Bhagana: Laboratory of Dalit atrocities and resistance

 

(This report is sourced from the Hindi blog Raffoo. It has been translated by Akshay Pathak and Atul Anand)

Dalits have always been subjected to atrocities by the upper castes and it has to do with the filthy and unjust social structure that we live in. But the incident that happened in Bhagana village in Hisar district (Haryana) and what followed it have wide political implications.

The rape victims of Bhagana at Jantar Mantar

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Women from Bhagana protesting at Jantar Mantar

This year on March 23, four Dalit girls (including two minors) from Bhagana village were abducted and raped by some Jat youth of the village. After the incident, the girls have been demanding justice and rehabilitation at Jantar Mantar (Delhi) with their relatives and around 90 Dalit families from the village.

They allege that on the night of March 23, when they had gone to the nearby fields for their evening ablutions, five young men forcibly took them away in a vehicle around 8 pm. The girls were then drugged which left them unconscious. The next day when they regained consciousness, they found themselves next to the Bhatinda Railway station in Punjab. The state of their bodies revealed to them that they had been raped.

The story doesn't end here. The father of one of the rape survivors says, "Earlier this year in January I was beaten up and threatened by the village head Rakesh Kumar Panghal. I used to work on his farm and once I fell asleep for a while after irrigating the farm. It made Rakesh angry and he thrashed me." He says he even petitioned the SP but neither a case was lodged nor any action taken. Thus, the story of oppression is not only limited to rape. It is a continuous tragedy of atrocities inflicted upon the Dalits of Haryana.

The rape survivors haunt the Hisar distrtict headquarters

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Dalits from Bhagana sitting on a dharna outside the mini-secretariat in Hisar

After arriving at Hisar district headquarters, I felt that one may find rape survivors wandering like spirits in almost every court, police station and other administrative buildings of the city. They are indeed dissatisfied spirits who seek justice and are fed up with the administration's indifference. The officers also seem to treat them as ghosts or aliens and avoid their shadows. The Hisar district headquarters has offices of the Deputy Commissioner and SP, as well as a civil court. As soon as I arrived there, I met a 17 year old Dalit girl from Dabra village who was gang raped by some men of the Jat community in 2012. After the incident, her father committed suicide. She had brought with her a 10 year old girl who was raped by a middle-aged man to the court. She bravely rallies for rape survivors and is also taking part in the movement of protest against the Bhagana incident.

A little later, I meet another rape survivor. She was raped by a Jat man who is still roaming scot-free. The reason being that his uncle is a judge. Obviously he used his influence to terrorize the girl. Even the police arrested the girl and tortured her badly which has left her deeply traumatized. She is still fighting for justice but the disgust for the courts and the administrative structure is clearly visible on her face. What is notable here is that both these girls have not given up and they don't seem to be hesitant in their struggle which is contrary to the popular perception of rape survivors. It is a slap on the face of those people who think rape survivors are 'helpless' or 'are-unable-to-show-their-faces'.

Bhagana via Hisar

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 The disputed plot of common land in Bhagana

At the district headquarters, I also met Dalits from Bhagana village who have been demonstrating there for two years. Bhagana village was in the news since 2012 when there was a dispute regarding some public land. The Dalits of the village allege that they were socially ostracized by the Jat community because of their demands for erecting a statue of Babasaheb Ambedkar on the Village Panchayat's land and getting land for a playground on lease. The threats from the Jat community forced the 136 Dalit families to demonstrate outside the Hisar district headquarters. They even marched all the way to Delhi on foot. And all this to no avail.

At the Hisar district mini secretariat, these Dalit families have camped with their daily-use belongings and they continue to demonstrate. A demonstrator Satish Kajal (32) says, "We are still protesting. Neither the administration nor the government has listened to our issues." According to him, around 80 Dalit families are still living at the demonstration site. I, however, found about a dozen people sitting there. Satish explained that most of the people go to work (daily wage work and other such jobs) and they come back late in evening. The women and children of these families live as refugees in their relatives' homes in nearby villages. Some families had no option but to return to their village.

And how could the administration be any different?

 I had to see the SP of Hisar, Shivas Kaviraj, so I arranged to meet with his PA. The 'unofficial' inputs given by his PA were highly patriarchal. He tried to shift all blame onto the girls by saying that one of the alleged rapists had a love affair with one of the girls and the she had consented to go with him. Other girls simply followed her. It's obvious that whether it is the high-profile case of Tarun Tejpal or the Dalit girls of Hisar, the 'consent' of women is conveniently used to falsely frame them. SP Shivas Kaviraj expressed a similar opinion. He said, "The issue is being exaggerated. There has been regular police patrolling in the village". Commenting on the two year long demonstration by Dalits he said, "First these people should go to their village, we will ensure full security for them."

But the police patrolling and security they mention was something that the administration had promised two years ago as well. Such incidents, however, continued unabated. When asked about the recent gang rape incident he says, "The case is being politicized far too much. We had arrested the three perpetrators within 24 hours of the incident and the other two perpetrators in the next two days." The police have confirmed rapes of one adult girl and one minor girl. The FIR of abduction and rape of four girls was lodged after two days of the incident taking place which raises serious questions.

 The 'politicization' that the SP referred to is in fact an 'unofficial' insinuation towards Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). That the Dalits are gaining political ground clearly haunts the administration, the government and the Jat community.

 The Deputy Commissioner of Hisar M L Kaushik followed the same line of argument. He said, "It's not fair to associate the rape incidents with Dalit atrocities. Every community has criminals. The victims are given compensation." On the issue of social boycott in Bhagana village he declared, "I have gone to the village. There is no such thing as social boycott in the village."

The temple of atrocities

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 The locked house of a victim

The administration claims the situation is normal in the village but one can feel the tension in the air the moment one arrives in Bhagana, which is about 20 km from Hisar. The veils covering women's faces all the way down to their necks reflect the brutal social reality there. There were no signs of any communication between the Dalits and the Jats. The distance between them was very palpable. The Jats are unhappy with the demonstrations and protests by the Dalit families. The 'other' side of the story also emerges quite clearly when one talks to the people there. The Jats, in typical misogynistic manner of the Khap Panchayats, shifted all the blame squarely onto the girls. Be it Phool Singh or Surajmal, Dalvir Singh or Naphe Singh, I talked to a dozen Jats and all of them held the girls responsible for the rapes. Phool Singh, a Jat, retorts angrily when asked about this: "They went at their will. Nobody forced them." When reminded that two of the girls were minors the Jat community unanimously replied, "What has that got to do with it? It was their desire and will." They also deny any social boycott or discrimination.

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Rakesh Kumar, Bhagana's Sarpanch

The sarpanch, Rakesh, seemed quite at ease despite the charges against him. He said with impunity and candour, "Let them accuse all they want. What can happen with such accusations? The police will investigate." He claims proudly, "Even we can go knock on the CM's door." When enquired about the incident with Krishna he replied, "Yes. I gave him a couple of slaps because he was careless with his work on the farm. But we eventually sorted it out." It was quite evident how he or rather the entire Jat community lives without any fear and are aware of their unbridled power.

 On being asked about the social boycott he admitted, "Yes, the Jats had collectively decided to not let the Dalits work on our farms or take grass etc. in the interest of our safety. So that they don't first come to our farms and then accuse us. However, now things are not the same." The Jats are also bothered that after all why do the Dalit families go to protest at these demonstrations? One of the Jats, Dharamveer Singh said rather tauntingly, "Because the government gives them compensation they go and protest. The government has actually made them greedy." It is a reminder of how the air in the village still stinks of their hatred.

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A Dalit family from Bhagana

The Dalits in the village are also determined with their accusations. They, however, hesitated as I approached them or perhaps it was the fear of the Jats that might still have been lurking somewhere. But as soon as they realized that someone had come to listen to their side of the story they opened up. A 22 year old Dalit, Surendra, told me, "The Jats stopped any communication with us, refused us work on the farms, banned our entry into the temples and this still continues. We have heard that if any Jat talks to us he will be fined Rs. 1100."

Their house is located just opposite the disputed community land. Just next door is his uncle's house which after the 2012 confrontation stands abandoned as his uncle has left to live elsewhere. Responding to the claims of security by the police administration, 21 year old Sukhbir says with some amount of contempt, "Police appears the moment they hear about the media. Otherwise there is never any security here."

 The girls who were raped in the last incident belonged to the Dhanak community which had not left the village. For which they clearly had to pay the price. I go towards their homes which are located in the Dalit neighbourhood, away from the houses of the Jats. The homes of the rape survivors are locked.

 My attempts to talk to Jat women were thwarted by them as they directed me to talk to the men. On my way out of the village I spoke to two ASIs who were posted at the village limits. They told me that the police was stationed there 24/7. But as the SP had already told me that the police patrolled there, this claim was contradictory.

Rape is a weapon for the powerful castes

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 Police posted at Bhagana limits

The young girl from Dabra who survived rape says, "The Jats use rape as a weapon to curb any resistance from Dalits, to teach us a lesson. They just want that Dalits should mutely obey them." And in this manner she offers one the most pertinent perspective to look at these incidents of rape. And not that this is unknown to us. The NCRB states clearly how the incidence of rapes of Dalit women has increased in the past three years.

Dalit politics via the laboratory of resistance

 It is quite evident that as the resistance by Dalits gathers force, the hatred of the Jats also increases. Additionally the district administration, due to local political pressure, claims that this is nothing but an unnecessary exaggeration of affairs.

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 A displaced Dalit family from Mirchpur at Tanwar's farmhouse

In fact this is the crux of the matter that one needs to explore and understand most deeply. Jats occupy a central role in the politics of Haryana. Both major political factions are headed and controlled by Jats. The same applies even to Hisar. But to fight oppression Dalits need a non-Jat centric political party. Which is why they are trying to carve a separate political ground. On the surface, one might think that the oppression of Dalits by Jats and their resistance to the same is just a social issue but actually it is quite a political issue as well. BSP has been working hard in trying to create some political ground for Dalits. And what one is witnessing is in fact a consequence of that.

The Dalit resistance is being mobilized with this very intention and as far as I can see this in turn also makes more political space for BSP. It is not without meaning that the SP was pointing fingers at BSP. Even the Sarpanch was accusing BSP and mentioned that the girls went with the Jat boys at their own will, but it was only on 25th March when the BSP took out a rally in Hisar that the girls and their families were persuaded to file an FIR and taken to Delhi. Obviously the administration, the government and the Jats could not tolerate Dalits managing to gain political space.

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Displaced Dalits from Mirchpur at Tanwar's house

Vedpal Singh Tanwar of Sarv Samaj Sangharsh Samiti is the man behind the Mirchpur agitation as well as many other agitations against Dalit oppression. He told me, "They do not think of human beings as human, rights are a distant dream. This fight is for that very basic right."

 Many Dalit families who were victims of the Mirchpur incident in 2010 have taken refuge at his farm house.

 What is the reason the Dalits in Haryana face continued oppression and are targets of the worst brutalities? Tanwar points to this and says, "Actually the political scenario of Haryana is dominated by Jats. They are the ones at the helm of affairs. The political parties in fact do not want to upset the Jats in any way." That is the reason why Dalits do not matter to these parties. The Dalits from Mirchpur also highlighted the same issue. In 2010 in Mirchpur the houses of Dalits were burnt for the simple reason that a dog belonging to a Dalit had barked at a Jat and when the Jat started thrashing the dog, the Dalit asked him not to. How can one forget the horror of how a disabled girl was burnt alive with her old father?

I also went to Tanwarji's farmhouse where the Dalit victims of Mirchpur were still living under refuge. Two or three families share a single tent each. It is quite apparent that they have either been given work by Tanwarji or they work as labour outside. And while talking to them one gets the clear impression that they are tired of re-telling their tales of misery. Among them was also an old woman whose son was killed by Jats because he was a crucial witness in the case. Listening to her sad voice and eyes like stones an eerie silence engulfs us. The Dalits there say, "No one even comes to ask us for votes here. Even this time no one came. And apart from one or two people who went to vote, most of us refuse to go to the village out of fear." The elections were held in Hisar on May 10 this year.

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A Jat family's mansion at Bhagana

The demographics of Hisar and Bhagana also reflect something similar. Dalits are roughly 22 per cent of the population of Hisar though the figure for Haryana would be about 19 per cent. It is obvious that they represent a significant chunk for political parties. But the Jats are in clear majority compared to them. Bhagana is a good example of this. Here the Jat population is about 60 per cent whereas the Dalits are about 27 per cent. It follows that Haryana then has a Jat majority and hence they are more important for the political parties. The administration mostly toes their line and almost always sides with the Jats.

 Here it also becomes relevant to understand Vedpal Tanwar within the context of Dalit resistance. When one goes to his palatial house one gets the impression that one has reached a rich man's abode. It is said that he made a lot of money through mining. Most civil servants in Hisar gossip that he used to be a part of the mining mafia. It is not without reason that he is supporting these agitations, giving refuge to victims and even bringing the Dalits together as a result. It is not without reason that in this Lok Sabha election in 2014 he was nominated to fight from Hisar-Mahendragarh. And this is how I feel he wants to create some political space for BSP.

Apart from this there are other stories about him like how his son was killed by the Jats. Whatever the reasons might be, it is quite obvious that he has put all his might to create a non-Jat political front and for that the Dalits are very important for him. Even if to gain political mileage, one thing has to be accepted that this man has been leading these agitations- from Mirchpur to Bhagana - and as a result of this Dalits can be in a position to gain political ground and become a force in Haryana and to come together as a joint front. And this would be a huge win for Dalit rights. And so despite all our apprehensions and suspicions we must hope that the Dalit movement in Haryana brings about the much needed change.

Will there be a change in Delhi's attitude?

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 A Dalit family from Mirchpur at Tanwar's farmhouse

They say that to get justice one has to either plead or make noise in Delhi. Fed up with the indifference of the local administration and the government, the Bhagana rape survivors took their protest yet again to Delhi. They do not want to return to their village. The girls allege that Jat boys used to constantly harass them and trouble them. They could not even continue their studies as a result of this constant harassment.

 The mother of the minor says, "We can't even send our children to study outside. They trouble them even when they are just roaming about. Who listens to us poor people?" The girls and their families are demanding adequate compensation, rehabilitation and a guarantee for the full education for the girls. On April 27 there was a big demonstration where students from JNU as well as several social service organisations collected to gherao the home minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde. Jantar Mantar was echoing with slogans against the Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda. The representatives of the protestors did manage to meet the Home Minster but they were only given empty reassurances and nothing more.

On April 29, the spokesperson of AAP Yogendra Yadav also reached Jantar Mantar and assured the victims. This is the same Yogendra Yadav who in the past has praised Khap Panchayats. Their own leader Arvind Kejriwal is from Haryana. This can be understood more clearly when one realizes that Yogendra Yadav told the protestors that he will first look into the matter and understand it fully. Which means that he will look at it from his level. Did the political parties look at the issue of the Delhi gang rape incident from 'their level'? Then why that need here? In actual fact these people will calculate what mileage they can get out of this incident and by supporting the Dalit protestors. Their intentions are obvious. The families of the girls are worried that their plight will be the same as the last time where justice eluded them and still does. Why is Delhi so quiet?

 But what must struggle look like?

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 Dalit protest at Jantar Mantar

Eventually where should all the above mentioned issues, struggles, situations lead to? If the agitation going on in Delhi currently manages to secure its demands- adequate compensation, guaranteed education, rehabilitation of affected families- would that be a victory for the struggle? To a certain extent one can say that would be the case. One can say that also because if they get justice then it would strengthen and infuse courage among the Dalits of Haryana and it would inspire them to fight for their rights and claim justice. But no, this is not enough to bring about fundamental change. As I have repeatedly stated above, this is an issue of emerging political consciousness, the creation of a Dalit political space. And to create this should be the ultimate aim. Much as Kanshiram did to a large extent and as a result of which the Dalits of UP have gained significant political assertion. A similar political space must be carved out in Haryana. Within the democratic set up of India this would be the ideal and most effective way. Political participation and representation as well as political power is most necessary- whether at a local level or at the centre. The situation of Dalits in Haryana will only see a basic change if that happens. Which is why, I repeat, that this struggle is not just about justice for these affected families.

~

Please also read other articles on the issue:

Bhagana outrage: On the dire need for a collective struggle: Jyotsna Siddharth

Bhagana-Haryana Rape Victims warn Hooda against inaction: by Ravi Nitesh

~~~

 

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