Humiliation as Political, Politicizing Humiliation: when caste bodies are sexually violated

Rukmini Sen

“Humiliation is not so much a physical or corporeal injury;
in fact, it is more a mental/ psychological injury that leaves a permanent scar
on the heart” (Guru, 2010). The need for this paper (rather, thoughts
elaborated somewhat coherently) arises from recent reportings on sexual
violence on lower caste women in UP
and Haryana and the felt need for politicizing humiliation because it is about
time to engage with the question whether rape is only an act of violent sex or sexual violence? As ‘events’ these rapes occupied much less
journalistic, academic or even activist interrogation than the other event—16th December Delhi
gang rape. Of course Bhagana and Badaun were actually othered by not managing to capture the imagination of the nation. Who is titled Nirbhaya [1]by
the media (not that this author is supporting the title), and why does it get
unnoticed when four gang raped girls camp
in the streets of Delhi (with their families and other people from the Bhagana village)
with their bare bodies (bare in the
sexually violated sense)? It is indeed necessary to reflect why movement(s)[2]
do not take adequate cognizance of bare humiliated bodies
of two Badaun
OBC women murdered and hung from trees on brazen display in full public view as
if to show that the act was intended meant to be a chilling spectacle of higher
caste dominance, and not just an act of violent sex? Of course there is a certain
process that of the criminal justice system that any of these ‘crimes’ go
through. A local Hisar court through fast track has acquitted the four accused
in abduction and gang raping the Bhagana girls last week.


Rape entails Touching the
(lower caste) woman: Does that generate Disgust or Humiliation?
“Indian culture has
not fallen into such low depths that someone who is brought up in it, an
innocent, rustic man, will turn into a man of evil conduct who disregards caste
and age differences—and become animal enough to assault a woman. How can
persons of 60 and 40 commit rape while someone who is seventy years old watches
by, particularly in the light of Bhanwari Devi’s acceptance that one of the
rapists is a respected man in the village….In our view, the prosecution,
keeping in mind the above circumstances, has not proved its case rationally and
beyond doubt that Gyarsa, 60 and Badri, 40 raped Bhanwari Devi while Ramsikh
and Sravan, Brahmin and therefore of a different caste from other accused
looked on.” This formed part of the trial court judgment of the Bhanwari Devi
gang rape. That Bhanwari belonging to a lower caste could not have been raped
by members of the upper caste seemed to suggest that since rape involves
touching the woman, and since touching generates pollution and thereby disgust
rape was always already impossible.
I am attempting to
theoretically locate this legal perception
of the impossibility of touching,
hence raping across castes within Sarukkai’s conceptual framework on touch (EPW
2009). According to Sundar Sarrukai, in viewing touch as contact we might
forget the presence of the medium which is essential for any idea of touch. To
touch is to move towards an object, to bring surfaces into contact. Therefore,
“to touch is to approach (gang rape) or to be approached”. There is a
difference between touch and contact. If two bodies are in contact with each
other, then that contact is a symmetrical relation – each body is in contact
with the other. However, in the case of touch, there seems to be an asymmetry
since the person who touches is at the same time not being touched by the
object, or being resistant to touch. (2009:40) Touch is not about contact
(which is a relation) but is a quality that inheres in the object.
This means that the untouchable manifests the sense of “un-touch” within the
‘other’ person–the person therefore remains
untouchable whether or not the person comes in contact with another person. If
that is the case then touching through rape can be construed as only violent
sex rather than violating the body, which is (of course) un-touchable (as it is a violation of the dignity of that body) as
well as untouchable. So, the question alternatively is, a body which is undignified can that body be humiliated?
Not everything which is not touchable is untouchable: a stranger especially of
the opposite sex, is un-touchable in most contexts but is not an
untouchable. Thus, the real site of untouchability is
the person who refuses to touch the untouchable
What the trial court judgment seem to suggest is that the thakurs would have refused to touch Bhanwari, while in the Khairlanji
judgment; the Bombay High court asserted the lack of knowingness on
untouchability of the women gang raped and paraded naked, so the intention to
insult or humiliate under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act could not be
proved. This brings me to wonder whether the body that is being touched is a bare body ripped off its caste, or whether
caste is more present in its apparent absence? The impact of not-touching (or a
touching which is not acknowledged) is on both the Brahmin and the dalit – both of them cannot fulfill the
act of touching but they have different phenomenological experiences of the
same. In the case of the former, it could be associated with psychological
feelings of revulsion, power or rejection and so on whereas in the latter it is
associated with feelings of humiliation, shame and so on. Touching is actually
“touching as”—a man, an upper caste man. Thus both Bhanwari Devi and Khairlanji
are not judgments about “facts” alone; there is a moral (gender-caste) code
attached/underlined in it, which one cannot forget. My point is that having
seen the lack in the judgments, did
our subsequent political mobilizations foreground humiliation as a political
entry point when we were faced with Bhagana and Badaun in 2014?
Humiliation is an emotion felt by a person whose social
status has decreased (or was always low)–it can be brought about through intimidation,
physical or mental mistreatment, or by embarrassment
if a person is revealed to have committed a socially or legally unacceptable
act. Insult means to behave with pride or arrogance and to treat someone with
indignity. The Act refers to forcible removal of clothes from the person of a
Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe community or parades him naked or with
painted face or body which is derogatory to human dignity.[3] The SC/ST (POA) Act
mentions these affect(s) of humiliation and insult as acts that an upper caste citizen[4]
would commit intentionality (that needs to be proven) to humiliate a member
of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe in any place within public view. This in effect means that
the upper caste person should know that the person on whom humiliation and/or
insult is happening belongs to the lower caste.  
I am tempted to
connect Sarukkai’s argument around touch with Martha Nussbaum’s ideas around
shame and disgust (Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame and the Law, 2004). Shame
is something we inflict on inferiors (humiliation as in the POA); disgust is
something we feel toward inferiorsIndulging
such emotions is thus “profoundly subversive of the ideas of equality and
dignity on which liberal society is based” (2005:2706). Unlike more
laudable emotions, shame and disgust are always about persons and never
about acts. Shame and disgust, operate by dismissing, rejecting, or
degrading the person who is their target, denying the personhood of those we
condemn (2005:2706)—the non action of the police in Bhagana and Badaun seem to
be out this disgust of rendering certain people belonging to a community
non-citizens. A further question that haunts as I tread through these concepts,
is gang rape more common when the body is a lower caste body? Is the disgust or
the need to humiliate/shame the other person/community of such intensity that mere rape is not enough, rather, more
than one person belonging to the ‘other’ community raping together can only
adequately humiliate. Or is it that only when this rape is performed
collectively does the real disgust,
the need to ‘teach them a lesson’, so
that they remain where they are, gets
communicated? Is it only by publicly parading naked or by hanging bodies to be
‘seen’ by all, an intense insult communicated? Since these bodies lacked
dignity in the first place showing any humanity
on these (dead) bodies after raping seems unnecessary—it could only be degraded
further. What I am trying to suggest is that there is something specific about
these bodies—raped but not violated, victimized but not undignified, murdered
but not dehumanized. By erasing from these bodies its caste-sexuality
specificity, they become women’s bodies in the rural, which makes it extremely difficult
if not impossible for the urban young metro-riding, upper caste, middle class
Delhi woman to identify with in any manner.   
and its Differences: Movement(s), Languages and Alliances
Gail Omvedt (1979)
thought that ‘the downtrodden among the downtrodden are not simply passive
victims of ignorant tradition….When dalit women are awakened to the
contradictions that colour their lives of oppression, the possibility arises
that perhaps there is after all in India a rich and ancient cultural base for
revolution particularly among the low castes, Dalits, Adivasis and women’. The
potential and the need for movement(s) to come together were felt strongly in
the late 1970s with the (crisis in) agrarian question taking a lead. I am
compelled to argue that what Omvedt meant ‘awakened to contradictions’ in 1979
is what I lay down here as awakened to their humiliation, which has specificity
because of the nature of body they inhabit. Rajni Kothari (in Guru 1995) shared
the same opinion but differently. He said “With the erosion of
institutions, the unsettled controversies over public policies, and the growing
uncertainty over ideological issues, as well as the decline of democratic
functioning of the political process, faith in the capacity of the modern
nation-state to provide a framework of both order and equity has declined, ‘and
so too the reliance on mainstream governmental and party political process. The
result has been the rise of a series of movements as distinct from trade union
or co-operative movements.” I am trying to contemplate whether to introduce
the affective trope of humiliation as a felt
consciousness here, which neither the trade union political formation could
foreground, nor the many new kinds of collective mobilizations emerging in the
early 1980s tried to, both types still operated within the oppressive
structural condition of rhetoric of politics. The logical extension of these
new political formations was the famous essay on the need for ‘talking
differently (as) a ‘discourse of dissent’ (Guru: 1995) against the middle class
women’s movement, dalit men and the
moral economy of the peasant movements. However the limitation of this argument
lies in focusing on certain external factors (in this case, caste as a
structure) did not provide access to the complex reality of dalit/lower caste women. For example
the, question of rape cannot be grasped merely in terms of class, criminality,
or as a psychological aberration or an illustration of male violence. The caste
factor (its erasure, but to erase what is really present) also has to be taken
into account which makes sexual violence against dalit/lower caste women much
severe in terms of its intensity and magnitude to exercise humiliation or shame.
Beneath the call for women’s solidarity that
the women’s movement does, the specific (marking a distinction from separate) identity
of the dalit woman as ‘dalit’ also
has the risk of getting erased. National Federation for Dalit Women, a platform
emerging in the middle of the 1990s did foreground this question of specificity.
It’s Manifesto in 1995 talked about building alliances with progressive,
democratic movements, women’s movement and wider Dalit movement preserving its
identity and specificity. They formulated the Charter of Rights of Dalit Women
in 1999, which states dalit women build their identities on cultures of
resistance against the homogenizing hegemonic cultures of Brahminical Hinduism
and assert their right to free speech and expression and their right to
dignity, especially with reference to the heinous practice of untouchability
(Kannabiran: 2006 ). Since 2005, All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch is a movement
promoted by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights to focus exclusively on
dalit women by addressing violence, access justice through enhancing skills and
leadership. It is as much important to remember what Sharmila Rege had to say
in her response to Guru that the ‘difference’ of dalit women does not only
exist in some separable non-woman (caste) part of them. Observing emergence of
many dalit women’s organizations by the middle of the 1990s, Rege argued for the
need to foreground the practices and struggles of dalit/lower caste women, for a
transformation from their cause to our cause can be made feasible only when
subjectivities can be transformed (1998: 52). This is where I enter into a
dialogue with Rege to suggest that recognizing the bodies as sexually
violated/humiliated is the reading of caste and gender into the body. This is
not at all to suggest that caste did not get discussed in the women’s movements
(both in its mass and/or autonomous forms) in the 1980s and 1990s, it is also
not suggesting that the way dalit women emerged as an identity (from
approximately the late 1990s) needing a voice of its own was the best political
response (a needed response
nonetheless). It is important now to embark on a language of humiliation and
shame in our political alliances to counter the legal erasures of
caste-humiliated body on one occasion (Khairlanji 2010) or gender-specific body
on some other occasion (Koushal judgment 2014).
Comprehending Bhagana and Badaun are complicated lived realities which
have not been much discussed beyond double oppression—in all these cases of
gang rape humiliation is felt, hurt is experienced, insult is lived, disgust is
transmitted, the untouchable is actually
violently touched. Perhaps humiliation, like hurt (Dhar) is outside language–the bureaucratic legal
language or the demand based political language and hence erasure of it or
dis-engagement with it happens in multiple spaces. This paper ends with the
appeal to foreground a new (to the extent that it is done consciously, indicating
that affective tropes have been part of political strategies always) language
of the political, the question of how
it can be really done may be left for
another paper.   
Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act) 1989
Dhar What, if the Hurt is ‘Real’? Psyche, Neighbor and Intimate Violence paper
presented at a Conference “The State of Hurt: Sentiment, Politics,
Censorship”, Delhi University (South Campus), October 12-13, 2012.
Omvedt ‘Socialist-Feminist’ Organizations and the Women’s Movement in Mary John
(2008) (ed.) Women’s Studies in India” A Reader, Penguin Books, New Delhi 62-67
Guru (2011) (ed.) Humiliation: Claims and Contexts, Oxford University Press,
New Delhi
Guru Dalit Women Talk Differently Economic and Political Weekly October 14-21,
1995 pp 2548-2550 
James Q. Whitman Book Review: Hiding from Humanity: Disgust,
Shame and the Law (2005). Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 651
Kannabiran (2006) A Cartography of Resistance: the National Federation of Dalit
Women in (ed.) Nira Yuval Davis, Kalpana Kannabiran and Ulrike M. Vieten The Situated Politics of Belonging, Sage
Publications, London pp 54-70
Manorama Dalit Women: The Downtrodden among the Downtrodden in Mary John (2008)
(ed.) Women’s Studies in India” A Reader, Penguin Books, New Delhi pp 445-451
Rege Dalit Feminist Standpoint, Seminar Issue No 471, November 1998 pp 47-52
Sarukkai Phenomenology of Untouchability Economic
and Political
Weekly September 12, 2009 vol
xliv no 37, pp 39-48

[1]  I am not getting into the debates about the
politics around naming someone as Nirbhaya or Braveheart, as it is not in the
scope of this paper.
Neither the women’s movement nor the anti-caste movement or even the dalit women’s movement (strictly
speaking if these distinctive categories of movements could be made)  
It is necessary to note that these specific instances of humiliation is a part
of this legislation as opposed to outraging the modesty of the woman as part of
S 354 of Indian Penal Code—which indicates the lived experiences of people from
this community or of course the fear of these indignity occurring to them
Use of the word citizen here is conscious to suggest that one citizen can
intentionally humiliate an-other, the reason being the latter is rendered as a

Author is Associate Professor in School
of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi.

1 thought on “Humiliation as Political, Politicizing Humiliation: when caste bodies are sexually violated”

  1. Thanks Rukmini for this much needed intervention. The charges of elitism, casteism, privileging of one form of violence over another have all been there and they continue to be made. However, the question remains where do we go from there? Both FTII and the Bhagana protests (their conversion to Islam for example) happened almost at the same time but it was already a given, which protest would be a talking point. There is no comparison between the two but isn't there a connection, still? As we agitate over ABVP entering an elite campus, we simultaneously completely look away from an act, stemming from a deep "hurt" and "humiliation"? So what is this new language of protest that ought to be devised since the rhetoric of double/triple marginalization hasn't taken us far? Thank you and look forward to the longer version!

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