When the Subaltern Speaks! Why Caste Must Matter in the Case of Hathras
By Sharon Jacob.
In her seminal essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri C. Spivak points out that the subaltern cannot speak not because, “the subaltern cannot pronounce words or produce sentences. The subaltern “cannot speak,” instead, because her speech falls short of fully authorized, political speech. Too much gets in the way of her message’s being heard, socially and politically.”
Over the last few months, Spivak’s words have been a haunting reminder to those of us who have watched in horror at the ways in which subaltern women in the Indian context continue to be muzzled into silence. In this blog, I place Spivak’s provocative and insightful analysis in her essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” alongside the real-life incident of a Dalit woman gangraped and murdered in Hathras, UP. In doing so, I hope to show that even though subaltern women speak with their mouths and bodies, their voices are rendered unworthy. The rape and murder of this young Dalit woman is fundamentally connected to her religious and caste identity.
Caste is an inherent part of Indian society. It is divided into four varnas/categories: Brahamins/priests/teachers, Kshatriyas/warriors, Vaishyas/business class, and the Shudras/ cobblers, butchers etc. The Valmiki caste (incidentally the same caste identity as the young woman from Hathras) engage in the work of manual scavenging. Those belonging to the Valmiki caste face discrimination on account of their occupation. Women who belong to lower castes are doubly marginalized because of their gender and caste identity. Thus, in conversations about the Hathras case, caste identity is an important factor. The director of the documentary, India’s Daughter observes, “Rape isn’t an India-specific issue. Caste and caste-based gender violence is specific to India.”
Although the rape case in Hathras once again pointed to the ways in which sexual violence continues to target Indian women, the caste politics exposed the ways in which upper caste/Savarna women drew on their own experiences and privileges to ignore and minimize the role of caste in conversations of rape and sexual violence in the Indian context. Parallels can also be seen in US contexts among white women and WOC, where the former tend to draw attention to only gender but continuously downplay racial identity and the privilege of whiteness.
Anushree Joshi writes, “She [referring to the woman in Hathras] was not raped as a 19-year-old who happened to be a Dalit, but her upper-caste Thakur rapists were empowered by the prospect of abusing and brutalising her body precisely because she was a Dalit.” Caste identity is used as a tool to sexually terrorize and strategically stifle the voices of low-caste women and girls.
On September 14, 2020, a 19-year-old girl belonging to the Valmiki caste was gangraped by four men who belonged to the Thakur caste. The body of the young woman was brutalized and her injuries were so severe that she succumbed to them two weeks later. However, before this young woman died, she testified. Speaking with a split tongue that refused to be tamed, this young woman told the police that her attackers were trying to kill her because she would not let them do “zabardasti.” Shabnam Hashmi, a woman’s rights activist, says, “Zabardasti is an Urdu word that literally translates into ‘coercion’ or ‘force’ and is used by women especially in parts of rural India as slang for rape. Women who are not gender sensitised or bold enough to use the word rape often call it ‘ganda kaam’ [dirty work] or zabardasti.” In an act of sheer resistance and audacity, the young woman not only detailed what happened to her, she also dared to name the four perpetrators who attacked and brutalized her.
The subaltern woman had spoken! Almost immediately, one could see the state machinery come into play as her words were met with a sense of incredulity, working overtime to discredit her voice and cast doubt in her testimony. The police, the media, and the government officials made up of upper-caste men and women began to object at the use of the word caste and alluded to a romantic relationship between the victim and one of the men who assaulted her. Mainstream news channels questioned the character of the young Dalit woman. One news anchor suggested that this is “not even a case of rape,” instead he called it “Manohar kahaniyan,” or fiction. Spivak writes, “Here is a woman who tried to be decisive in extremis. She ‘spoke,’ but women did not, do not, ‘hear’ her. Thus, she can be defined as a ‘subaltern’—a person without lines of social mobility.” Spivak’s words are an eerie reminder of the ways subaltern women have consistently spoken up but we have chosen to not hear them or their words. Instead, the focus is on trivialities such as why must we talk about this woman’s caste, whether the word “zabardasti” actually means rape, and what the appropriate definition of rape is.
Hathras exposed to the world the ways in which not just the voice but also the body of the Subaltern woman was strategically discredited and dismantled under the guise of a so-called investigation. The state police, made up of members belonging to the same caste as those in power and the perpetrators, argued that the physical evidence in this case did not support rape. They noted that the “Forensic Science Laboratory report, based on samples taken 11 days after the incident, …concluded that there was no presence of sperm. The Additional Director General of Police Prakash Kumar has cited this as the reason for him to conclude that this was not a case of rape.”
Contrast this with the 2013 Nirbhaya and the Priyanka Reddy rape cases that took place in urban cities in India. The rape and murder of these women caused public outrage, anger, and led to either the arrest or encounter-style killing of the perpetrators. In addition, both women were also termed “India’s Daughters” almost immediately. Meanwhile, the young woman in Hathras—an uneducated, poor, and a rural woman—did not reflect back the realities of a modern India. The transformation of Dalit women into “daughters” remains an impossible feat in the upper caste consciousness of the Indian mind. In the case of Nirbhaya, the young woman spoke and her words, unsurprisingly, were received, regarded, and respected.
Hathras is a stark reminder of the ways upper-caste women can access speech in their silence, meanwhile low caste women are silenced in the midst of their speech. The body of the young woman in Hathras was forcibly burned by the police in the middle of the night with family members protesting, begging for mercy, and helplessly looking on. Meanwhile, Nirbhaya’s body was received by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi and cremated with proper respect and honor. The death of both these women was turned into a spectacle and fetishized for political gain. However, while the voice of one woman was listened to and her body turned into a text that was read, memorialized, and remembered, the voice and the body of the other woman was ignored, erased, effaced, and forgotten.
Gayatri C. Spivak asked a poignant question, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” This question left many confounded. However, when prodded deeper, this question illustrates that subaltern women have spoken, their mouths have opened, their lips have formed words, their lungs have screamed, and yet, they remain unheard. Thus, prompting me to ask, “When the Subaltern Speaks! Will we hear her?”
 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak,” in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (New York: Routledge, 2006), 28.
Sharon Jacob is an Assistant Professor of New Testament at Pacific School of Religion. Sharon earned her Bachelors Degree in Accounting from Bangalore University and went on to earn her Masters of Divinity from Lancaster Theological Seminary and Masters of Sacred Theology from Yale University. She earned her Ph.D from Drew University. Her research interests include gender and sexuality studies, feminist theory, race and whiteness theory, and postcolonial theory. Her publications include a monograph entitled, Reading Mary alongside Indian Surrogate Mothers: Violent Love, Oppressive Liberation, and Infancy Narratives. She has also co-authored an essay entitled, “Flowing from breast to breast: An Examination of Dis/placed Motherhood in Black and Indian West Nurses,” in Womanist Biblical Interpretations: Expanding the Discourses published by Society of Biblical Literature Press. Sharon has also published an article in the Bangalore Theological Forum titled, “Reading Mary Alongside Indian Surrogate Mothers.”