The September 1 incident in Kila Jafargarh is one in a series of attacks on Dalits in the State in the past one year.T.K. RAJALAKSHMI in Jind
EVERYTHING seems normal at Kila Jafargarh village in Haryana's Jind district until one seeks directions to the Dalit colonies. A flustered villager demands what the Frontline team is doing in the village and insists that "nothing has happened". But the frightened faces in the Dalit colonies tell a different story.
There are angry reactions, too. "Do we or don't we have a right to live with dignity in this country? Why is it that such things keep happening to us?" demands a young woman. "I tell you, no one will stay in this village anymore if such things are allowed to happen." Slowly, there emerges yet another story of harassment and caste animosity.
The Dalits of Kila Jafargarh pooled in money for a Mata Jaagran, a semi-religious musical congregation. Jaagran or Jagrata is a relatively recent phenomenon in northern India. An all-night community affair, its main characteristics are loud and often tuneless singing, though sometimes there are professional and trained singers performing as well. Anybody can organise a Jaagran, which is meant to propitiate Bhagwati or any other goddess. Of late, these programmes have become a form of caste and community mobilisation. In most villages in Haryana, organisers do not need to seek permission from the authorities to organise a Jaagran, though in the cities there is some form of administrative restriction on the use of loudspeakers and the duration of the programme. There is a perception that the trend began in the early 1990s, coinciding with a particular kind of religious mobilisation in that period.
Trouble started in Kila Jafargarh as soon as the Jaagran got under way on the night of August 31. The organisers, who were Dalits, including Dhanaks, Chamars and Valmikis, had called in a woman vocalist for the main recital. Darshana, a seamstress who was present at the programme, said some Jat youngsters threw stones at the women who were seated separately, away from the men. When the women did not respond to the provocation, they threw mud at them. The youngsters also demanded that the singer should be "sent across" to them. Some young Dalits now went up to the trouble-makers and there was a scuffle, in which some boys of the dominant community were beaten. The police were informed and the rest of the programme was held in police presence.
Nothing more happened that night. There were no police complaints from the dominant Jat community about some of its boys being beaten up by Dalits. But Dalit elders, fearing reprisal of some sort, spoke to their counterparts in the Jat community. The latter assured them that there was nothing to worry.
But the next day, some 200 armed Jats descended on the Dalit colonies around 8 p.m. and began beating up whoever they could lay their hands on. They forced their way into homes, broke television sets and smashed pots and pans. Even the children and the elderly were not spared. Women ran out into the fields with their children for cover. Several children, some as young as five years old, spent the night in the dark fields quivering with fear.
Thirty-two people were arrested by the district administration under various sections of the Indian Penal Code and sections of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. It had all started with the harassment of women, but Deputy Commissioner Yudhvir Singh said that not a single complaint of attempted molestation had come to his notice. He thought that the incident was an isolated one and there was no deep-rooted caste bias in the village.
Superintendent of Police M.S. Malik thought that the situation was back to normal and refused to give any more details since he was "in a meeting". The district administration has identified 76 "damaged" homes, but Dalits in the village claim that many other houses suffered damage on the night of the rampage and want every affected family to be compensated.
Dalits do not feel secure in the village, despite the official assurances. Soon after the incident, several families sent their women and children to safe places. With threats from the influential sections in the village continuing, Darshana and the other women who have stayed back are scared of going to the fields to relieve themselves. "As soon as the sun goes down, we huddle together quietly inside our homes, fearing the worst," said Moorti, an elderly woman who has sent away her daughter-in-law and 15-day-old grandchild. She said that some Jats loudly proclaimed: "Din tumharey, raat hamare" (The days are yours; the nights belong to us).
"Why do such things happen only to us?" asked Darshana. She and some other Dalit women stopped sending their children to school after September 1. "The children are abused and even beaten up," she said. Dalit children study together with upper-caste children at Kila Jafargarh's primary and senior secondary school. Now that most Dalit children have stopped attending school, they may end up missing their examinations, which are now held in semesters in Haryana.
The Dalits are not being allowed to use the common well, the only source of drinking water. Their own wells have gone dry and the only tubewell in the village is used by all the 350 Dalit households. The women are repeatedly warned that things will never be the same after the arrest of the Jat youngsters. The Dalits feared there would be more attacks after the administration lifted the security cover. On September 6, a Dalit delegation from the village led by one Hemraj Khatak met elders from the dominant community to broker a truce, but the latter were in no mood for a compromise.
The Jats of Kila Jafargarh are reportedly planning a panchayat of all the nearby villages and announce a decision on the episode. The Dalits fear that the khap (caste) panchayat might be used to victimise them. Such fears seem justified in the light of the way elected panchayat representatives, especially if they are Dalits or women, are so often sidelined by caste representatives. In this particular case also, the elected sarpanch is a woman, but it is her husband who is referred to as the sarpanch.
Many Dalits in the village now feel they have little choice but to leave. Mahender, a brick kiln worker, has already shifted out his family. His plan is to take them to Hisar district, where he works. He has lived most of his life in Jind, and says that the atmosphere here has changed in the past 15 years.
In that period, a good number of Dalits managed to get employment in the Class IV category, which improved their living standards and made them less dependent on farm labour. Of course, there are still many Dalits like him who work in the unorganised sector. Dalits in his village have been organising Jaagrans only for the past five years; they could not afford such things before. Some Dalit homes now have television sets and telephone connections, though none has a sanitary toilet, Mahender said. Women still wash themselves in a tasla or iron vessel and relieve themselves in the fields.
According to the 2001 Census, the Scheduled Castes constitute 19.3 per cent of the population in Haryana, which is one of the 12 States with large S.C. populations. Dalits have been growing increasingly assertive in Haryana and elsewhere in the country. However, this has also meant a hardening of caste identities and Dalits have begun to organise themselves around sub-groups. So now one hears of the Chamar Sangharsh Samiti or Dhanak, Raidass or Valmiki Sabhas. Dalits have been coming under attack increasingly in the past five years in Haryana.
But observers say that crimes against Dalits now get more media coverage and provoke stronger reactions. Beginning with the lynching of five Dalits in October 2002 in Jhajjar district, there have been several incidents in Rohtak, Sirsa, Bhiwani, Jind and Sonepat districts. In September last year, 50 Dalit homes were torched in Gohana in Sonepat district. In Mohammadpur village of Karnal district, Dalits were beaten while walking in a procession to protest against the arson.
There is a growing feeling that the Congress government under Bhupinder Singh Hooda has been unable to protect the weaker sections. Satbir, the village watchman of Kila Jafargar, said: "It is like this. We always voted for the Congress and now our faith lies shattered. We are prepared to cast our votes in the chulha [stove] but it is doubtful if Hooda will get our support again."