Tuesday, May 4, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Reign of terror



Reign of terror

in Hisar

The wheelchair of a disabled woman who was killed when her house was
burnt. (Right) Inside a burnt house.

IN 2005, Gohana in Sonepat district of Haryana witnessed the torching
of several Dalit homes by members of upper castes. Now Mirchpur, a
village 58 kilometres away and located deep inside Hisar district, has
met a similar fate.

On April 21, as many as 18 homes belonging to Dalits from the Valmiki
community here were set on fire by upper-caste youth over an alleged
slight on the part of the former. An 18-year-old disabled woman and
her father died in the fire, the latter while attempting to rescue the
former. Twenty-six persons were injured and 14 houses damaged.

Forty-three persons were named in the first information report, while
31 were arrested under as many as 14 sections of the Indian Penal
Code, apart from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention
of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

A meeting of the khap panchayat (a socio-political organisation of the
Jat community) called by a government school teacher on April 24
demanded the release of those arrested. A senior officer of the
district administration, who was present at the meeting, dismissed the
congregation as "harmless".

The immediate provocation for the arson was that a mongrel barked at
some Jats, who in turn threw stones at the dog. The stone accidentally
hit a Valmiki boy and a scuffle ensued. The Jats took this as an
opportunity to teach the "upstart" Valmikis a lesson.

The police, although aware of the tensions brewing between the two
communities, deliberately allowed them to escalate. Elders of the
Valmiki community said they had kept the station house officer (SHO)
of Narnaund, the police station under which Mirchpur falls, informed
about the gradual escalation in the violence, including the stoning
that had begun in the early hours of April 21. Armed policemen were
present in the village even during the arson, but they allegedly did
not try to disperse the miscreants.

The next day, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) delegation led by
the State secretary of the party, Inderjit Singh, and All India
Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) State secretary Shakuntala
Jhakhar visited Mirchpur and prepared a detailed account of the losses
suffered. The delegation accused the police officers of criminal
negligence and demanded full compensation for all the victims. The
State administration later agreed to the demand.

Opposition parties and Dalit organisations have blamed the Bhupinder
Singh Hooda-led Congress government for taking a lackadaisical view of
the systematic violence perpetrated by a section of the Jat community.
They have demanded that the government take stern action against all
those involved, including the police officers accused of being
complicit in the arson. On April 26, the incident resonated in
Parliament where members cutting across party lines condemned the

On April 29, Rahul Gandhi, Member of Parliament and All India Congress
Committee general secretary, paid an unannounced visit to Mirchpur.
Union Tourism Minister Kumari Selja, who represents the reserved seat
of Ambala in Haryana, had visited the village five days earlier.

Jat resentment

The multi-storeyed house of a relatively prosperous Dalit that was
targeted by the mob. The provision store attached to the house, which
was the family's source of income, was gutted.

Members of the Valmiki community told Frontline that the Jats resented
the former's improved economic status and reduced dependence on them.
The mongrel's bark was only an excuse. "Village dogs are known to bark
at strangers but it doesn't lead to systematic arson and murder," said
Ram Avtar, a senior functionary of the All India Agricultural Workers'
Union (AIAWU). A Dalit himself, Ram Avtar feels this is not going to
be the end of the clashes between the upper-caste and lower-caste
people, since the latter are getting more powerful socially and

Two elected representatives from the Dalit community, one a panchayat
member and the other a block samiti member, were beaten badly when
they went to broker peace between the two communities.

"It is a standard modus operandi. They first create a conflict, beat
us up and then call for reconciliation when they feel that we may go
to the police," said Rishikesh, an engineer with the Public Health
Department. In 1989, when he was an assistant draughtsman, he was
abused by the son of the then sarpanch and later beaten up by a mob of
Jat youth for retaliating. When he threatened to go to the police, the
sarpanch called for a compromise. Rishikesh has sent his children
outside the State to study. He has a son who has an M.Phil from
Pondicherry University. "I have a house here but I don't like living
here any more," he said.

"They call us dedh [a derogatory term with casteist connotations].
They object to our sitting on charpoys [a type of cot used in
villages]," said Ram Kumar, a retired principal. Almost every Valmiki
family in the village had a matriculate, he said. Back in 1995, in
order to defuse the tension in the village, those like his father had
accepted the humiliating terms set by Jats – such as removing his
turban in front of Jats. But the Valmikis are in no mood to take such
insults any more.

The benefits of reservation and the legal safeguards have empowered
the Valmikis. There are teachers, engineers, army men and gazetted
officers from among them. But a good number of educated Valmikis work
as daily wage labourers. With few government jobs and no agricultural
land to fall back on, this section depends on construction and
agricultural work on land owned by Jats.

Mirchpur is a big village, with 300 Valmiki families. But most of them
have fled the village to live with their relatives or at the community
guesthouse in Hisar town. Despite the 700-strong police force, which
includes Hisar Superintendent of Police Subhash Yadav, in Mirchpur,
they refuse to return as they fear further reprisals.

"The girls' school is located in the middle of Jat dwellings. How can
we ensure the safety of our daughters?" asked Bharpai Devi, a Mirchpur

The village has pucca dwellings. The ones owned by Jats look richer.
One house, owned by Chander Singh, a Valmiki, could easily pass off as
the house of a Jat. Double-storeyed and spacious, it had a provision
store attached, which was the family's source of income. "I built this
house by herding goats. Now all is gone," Chander Singh said teary
eyed, looking at the gutted store. Three Valmiki women, the few left
in the village, sat in a huddle, wondering what lay in store for them.
They said that Jat women also participated in the arson and looting.
Sanjay Singh, a daily wage labourer whose house was burnt down, said:
"They used kerosene from a depot owned by one of our community
members. I had to break a side wall to drag out my brother's family,
who were hiding in one of the rooms at the back."

At the Valmiki guesthouse in Hisar town, women and injured men sat
huddled together. No one from the government, barring the Additional
District Commissioner, had visited them. "We walked nearly 25
kilometres for nine hours and finally were picked up by a vehicle
organised by our community members," said Kailasho, a victim.

"The Jats have an ego. The Chief Minister is from their community, the
police are with them, and the land is owned by them. What do we have?"
asked Jaswant, a youth. The Valmikis, he said, were the only community
among Dalits who stood up to the Jats.

Ram Avtar, who has been organising agricultural workers in the area
for several years, most of them Dalits, said that all forms of
harassment, including denying work and wages, was used against them.
He added that nearly 200 cases of wage denial were reported at the
Hisar office of the AIAWU every year.

As the State general secretary of the organisation, he had initiated
the practice of holding hearings every Monday at the AIAWU office, and
notices were sent out to alleged harassers, he said. "They [the
harassers] come in hordes after consulting lawyers about the S.C. and
S.T. Act and then agree on a compromise, promising not to misbehave or
deny wages," he said. In 1997, he said, Dalit dwellings in Mirchpur
were brought down. Eleven months ago, two women belonging to the Dom
community (a Dalit community that relies on alms) were paraded naked,
he said.

Action taken

After the carnage, it was time to apportion responsibility. The State
government suspended the SHO, Vinod Kajal, who was accused of
involvement, conspiracy and negligence. The S.P. admitted it was
"unfortunate" that the SHO did not "appreciate the situation". He was,
however, helpless in taking a stronger view on congregations such as
the khap panchayat.

The government has promised the Valmiki families 100 per cent
compensation for the damage caused. But the emotional wedge caused by
the carnage is bound to stay. No one from the Jat community in
Mirchpur went for the funeral of the two dead Valmikis. "This is
worrying as normally after such incidents, the warring communities
attempt a truce by attending funeral obsequies," said Inderjit Singh.

There was talk of relocating the Dalit families, which, Hisar Deputy
Commissioner O.P. Sheoran admitted, was not a practical solution.
"There is no such precedent in the State. And what is the guarantee
that conflicts will not take place there as well?" he told Frontline.
He told a CPI(M) delegation led by Lok Sabha member Sushmita Baori
that the victims would be compensated fully. He said the demand that
the main connecting lane between the houses of the two communities be
sealed off was impractical.

The reluctance of the State government to take on errant members
belonging to the economically, socially and politically strong
communities is bound to create a crisis of faith. Many other villages
in Haryana – such as Duleena (in Jhajjar district), Harsola and Salwan
(Jind), and Balamba and Petwaad (Hisar) – have witnessed atrocities
against Dalits, ranging from murder to social and economic boycott, in
the past few years.

Chief Minister Hooda visited Mirchpur almost a week after the
incident, while his opponents within the party as well as members of
the Opposition paid multiple visits to the village. Hooda merely
termed the incident as "unfortunate". His government has been
reluctant to take a strong stand against caste and khap panchayats,
which issue death sentences, order social embargoes on couples
marrying in violation of community norms, and harass Dalit
communities. Will his government, with all its pretensions of making
Haryana a world-class State, be prepared to take the proverbial bull
by the horns?


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