Bihar, Maharashtra and Telangana, predominantly from Dalit communities, applied turmeric on representational images of the 19-year-old woman. According to Macwan, over thirty thousand people, across a thousand villages, participated in the programme held on 14 October.

On 1 October, a division bench of the Allahabad High Court took suo moto cognisance of the Hathras crime. The court said that the incidents following the Dalit woman’s death on 29 September had shocked its conscience. Unfazed by the pleas of the victim’s family or the presence of the media, local police officials had burned her body late at night and prevented her family from performing her last rites. The bench said that the Hathras victim was entitled to “honourable, decent and dignified last rites/cremation to be performed by her family members in keeping with the customs and traditions followed by the family.” Among other things, the court noted that the victim’s mother wished to apply turmeric on her as part of the last rites but was not allowed to do so.

Macwan said that society believed that “Dalits do not even have the last wish.” He described the significance of the turmeric ritual among Dalit communities and why it was central to the programme. “This is a cultural issue that whenever people die without marriage, they apply haldi because that was something to be applied at the time of wedding.” The banner designed for the event read, “Dalit bitiya ko izzat se jeene bhi nahi diya, izzat se marne bhi nahi diya”—The Dalit daughter was neither allowed to live with dignity, nor die with dignity. The idea was for the participants at the programmes to apply turmeric to copies of this poster. In villages where the posters could not be accessed, they drew their own depiction of the Dalit woman.

Macwan said that it was necessary to mobilise people in rural areas. The Dalit Foundation discovered that many did not know of what happened in Hathras until they were informed by the organisation’s grassroots volunteers. “To the surprise of our colleagues, the amount of response that came from women was something they have not been able to understand,” Macwan added. Describing the turmeric ritual as a culturally powerful medium, he said, “When women brought out the haldi from their own houses and when they were applying it, they went through that personal experience as if they are doing that to their own loved ones. And something they have suffered themselves as being women, as Dalit women.”

While people from Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes participated in large numbers, Macwan said that the participation of women from the Valmiki community was particularly remarkable. The 19-year-old from Hathras was from a Valmiki community, which is a Dalit sub-caste. “Normally they are never part of these programmes,” he said. “We saw that it was these women who were explaining to the other people that what wrong had happened. They understood it better than what I could describe. This was the reason why we did this programme, it had to be symbolic, yet very powerful and also give a political message.” The choice of date to hold the Bhim Kanya programme was also significant—it was on 14 October 1956 that BR Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in Nagpur along with lakhs of followers.

I also spoke to Pradip More, the deputy director of the Dalit Foundation. He said that the turmeric ritual programme was not officially organised as a protest. “Why not have a different kind of protest where we will not say it is a protest but we will raise the issue of dignity of Dalit women,” More said. He added that the programmes held at the village level were called prerna sabhas, which literally translates to inspiration meeting. 

According to More, though these sabhas stuck to their purpose of paying last respects to the Hathras victim, and refrained from slogans and other marks of a protest, they still faced upper-caste opposition in many villages in Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. However, the local Dalit communities were able to go ahead with the event. “The community is more organised now,” he said. “They are able to fight back.” He added that the Dalit Foundation’s ground volunteers in the villages are doing follow-up meetings with participants of the programme to keep tabs on any threats they may face from upper-caste communities.

Kuldeep Kumar Baudh, the convenor of Bundelkhand Dalit Adhikar Manch, a network of Dalit social activists and civil-society organisations, also noted that the Bhim Kanya program faced some backlash from upper caste groups in Uttar Pradesh. He told me that the upper-caste Thakur community felt threatened by the programme. “On 14 October, we could not organise it in all the villages where it was planned,” Baudh said. “The tyranny of Thakurs is rampant in Bundelkhand region. When they came to know that such a programme was being organised, they questioned it. This is an area prone to atrocities against Dalits.”

For the last three years, Baudh’s organisation, in association with the Dalit Foundation, has been working for the rehabilitation of Valmiki families forced to engage in manual scavenging. Many of the same families had mobilised to representationally offer haldi to the Hathras victim at prerna sabhas held in Jalaun district in Uttar Pradesh. But because of disruption by upper-caste villagers, the sabhas in around 20 villages were postponed to the following day. Altogether, the Bhim Kanya programme was organised in 65 villages in Jalaun. Referring to the upper-caste communities, Baudh added, “They fear that it will grow into a movement. They think that we are doing this today, tomorrow we will take to the streets.”

Kalandi Mallick, a Dalit activist who mobilised prerna sabhas in eastern Odisha, echoed Baudh’s sentiments. “The incident happened in UP and people here in remote villages in Odisha protested,” he said. “Dalit people, in UP or in Odisha, feel tied together by what the society inflicts on them and so they extend solidarity to each other.” He referred to a massacre in 2006 when 14 Adivasis who were protesting against land acquisition for a Tata steel plant in Odisha’s Kalinganagar village were killed in police firing. “All the world’s Adivasis had converged here in solidarity,” Mallick said. “Sonia Gandhi had come to the village and held Adivasi children in her arms. People understood that if one Adivasi is harmed, all the world’s Adivasis will come together. Similarly, upper-caste people know that if one Dalit is harmed, all Dalits in Odisha, all Dalits in the world will gather. Dalits will get organised.”

P Eshwaramma, an activist working with the Dalit Foundation in Telangana’s Narayanpet district, mobilised similar events in four villages in the state. “Women broke down on hearing the details of what happened to the girl in Hathras,” she said. “They said it does not matter where the crime has happened, we must feel shaken from within. We have to organise more such programmes,” she said. “People are indifferent to the deaths of Dalit children.” 

Indu Rohit, the deputy director of Dalit Shakti Kendra, a vocational training centre affiliated to the Dalit Foundation, said that the Hathras case was not an anomaly and that Dalit women faced a disproportionate extent of sexual violence. Rohit said that young girls under the care of DSK have often voiced fear of violence from upper-caste men in their neighbourhoods, perceiving themselves to be under threat even on their way to relieve themselves. She emphasised that sexual violence against Dalit women occurs in the larger context of routine exertion of power by upper caste communities.

Rohit narrated an anecdote told to her by a girl from Madhya Pradesh, about the access to water from a handpump in a village in the state. “The handpumps there were installed by the government,” Rohit said. “But the dominant castes show their power here as well and get to use the handpumps first, ordering everyone else to stand aside. Dalit women are the last ones who can access water.” The girl refuted the casteist practice and stood ahead in line to use the handpump. “A Brahmin woman asked her to move aside and started fighting,” Rohit continued. “When the girl continued to resist, she became quiet. After the girl filled water and left, that woman spent an hour to clean the handpump.” 

Rohit described the reaction of Dalit women in rural Gujarat to the Hathras case. “The sensitive aspect that angered women the most, when they were told about it in the villages, was that even after she suffered such brutalisation, her mother was not allowed to perform the final rites,” Rohit said. “She only asked for a chance to apply a coat of haldi.” The commonality of the ritual for Dalit communities deeply resonated with women across states.

Volunteers of the Dalit Foundation plan to collect the turmeric from the prerna sabhas that were held across the country, and are in the process of deciding their next course of action.  One possibility is that the turmeric will be used to build a sculpture of the Buddha showcasing the abhaya mudra, a hand gesture representing fearlessness. Referring to Dalit communities, Macwan said, “What bothers me the most as an activist in the last 40 years is that the state continuously conveys a sense of fear to the population,” Macwan said, referring to the Dalit populace. “Freedom is associated with the absence of fear. That is the message we want to communicate; that we are not afraid.”