Oppressed and marginalised

Print edition : May 21, 2004
in Rohtak and Jhajjar

THE lack of a movement of Dalits is one aspect that distinguishes Haryana from some of its neighbouring States. The Scheduled Castes here, as elsewhere, are landless and oppressed and the target of attack by the prosperous sections of society. In the last decade or so, while the rest of the State moved on in material and agrarian terms, Dalits regressed both socially and economically.

Surprisingly, in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, there has not been much talk of the Dalit vote or even the atrocities committed on Dalits. Barring the Left parties, notably the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the Lok Jan Shakti Party, no other political outfit, including the Congress(I), has taken up seriously the issues relating to the atrocities on Dalits and their livelihood.

The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), despite all its "oppressed caste" rhetoric, has reacted sporadically, confining itself to pious homilies. Hence political observers will not be surprised if the majority of Dalits remain with the Congress(I).

The BSP's approach of mobilising Dalits seems to be meant more for electoral gain rather than any substantive change in their lives. As a result, Dalit assertiveness, whenever it happens, has no organisational backing and is put down firmly by the landholding castes. The BSP's concern for the cause of Dalits stood exposed when its entire State unit, including State president Ashok Sherwal, joined the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD). It was when the INLD was in government that the State witnessed a spate of crimes against Dalits. On April 29, the lone BSP legislator in Haryana, Bishanlal Saini, also declared his support for the INLD candidate from the reserved seat of Ambala. Saini even described Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala as a well-wisher of Dalits and backward castes.

Apart from the carnage on October 15, 2002, in which five Dalits were lynched to death in front of a police post in Jhajjar, there have been a series of incidents where Dalits have been humiliated, socially boycotted and even driven away from their homes. In the Jhajjar incident, those who were lynched by a mob were young men, all licensed flayers. The incident, which took place in the presence of senior police officers, followed a rumour that the flayers had killed a cow and were skinning it. One of the key persons arrested was later identified as the district president of the Shiv Sena. All the 29 accused were arrested and released on bail.

That there was a conscious effort at communal mobilisation in Jhajjar could not be ignored as the place is not far from the area populated by Meo Muslims. District Commissioner R.R. Banswal's report had severely indicted the Jhajjar civil administration and senior police officers. On the basis of the report, the State government decided to charge-sheet the officials, but little has happened since then. In February 2004, the incident was apparently sought to be repeated. Dalit contractors dealing in hides and skinning work were beaten up and their homes, in Aleva village of Jind district, were burnt. They, too, were accused of cow slaughter by influential persons in the village, and the police registered a case against them. None of the perpetrators was arrested.

A Dalit sarpanch from Pehrawar, a Brahmin-dominated village in Rohtak district, went missing in October 2003 but there has been virtually no response from the administration. The Chief Minister visited the village but made no mention of the sarpanch. The Left parties, some Dalit organisations and the Lok Jan Shakti Party floated an action committee. The Congress(I) and the BSP are nowhere in the picture.

Dalits are angry but helpless. Says Angoori, who belongs to the Dhanak community: "If only we had land, things would be different." She says that their food mostly consists of buttermilk, rotis and red chillies. Roshni of Pehrawar says that the sarpanch's wife sat on a hunger strike but nothing happened. She says that whosoever resolves their problems will get their votes. The Pehrawar Dalits work on the fields owned by Brahmins and Jats. The only asset they have is some livestock, for whose fodder they depend on the landed caste groups.

In 2002, there were several cases of rape and humiliation of Dalits. In March, in Kharkhada village of Rohtak district, a Dalit woman was kidnapped at gun-point, taken through the village in full public view and gang-raped by six upper-caste youth. The main accused were arrested only after strong protests, including a demonstration, by the smaller political parties and the Left. But nothing happened as the victim would not give evidence against the accused, obviously out of fear. All the while the BSP confined itself to issuing statements.

The same year, in Jhajjar district a Dalit family was forced to leave its village, Talao, after one of its members eloped with two sisters from a Jat family. The two girls were recovered and forced to consume poison. The boy's family is yet to return to the village. The entire Dalit community was socially and economically ostracised; it was refused work in the fields and shopkeepers were instructed not to sell them anything. Some Dalit activists who went to the press were beaten up publicly and made to pay a fine to the panchayat. "We never thought Jats would react like this," said Kuldeep, cousin of Rohtas Kumar, one of the activists who was humiliated. He said the young generation of Jats appeared to be more tolerant than the elders, but when it came to taking a stand on issues they inevitably went with the elders.

At Khedi Khumar village in Jhajjar there is no sewerage. Dalit women have to defecate in the fields and are driven away and humiliated for doing so by the dominant Ahirs, a peasant caste. Vimla says that women are regularly abused even for cutting grass. Ahirs do not let Dalits enter the village temple. "The Ahirs tell us to vote for the party they prefer, but we vote on our own. They are still okay but the Jats are scary," say the women.

The mood among the Chamars in Talao is slightly different as they identify themselves with Mayawati. It is purely a caste identification with the BSP.

It is not just a case of uniting Dalits against the upper castes. In the absence of any other source of dependable employment, the economic dependence on land has become such that Dalits are unable to break away from the stranglehold. They are brick kiln workers, agricultural labourers, construction workers and scavengers. The majority of the political parties, including the main regional ones, have hardly bothered to look at this constituency seriously save for its electoral significance. As a result, Dalits have remained more or less where they were 20 years ago.

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