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

30 October 2020
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
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

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.

Aathira Konikkara is a reporting fellow at The Caravan.

Keywords: Hathras Dalit protest Dalit activism Dalit rights
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