Surekha the Untouchable Woman

indian woman

(As told by Arundhati Roy in The Doctor and the Saint)

Warning: this is a graphic story.

Even though Untouchability has supposedly been outlawed by the Indian Constitution, the fact is that it is still alive and well. In her book, The Doctor and the Saint, Arundhati Roy tells a story about what happened to an Untouchable woman in 2009, that is unfortunately, not uncommon.

Surekha was forty years old at the time, married, had two sons and one daughter. Her sons had been to college and her daughter was finishing high school. She and her husband had renounced Hinduism and converted to Buddhism. Surekha and her husband had worked hard for many years and saved up some money to buy a small plot of land to farm, on the outskirts of her village.

Her farm was surrounded by farms belonging to those from higher castes that consider themselves superior to her and feel that Dalits (or Untouchables) have no right to aspire for a better life. So, the community leaders did not allow her to connect electricity, or irrigate her fields, or draw water from the public well, or upgrade her mud hut into a brick one. When she protested, they built a public road through her farm and allowed cattle to graze in her fields.

So she complained to the police. Soon after some of the villagers attacked one of her relatives and almost killed them. The police arrested a couple of people then immediately let them go. Then on September 29, 2006, a mob of about seventy villagers surrounded her house and dragged Surekha and her children out. They ordered the boys to rape their mother. When they refused, they mutilated their genitals and then hanged them. Then Surekha and her daughter were raped, beaten to death, and then all four bodies were thrown into the canal. Surekha’s husband was out in the field working when the mob arrived. Knowing he couldn’t stand against the mob, he ran to the next village and called the police, but they wouldn’t do anything.

Initially the press reported that this happened because Surekha was having an affair with another man. Only after mass protests by Dalits, was an actual investigation done. Some of the perpetrators were arrested and eventually sentenced to death. But according to Indian law, in order to convict someone with a harsh sentence, you have to prove that caste prejudice played a role. The judge in this case stated that there was no evidence of rape or of caste prejudice. The perpetrators received a light sentence, and this is exactly what happens time and time again in India. Most of the time, those that commit crimes against Untouchables or those of low caste, are never convicted. In fact, only about 10% of rapes and murders against Dalits are reported because doing so will usually make things worse for them.

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