Atrocities on Dalits continue in Haryana, perpetuating a pattern of violent reprisals over small disputes. One gory instance is the recent murder of two youngsters. By T.K. RAJALAKSHMI in Rohtak

ON March 30, towards evening, 22-year-old Vikram and his 10-year-old cousin Sudhir were returning home to Medina village in Rohtak district on a buggy, a pushcart, after a hard day’s work of harvesting potatoes on land taken on lease from a member of a dominant caste. Riding the cart with them were four others, including two young girls, all schoolchildren who had probably hopped on to the pushcart for a joyride.

All the youngsters were Dalits. Before the buggy could take them home safely, some young men, belonging to the dominant Jat community, rode up on motorcycles and fired at them indiscriminately, killing Vikram and Sudhir. One child was shot in the leg, and a boy called Rajesh managed to escape into the nearby fields. The two minor girls, one of whom was mentally challenged, remained frozen in the pushcart, unable to run or react. The shooters sped away after the attack. The police apprehended a few of the conspirators, but the main accused absconded.

Vikram, a second-year student of Sanskrit at an institution run by the Goud community, an organisation of Brahmins, had hoped to become a teacher. He has left behind a young widow, Mamta, and an infant son.

Within a fortnight, three more incidents involving atrocities against Dalits were reported from various parts of Haryana. On April 13, in Pabnawa village, Kaithal district, some 83 Dalit homes were vandalised and looted following the marriage of a Dalit youth to a girl from the dominant Ror community of the village. The couple are now in a state-run protection home; their entry to their village is permanently barred. In Bhiwani district, on April 15, a young Dalit boy was tied to a tree and a vehicle rammed into him only because he had demanded the ceremonial right to ride an elephant for a boy of his community. A few months ago, in the same district, a bridegroom, his father and members of his family were beaten up by members of the dominant caste for riding the ceremonial bridal horse, called Ghurchari. In Jhajjar, Dalits were not allowed to perform Holika Dahan in Jahangirpur village on Holi and were beaten up.

Protests

Medina, with two panchayats, is among the larger villages in Meham tehsil and, therefore, important for the Congress, the ruling party, as an electoral constituency. Yet, no one from the party or the administration visited the site of indefinite protest against the incident at Ambedkar Chowk in Rohtak, the constituency of the Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s son Deepender Singh Hooda, a Lok Sabha member. On April 7, more than a thousand people from Medina village and surrounding areas gathered there under a blazing sun. The women wailed inconsolably while the men looked agitated. The portraits of the two murdered boys were propped up amidst floral tributes as the protesters raised slogans demanding the arrest of the killers.

A bystander said, “Some official will come in a while and make some assurances, and then these people will have to disperse as no one is allowed to protest here.” The protesters themselves knew that they would not be able to continue with the sit-in for much longer as the administration had clamped Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code in the main city area. Sansar Singh, Sudhir’s father, said, choking on his tears, “I am not getting up from here.”

The mood at the condolence meeting was silently belligerent. “It is because our community members are not united that such attacks take place. But our youngsters do not tolerate this nonsense any more. And it is our responsibility to tell them about Ambedkar,” said a local Dalit leader amid slogans of “Jai Bhim”.

Several groups representing Dalits had come together at the protest site. The rhetoric, worryingly, was overwhelmingly about mobilising the community against such outrages rather than involving a cross section of democratic parties and people. “There are 17 legislators from our community, one Rajya Sabha member and one Union Minister. It has been eight days since the murders, and not a single leader of the ruling party has come. Where are they? I would like to tell Chaudhary Bhupinder Singh Hooda that our children are gone, but he will also have to relinquish his seat very soon,” said a local Dalit leader, Anil Kataria.

He was appreciative of the fact that the All India Agricultural Workers Union representative, Preet Singh, had joined the protest though he belonged to the dominant community. Jagbir Singh Kataria, a Life Insurance Corporation employee and an office-bearer of the All India Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Welfare Association, told Frontline that the local MLA had threatened Dalit government employees in the area with transfers if they pursued the case. The MLA, Anand Singh Dangi, is a confidant of the Chief Minister.

Pattern of reprisals

The present caste animosities in Medina between Jats and Dalits started roughly a year ago, with an act of aggression by the main accused in the murder case, Bhoomi and Sandeep. In June 2012, at the Ghurchadi ritual (where the groom mounts a horse to travel to the bride’s home) of a wedding, a girl from the groom’s family was teased by members of the dominant community. (In many parts of north India, the Ghurchadi ritual itself has historically been an area of contention between Dalits and Jats, with the former asserting their right to observe the ritual which is indicative of social mobility.)

In reaction to the teasing incident, a Jat youngster was roughed up. A few days later, a Dalit youngster was set upon by some youngsters of the dominant caste and was rescued by Vikram. The same day, his younger brother was beaten up by upper-caste youngsters.

This may have been the trigger for the March 30 attack in which Vikram was killed, but skirmishes between the two communities had been taking place off and on, with the Dalits mainly reacting to provocation. “I spoke to the parents of both the boys involved in the beating up of my [younger] son. They said they were not responsible for them,” said Khushi Ram, Vikram’s father. Five days later, the same young men landed up drunk at his doorstep, abusing the boys and the women. Following this they were given a thrashing.

Villagers showed Frontline a well used by Dalits that had been literally taken over by sections of Jat youth. “They used to hang around there all day, drinking and passing remarks at our women who would come there to draw water. In fact, it became impossible for our women to use that well, which was among the few things owned by Dalits as a community,” said an elder of the community.

“It is a kind of a competition taking place at every level. Two political parties are seen championing the cause of the dominant community. I would not call this a reassertion by the Jats but a kind of reinforcement of certain elements using the sentiment of caste,” explained Inderjit Singh, State secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist). “Once this competitiveness is triggered on caste lines, it is difficult to regulate it. There is a feeling among the socially dominant community that nobody can do anything to them.”

The killing of the two young boys has to be seen in the context of changing social relations in the State and the growing assertion by young Dalits. The reactions to such assertion have been mostly violent, sometimes involving large-scale arson as in the case of the burning of Dalit homes in Gohana village, Sonepat, or outright murder. The involvement of the elected panchayats and the caste panchayats of late to “broker” compromises in the name of “brotherhood and village amity” has not had a calming effect. The younger section among Dalits are resentful, though the older section, with a historically low expectation of justice or livelihood opportunities, are more conciliatory. Khushi Ram, for instance, is grateful that he had been tilling the land of one particular family for the last 30 years. The landowner is a Jat living near Chandigarh. “They are very good people. Otherwise who would give their land to till for 30 long years,” he said, adding that his son Vikram used to help out with harvesting but was keen on a regular job.

But there were no jobs. “There is a desire for a good life. But no one wants to work. The youngsters want to study,” said Khushi Ram. “The other day we were laughing, and I told Vikram, I have paid for your education and now I will have to work for your son’s education too,” he added, grieving. Two of Vikram’s close friends were Jats. They were at his house, expressing their sorrow. “We never saw him as a Chamaar [Dalit]. He was our friend. When I read about it in the newspaper, I could not believe it,” said Sandeep, a native of Sisar Khas village.

This blurring of caste divisions is also a social reality that has come along with the spread of education across communities. Yet, in the absence of adequate employment opportunities, equality remains a mirage.

Medina seems to have a good proportion of government employees among Dalits, though most are agricultural workers. Some of the more articulate Dalits pointed out that the former State Chief Election Commissioner, Sajjan Singh, was a Dalit from Medina. But not many Dalits in the village, including in Khushi Ram’s family, felt that things had changed.

Vandana, Vikram’s cousin, said that education had made a difference. She is doing an MSc at Maharshi Dayanand University, Rohtak, one of the premier government universities in the State. “In our family of 65 members who have lived in Medina for generations, only my father had a government job. It is not true that Dalits are comfortable here,” she told Frontline. “The Jats don’t like it when we prosper,” added a middle-aged woman in the village.

On February 26, the Chief Minister made a candid admission in the Assembly that in Haryana there had been an almost a 50 per cent escalation in crimes against Dalits between 2005 and 2013. From 162 cases in 2005, the numbers had risen to 238 until January 2013. The State goes to the polls next year and Hooda will probably seek a third consecutive term. With the leadership of the main opposition party, the Indian National Lok Dal, behind bars and facing a slew of corruption charges, the Congress faction aligned to the Chief Minister has been a bit too complacent.

“I want justice. How do I bring up my little son?” asked Mamta, Vikram’s widow. So far, the government has not answered Mamta’s question. In all likelihood, it never will.