Laboratory of Dalit politics

The Jats are extremely bitter about the sit-ins and the demonstrations being held by the Dalit families. Here, another aspect of the issue comes to the fore. The people are levelling all sorts of allegations against the teenage rape victims – which reminds one of Khap Panchayats

23 March, Jat youth of Bhagana village in Haryana abducted four Dalit girls, two of whom were minors, and gang-raped them. The minor girls were 15 and 17 years old and the other two were 18. Since the incident, the victims, along with their family members and about 90 Dalit families, have been staging a sit-in at Jantar-Mantar in Delhi, demanding justice and rehabilitation. The victims allege that on the night of 23 March, when they were going to nearby fields to answer the call of nature, four young men forced them into a four-wheeler vehicle. They men made them smell some chemical, and they became unconscious.  When they regained their senses the next day, they found themselves lying near the Bhatinda railway station in Punjab. It was then that they realized that they had been raped the preceding night.

The ordeal of the Dalits is not limited to this incident alone. The father of the 17-year-old rape victim says, “This year, in January, the Sarpanch of the village Rakesh Kumar Panghal had beaten me up and had warned me of dire consequences”. He says he used to work in Rakesh’s fields. “After watering the field in the night, I went to sleep for a while. This enraged Rakesh and he thrashed me.” His complaint was not registered despite him approaching the district’s superintendent of police. It is thus not the question of an isolated case of rape. It is a tale of continuous oppression of Dalits in Haryana.

Ghosts of rape victims

When I reached the Hisar district headquarters, I soon realised that whether it is a police station, the district court or any administrative office, everywhere there are hapless rape victims, tired of the officials’ apathy and running from pillar to post seeking justice – just like ghosts with unfulfilled wishes. And the administrative officers also seem to treat them like ghosts and try to avoid them as far as possible.

At the district headquarters, I meet the 17-year-old Dalit girl of Dhabda village who was gang-raped by Jat youth in2012 and whose father had committed suicide following the incident. She is in the court with a 10-year-old girl, who has also been raped – by a middle-aged man. She has now become the voice of the girls like her, who are victims of lecherous men. She has also joined the battle for the rape victims of Bhagana village. Soon, I get to meet another rape victim, with the accused yet to be punished. The reason: one of his close relatives is a judge. Instead of arresting the man, the police arrested the girl and tortured her so much
that she almost lost her mind. She is still battling for justice but she has only disdain for the administrative and the justice delivery systems. What is heartening, though, is that both these girls have not given up and they are not at all ashamed of talking about what happened to them.

Bhagana via Hisar

At the district headquarters, I meet the Dalits of Bhagana, who have been staging a sit-in there for the past two years. Bhagana first came into the news after a dispute over community land. Dalits allege that they demanded they be allowed to erect a statue of Ambedkar on Panchayat land and given access to a sports ground, since they were ostracized by the Jats. The Jats then threatened them day and night and an exasperated 137 Dalit families decided to stage a sit-in at the Hisar Mini Secretariat. They even marched
on foot to Delhi but all in vain. Their sit-in continues. Satish Kajal, 32, of Bhagana says, “We have been protesting here for the past two years but neither the administration nor the government has time for us.” According to him, there are around 80 families at the protest venue, although I saw only around a dozen people.

One voice

The police and the administration speak with one voice on the issue. I meet the personal assistant of Superintendent of Police Shivas Kaviraj, to seek an appointment with the top cop. What the PA tells me betrays his male chauvinism. He blames the girl victims. He says that one of the girls was having an affair with one of the accused Jat youth and she went with him of her own accord. The other girls had merely accompanied her, he adds. SP Shivas Kaviraj echoes his PA’s views: “Things are being blown out of proportion. The police are constantly maintaining a vigil in the village.” When asked about the two-year sit-in of the Dalits, he says, “If they return to their homes instead of sitting here, we will make all arrangements for their security.” But the police have been talking about the vigil and security for the last two years. Then why do such incidents continue? The SP has a readymade answer: “The issue has been politicised. We had arrested three of the accused within 24 hours and the remaining two, in the next two days.” The SP hints at the Bahujan Samajwadi Party being behind the “politicization”. It is clear that the
government, administration and the Jats cannot reconcile themselves to the fact that the Dalits are trying to forge a political front.

Bhagana – the epicentre of oppression

The administration claims everything is normal but the tension is palpable at Bhagana, about 20km from Hisar. The faces of the women are covered with veils extending up to their necks. Dalits and Jats are not on talking terms. The complete lack of warmth between them is apparent. The Jats are extremely bitter about the sit-ins and the demonstrations being held by the Dalit families. Here, another aspect of the issue comes to the fore. The people are levelling all sorts of allegations against the teenage rape victims – which reminds one of Khap Panchayats. Whether it is Phool Singh, Surajmal, Dalvir or Nafe Singh – I talked with more than a dozen Jats – all blame the victims. “They went of their own accord,” says Phool Singh. “No one took them forcibly.” They are unfazed when I remind that two of the girls were minors. “So what? The boys had their consent.” The villagers also deny that the Dalits were being socially boycotted.

Bhagana Sarpanch Rakesh

Rakesh, the sarpanch of Bhagana, is unruffled by the allegations against him. He does not even seem to be on the defensive. “Let them make allegations. They mean nothing. The police are investigating,” he says. The sarpanch also boasted that they can go up to the Chief Minister. When asked about Krishna, he admitted that he had slapped him twice or thrice for being careless in his work. “But we had arrived at a compromise”, he says. It is clear that he and his Jat community have no fear or remorse. They have full faith in their numerical strength and their capacity to twist facts.. As for the alleged social boycott, he says that at that time, Jats had decided not to hire Dalit farm labourers or to allow them to take the grass from their fields. But that was done only as a matter of precaution. “We did not want them to enter our fields, lest they played some mischief or made some allegations against us. But it is no longer so”, he says. The Jats are also angry that the Dalit families hold sit-ins and demonstrations at the drop of a hat. Dharmaveer Singh, a Jat, says, “The government gives them compensation. So they do it.”

The Dalits of the village are firm on their demands. Initially, they are a little hesitant in speaking their mind, perhaps owing to the fear of the Jats. But once they realize that someone has come to hear them out, they start revealing their pain and anguish. Surendra, 22, a Dalit, says, “Jats have stopped talking to us. They have stopped giving us work in their fields, they refuse to allow us to enter temples. And this is continuing even now. Any Jat who talks to us has to pay a fine of Rs 1,100.” The Dalit girls of the most recent gang rape come
from a community called Dhanaks. They had not left their villages despite the boycott diktat, but they had to pay the price for their defiance. I went to their houses, located in the Dalit cluster, away from Jat homes. The houses of these girls were locked.

Resistance through Dalit politics

It is clear that as the Dalit resistance in Haryana grows, the hatred among Jats for them is also growing. On the other hand, the administration says that the politicians are blowing the issue out of proportion. What is the key to understanding these issues is the fact that Jats are central to Haryana politics. The leadership of both the major parties is in the hands of Jats. This is also true of the Hisar district party units. The Dalits need a non-Jat dominated political party to fight against their oppression. And that is why they are trying to build an independent political base. Thus, the oppression of Dalits and the Jat aggression is not only a social
issue but also a political issue. The BSP is working hard to bring the Dalits on a common platform in this area and its impact is showing. The BSP is behind the Dalit protests at many places. It is not without reason that the superintendent of police and the village sarpanch was indirectly blaming the BSP. According to the sarpanch, the girls had gone with the Jat youths of their own free will but they and their kin were persuaded to get FIRs registered after a BSP rally at Hisar on 25 March and the victims were taken to Delhi. The local administration, state government and Jats do not want the Dalits to have their own political base.

Mirchpur Dalits in Tanwar farmhouse

Vedpal Singh Tanwar, president of Sarva Samaj Sangharsh Samiti, who has led many Dalit movements, including that of Mirchpur residents against oppression, was the one who brought the victims of the gang rape to Delhi. “They do not consider Dalits humans,” Tanwar says. “Giving them rights is a far cry. This battle is for their rights.” In 2010, Dalit homes at Mirchpur were set afire merely because a dog belonging to a Dalit had bitten a Jat and when the latter started beating the dog, the Dalit had tried to stop him. (And how can one forget the horrific incident of a handicapped girl being burnt alive with her old father?)

Many of those Dalit families from Mirchpur have been living in Tanwar’s farmhouse. They cannot go back to their homes. What is reason for continuing oppression of Dalits in Haryana? Why is the government apathetic towards them? “The thing is that Jats dominate Haryana politics. The political leadership is in their hands. The political parties do not want to antagonize them at any cost,” Tanwar says. That is why Dalits simply do not exist for the political parties. The Mirchpur Dalits reiterate this point.

Jat havelis outnumber Dalit homes

In Bhagana, Hisar and in the entire state of Haryana, Jats outnumber Dalits. In Hisar, Dalits make up about 22 per cent of the population. In Haryana, they form 19 per cent of the population. Obviously, the Dalit population is substantial but nowhere near the Jats’. For example, in Bhagana, 60 per cent of the residents are Jats while only 27 per cent are Dalits. Naturally, they are the darlings of the government and all political parties. Because of their political clout, the administration too sides with the Jats. But even in these adverse
circumstances, Vedpal Tanwar is fighting a lonely battle on behalf of the Dalits. He has not only provided asylum to Dalits but is also trying to organize them. Tanwar has also entered politics. In March this year, he joined the BSP, which fielded him as its candidate from the Bhiwani-Mahendragarh Lok Sabha constituency. It is clear that his social activities are also aimed at building a base for the BSP among the Dalits. Whatever may be his motives, this gentleman has been leading the Dalit resistance against incidents like Mirchpur and Bhagana for years now.

 

Published in the June 2014 issue of the Forward Press magazine


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