Resisting oppression

Print edition : July 16, 2004

The death of a Dalit youth in a police station sparks violence in a village in Punjab, a State that has of late seen a rise in the attacks against the community and its increasing resolve to fight back.

in Balachaur

ON June 6, two policemen arrived at Rakesh Kumar's home in Rakkran Dhahan, wanting to talk to him about a stolen sack of sugar. The next afternoon, he was found dead. It was a case of suicide, policemen told Kumar's family, but the tap from which the 22-year-old was supposed to have hanged himself was just four feet high.

The Punjab town of Balachaur, in Nawanshahr district, was torn apart by rioting after Dalit residents took to the streets to protest against the alleged murder of Kumar. One Dalit, 42-year-old Kewal Krishan, was shot dead by the police who opened fire to control the mob. Riots broke out on June 8 in protest against what the Dalits describe as system-wide biases against the Scheduled Castes in Punjab. The violence in Balachaur came almost a year to the date after similar violence rocked Jalandhar in the wake of an upper-caste blockade of Dalits in the village of Talhan: and yet again served to demonstrate just how fragile caste relations are in a State which prides itself on its peace and prosperity.

Kumar's arrest was routine. Dalits in Punjab, although better off than their counterparts elsewhere in the country, are relatively poor, and many young men, like the underprivileged everywhere, find themselves in situations of confrontation with the police. No one, however, expected Kumar to be detained overnight, especially since the theft he was to be questioned about was minor. On June 7, members of the local panchayat visited the Balachaur police station, and were told he was fine. "A few hours later, when we visited the police station again to enquire when he would be released, the police told us he was dead," says Kumar's sister-in-law Sukhwinder Kaur. "The police said he had hanged himself using his trousers from a tap in the police station - which was on the face of it ridiculous."

Family members refused to cremate Kumar's body until investigations were carried out. The next morning, local Dalit men - often at the receiving end of bruising, if generally non-lethal, confrontation with the police - spilled out on to the streets. Barricades were set up inside Balachaur's Dalit quarter, and vigilante squads set up to keep the police out. Then, according to the Balachaur police, a mob of around 600 Dalits attacked the police station. The rioters first knocked down the boundary wall of the police station to force their way inside. Then they set a generator on fire. Evidence of the violence is not in short supply. Blood stains and chipped plaster, caused by flying stones, were visible on the walls. Tyres, set on fire by the mob, lay scattered over the premises.

Teargas and water canon failed to stop the violence. Police officials said they opened fire in self-defence. Local residents, however, allege that the police's use of force was disproportionate. Krishan was, notably, shot through the chest, suggesting the officer who fired at him intended to kill. Interestingly, none of the dozens of injured had bullet injuries in the lower parts of their bodies, suggesting no preliminary effort was made to quell the rioters. Curfew had to be imposed, and tensions died down only after a compromise was hammered out. As things stand, the families of Kumar and Krishan will receive a government job and cash compensation. No criminal action will be initiated against the mob that surrounded the Balachaur police station.

State government officials have moved to contain the damage as best as they now can. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has promised a full investigation. An investigation by the Balachaur Sub-Divisional Magistrate has affirmed that Kumar was killed in custody. Police authorities have also arrested Sub-Inspector Kulwant Singh, who was officiating as Station House Officer at the time of Kumar's death, along with Head Constable Ram Krishan and Constables Jatinder Singh and Mohan Singh. A committee, made up of Deputy Inspector-General of Police Paramjit Singh Sarao and Deputy Commissioner H.S. Grewal, along with 31 residents and politicians, mainly from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), has been set up to help keep the peace.

ALL this, however, could prove too little to contain the larger caste conflagration that has been under way in Punjab ever since the Talhan-inspired riots (Frontline, July 18, 2003). Although events such as the Balachaur riots attract some national attention, most incidents of violence directed at Dalits in Punjab pass unnoticed. Although reliable figures are hard to come by, many observers agree that such violence has accelerated in recent times. One explanation is that Dalit resistance to exploitation has firmed up even as Jat landowners are facing debt-related distress. Another possibility is that growing political awareness among Dalits - which has manifested itself in growing support for the BSP, rather than the Congress - means oppression tolerated over the years now meets resistance.

Consider, for example, the events in Kuttianwali village on June 10. Jagir Singh, an agricultural worker, refused to work on Jat-owned fields without wages. Punishment was promptly delivered. Jagir Singh was beaten and his face blackened with dung before he was paraded through the village with shoes strung around his neck. This ritual humiliation illustrates, if nothing else, the fact that local elites think that they can punish Dalits with impunity. Gurcharan Singh, the husband of the village's woman sarpanch, and another landowner, Jagtar Singh, were later arrested for the offence. A third suspect, Chinder Singh, the son of the sarpanch, is evading arrest. Dalit activists in Punjab say dozens of such cases go unreported.

In general, the State apparatus pitches in on the side of village upper-caste elites. At about the same time as the Jagir Singh outrage, the police evicted a Dalit family from homes allotted to them under a landless-labour protection scheme at Lehri village, near Talwandi Sabo. Buta Singh's family was allotted two tenements in 1974, but since these were already occupied, it took over two other vacant properties. Without serving legal notice - or, indeed, following any other procedural formalities - the police threw out the Buta Singh family's belongings and helped another family usurp the plot. Buta Singh's wife, Sarabjit Kaur, claims the land-grab had the backing of a local Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leader.

Often, violent reprisal follows Dalits' efforts to secure the protection of the State apparatus. On June 11, Binder Kaur and her son were attacked and beaten up by a group of assailants outside her home at Bhisiana near Bhatinda. The attack came shortly after her husband Bikkar Singh insisted on pressing charges after the attempted rape of his daughter-in-law by members of the upper castes in the area. Binder Kaur's efforts to file a complaint were rejected by the local police, who, she says, made her place her fingerprints on a blank sheet of paper. Nor was she medically examined for injuries sustained in the course of the assault. The family received threats in the wake of its decision to pursue the case, but received no protection from the local authorities.

Interestingly, this kind of caste oppression in rural areas has rarely met serious resistance. Last year's violence, for example, took place not in Talhan - where Dalits were subject to a bruising economic and social boycott - but in Jalandhar, home to a large urban concentration of the community. Again, the reaction to Kumar's killing took place in a major urban centre. Some observers believe that the real radicalisation of Dalits in Punjab has taken place not in the countryside - where oppression is at its worst - but in cities. Here, it could be argued, Dalits are reacting not only to the stark disparities between their conditions of life and those of the upper castes, but also to the influence of new ideas - notably, the distinct idiom of the BSP forged in Uttar Pradesh.

In coming months, Amarinder Singh is scheduled to launch an ambitious new plan to help Dalits: building private toilets for each rural Dalit family. Some of the things he will not do include initiating a rigorous effort to strip the police and the administration of their caste biases, take the side of the Dalits in conflicts between the landless and landed, and pump funds into the State's education system. Tokenism helped win Dalits to the Congress' side decades ago. Now, their large-scale defection to the BSP makes it clear that sugary sops like these no longer mask the bitter taste of the everyday life of Dalits in Punjab.

Amarinder Singh's failure to protect Dalits from bruising levels of abuse and discrimination cost his party in the recent Lok Sabha elections.

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