Another caste crime

Print edition : September 15, 2001

An act of caste reprisal puts to shame a northern Karnataka village.

HAD Keshappa and Meramma, a young couple from Vannenur village in Bellary district who fell in love across an inflexible caste divide, been caught together, they would in all likelihood have been lynched by the residents of this caste-cleaved village in northern Karnataka.

Yerramma, with her husband Yennappa. The Dalit agricultural worker has been singled out for punishment by the members of the Valmiki community for her alleged role in encouraging the relationship between Keshappa and Meramma.-V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

Keshappa is a Dalit and Meramma is from the upper Valmiki caste. It was to escape harm that they fled their village. Their act of daring destabilised the rigid network of caste-based social conventions in the village, but not for long. On hearing that Meramma was in a nearby village, her enraged relatives forcibly brought her back. She was abused and beaten and later sent away to relatives in another village. Keshappa dared not return to his village and has so far not been traced.

There was further upper caste reprisal that was swift and savage. Yerramma, a poor Dalit agricultural labourer in her mid-30s, was singled out for punishment, for her alleged role in encouraging the clandestine affair. The village had been in a ferment ever since Meramma was found in mid-August. There were rumours of revenge, and the Dalits feared that their homes would be set on fire by the Valmikis - a mode of upper caste attack that is not uncommon.

On the evening of Sunday, August 26, a large gang of upper caste men, drunk and armed with knives, went to Yerramma's house, dragged her out and into the nearby field and stripped her, while abusing and beating her. They were accompanied by several women as well. The gang tied her arms behind her head, and then dragged her from her house down the main road for a distance of about 700 metres to the village panchayat office, where they tied her to a post. The entire village was witness to this spectacle, but none dared intervene.

Yerramma's husband Yennappa, and daughter Honamma, tried stopping the men, but were themselves beaten. It was only when the men left Yerramma that her husband and daughter could approach her. Yennappa covered her with the piece of the cloth he was wearing and brought her home. "They beat and kicked my mother, shouting at her to accept her mistake," Honamma said. "Mother said, 'Even if you kill me I will not accept that I did any wrong. I too have a daughter.' I tore a piece out of my sari to cover her, they threw it away. The whole village was watching, including panchayat members, but the men said they would kill anyone who tried to stop them," Honamma recalled.

The unwritten rules of caste govern life in most villages of Karnataka, especially in the northern districts. The brazenness, however, of this well-planned act of upper caste vendetta suggests the depth of upper caste domination in this area and the contempt that the upper castes have for the law. Valmikis are a Scheduled Tribe, but they are superior to Dalits in the caste hierarchy. Of the 543 households in the village, 320 belong to Valmikis and 90 to Dalits. The Valmikis are a land-holding caste, and several amongst them are wealthy owners of agricultural land irrigated by the Tungabhadra canal.

SOON after Yerramma was brought back to her house, the police were informed of what happened. A police party arrived at 6-30 p.m. Yerramma and her husband were taken to the police station, where they filed a First Information Report (FIR). Thereafter Yerramma, who was bruised and in a state of emotional trauma, was taken to the Vijayanagar Institute of Medical Science in Bellary town. The FIR named eight persons - five men and three women (including the parents of Meramma). Cases were booked under Sections 143, 147, 342, 323, 354, 504, 506 and 114 read with 149 of the Indian Penal Code. These sections deal with wrongful confinement, assault, molestation, threat of death, abetment to violence, punishment for rioting, and so on. As the crime was committed by members of a Scheduled Tribe, cases could not be booked under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, a law that has more teeth and makes any atrocity motivated by caste a non-bailable offence. Instead, the eight accused were charged under Section 7, Clauses B, C and D of the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, in addition to other provisions. All the offences for which the accused were booked were bailable.

The next morning, the eight accused were arrested and produced before the court of the Judicial First Class Magistrate, Bellary. Despite the exceptional nature of the crime, they were released on bail. Immediately the five men who were accused absconded. In a second round of preventive arrests the three women were re-arrested, and another 17 persons from the village were also taken into custody. By this time the news had been picked up by the media, and the event attracted national attention.

However, the publicity and the visits by a number of senior politicians and government officials to the village have not assuaged the fears of the Dalits. Nor have assurances by the police that they have created a special squad to find the five accused who jumped bail. Despite a 24-hour police picket in the village, an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty pervades.

The fact that the culprits were let out on bail despite the enormity of the crime, and are now at large, only reinforces the Dalits' convictions of upper caste invincibility. "You have let them out on bail. Give me poison, there is now no point in living," Yerramma is reported to have told Allam Veerabhadrappa, the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president. Many Dalit families, particularly those who are related or seen as close to Yerramma, have not gone to work since the incident. "We are frightened. They are already saying that they will burn our houses," Kishtamma, Yerramma's aunt, told Frontline. "There is nothing we can do, we have no voice, we are like the dead...," she said.

In the homes of the upper caste people, the men have either been arrested or have fled the village. Sullen-faced women from Valmiki homes refused to be drawn into conversation. Only Dalits were willing to give eyewitness accounts of what happened to Yerramma.

Because of the sweep of arrests of persons belonging to the Valmiki caste, participants and onlookers alike, non-Dalits now feel safer denying their presence in the village on the day the incident took place. Hanumakka, Keshappa's mother, is burdened with her own fears for her son's safety, and her family's future in the village. Although her son has not returned, the family has not filed a complaint with the police. "I knew nothing of his affair, and I have not seen my son from the day he left the house," Hanumakka said.

The apprehensions of the Dalits and their lack of confidence in the law have some justification given the abysmal track record of the courts in handing out punishment for caste crimes. Karnataka has a very low conviction rate in the matter of cases booked under the Prevention of Atrocities Act (see table). According to S.N. Borkar, Additional Director-General of Police, Civil Rights Enforcement Cell, there are several reasons for this. Borkar said: "Although special courts for trying caste crimes have been established under the Act, they do not confine themselves exclusively to such crimes, and they are heavily burdened with other cases. Also, there is a lapse of over a year before a charge-sheet is drawn up and the case committed to such courts. The cases are frequently adjourned, and the parties are so unequal in economic and social standing that with the delays, witnesses turn hostile, and the case finally becomes too weak for a conviction."

At present, half the compensation due to a victim of a caste atrocity (the compensation rates for different types of caste crimes are listed in the Rules framed in 1995 to the Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989) is to be paid at the time of the filing of the FIR. The remaining half is to be paid after the conviction. Since conviction has become such an unlikely occurrence, the Karnataka police have recommended to the government that the Act be amended to ensure that the remaining 50 per cent of compensation be paid after the charge-sheet is filed.

In Yerramma's case, several days after the crime neither had a charge-sheet been filed nor had the main perpetrators of the crime been arrested. While in hospital at Bellary, Yerramma's physical condition took a turn for the worse and she was shifted to the Jayadeva Institute of Cardiology, Bangalore.

The All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) sent a team to Bellary to investigate the incident. AIDWA was organising a demonstration on this issue on September 7 and was to present a memorandum to Chief Minister S.M. Krishna demanding the immediate arrest of the accused. "We are also demanding that the government work out a rehabilitation package for Yerramma in consultation with her and the rest of her family," said K.S. Vimala, general secretary of the Karnataka unit of AIDWA. "We want the police to arrange for a team from AIDWA to meet Meramma, who is a minor, and whose security we fear for," she told Frontline. The Samatha Sainik Dal, a Dalit organisation, has also been providing support to Yerramma and her husband.

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