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Published : Feb 25, 2011 00:00 IST

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Jat leaders of 12 khaps and their supporters during the blockade of the Delhi-Ferozpur railway line in January protesting against the arrest of 100 Jats for arson in Mirchpur, in Hisar district.-MANOJ DHAKA

Jat leaders of 12 khaps and their supporters during the blockade of the Delhi-Ferozpur railway line in January protesting against the arrest of 100 Jats for arson in Mirchpur, in Hisar district.-MANOJ DHAKA

Jats organise a rail blockade in a show of strength as the Supreme Court takes up the case of arson against Dalits in Mirchpur village.

ON April 21 last year, Dalit hamlets in Mirchpur village in Haryana's Hisar district, about 200 kilometres from New Delhi, were set on fire. A 70-year-old man and his disabled daughter died in the arson; 18 homes were destroyed and looted and more than 150 families fled fearing reprisal from sections of the dominant Jat community. The police took into custody 100 people, all members of the Jat community, in connection with the incidents. Two of them were let off one was a juvenile and the other got bail.

Mirchpur has been on the boil since the arrests. Matters came to a head in the new year when members of the Jat community blockaded the Delhi-Ferozpur (Punjab) railway line near the Julani village railway crossing in Jind district on January 15 and carried on with the agitation until January 26. They were led by 12 khaps (caste councils based on the gotra system of organisation) and had the support of the Jat mahapanchayat, representing 42 khaps, which demanded a fresh probe into the incidents.

The protest was for two reasons: the transfer of the arson-related cases to Delhi from Hisar in December and the shifting of the undertrials from Hisar Jail to Delhi in January. The cases were transferred after counsel for the victims made a representation to the Hisar court when witnesses began turning hostile.

Apparently, the witnesses and their counsels felt intimidated by the presence of a large number of relatives of the accused, and these apprehensions were conveyed to the Hisar court and to the Supreme Court. On December 8, the apex court ordered that the cases be transferred to a designated court in Delhi where the matter could be heard under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Then on January 10, a court in Rohini, Delhi, directed the Haryana government to move the 100 undertrials lodged in Hisar Jail to Delhi. The trial was to begin. Witnesses were given protection and some of them told Frontline at Mirchpur that they would depose fearlessly.

Meanwhile, the protesters extended the blockade to the highways and other roads as well. This affected several districts in Haryana, and Jind and Hisar districts were cut off. It was very inconvenient. But what could we do? The poor and the daily-wage earners suffered the most. They did not allow any vehicle to move on these roads, said a tea shop owner at the Mundhal crossing on the road to Jind.

The protests were absolutely peaceful. There was no disruption. The government has agreed to look into our demands. We will take them up again if they are not met, said Rajbir Dhaanda, pradhan, or chief, of the 12 khaps spread over 17 villages in the district. He is a brick kiln owner and a teacher by profession.

The Bhupinder Singh Hooda government, unmindful of the inconvenience caused to people, allowed the protests to continue even as a Haryana Roadways bus was set on fire. No attempt was made to disperse the protesters. This did not go unnoticed by the apex court. On January 31, while hearing a petition pertaining to the Mirchpur incidents, it demanded from the State government an assessment of the financial losses incurred because of the disruption in rail and road services. Notices were sent also to the Northern Railway and the Central government.

A Bench comprising Justices A.K. Ganguly and G.S. Singhvi told the government's counsel that the court would not tolerate any community denying another community's absolute right to live and that muscle power would not be allowed to prevail over constitutional principles. The Bench took a serious view of the blockade. In fact, in June 2010 the Supreme Court had directed the State government to provide protection to the victims and said that failure to do so would be viewed seriously.

The arson in Mirchpur and what followed it found resonance beyond the borders of the State. Congress president Sonia Gandhi, it is learnt, expressed annoyance at the party leadership in the State for failing to rein in the elements behind the incidents.

Mirchpur certainly was not the first case of organised arson against Dalits in Haryana and will not be the last either. Localities where Valmikis live have often been singled out for violence as was seen in Gohana in Sonepat district. This is perhaps because Valmikis are the only community among Dalits that has stood up to the dominant castes from time to time. Mirchpur also had a quiet visitor in AICC general secretary Rahul Gandhi; his visit was so quiet that even the government did not get a whiff of it.

Living in fear

Despite all this attention, the situation has not returned to normal in Mirchpur. The Dalits (Valmikis) are nervous about what the future holds for them. There is a heavy police presence in the village, ostensibly to protect Valmiki families and the witnesses in the cases, but the Valmikis realise that the police cannot be stationed there indefinitely.

While Jats accuse Dalits of spoiling the brotherhood, or bhaichaara, by taking the matter to the court, the Valmikis feel that there is no justice in the existing system and want to be relocated to another village. Here might is right. We do not have drinking water supply in the village. The upper-caste families have their own taps. They don't let us draw water from their taps and wells, said a village resident requesting anonymity.

Other Dalit communities, too, feel equally uneasy following the arson. The problem is that despite the high-profile status that Mirchpur seems to have acquired, things have only gone from bad to worse for the landless and the land-dependent. With the increased fragmentation of agricultural holdings owing to population pressure on land, agricultural work has become scarce. Added to this is the deepening hostility between Jats, who own the land, and Dalits and backward castes, who are dependent on the land-owning castes.

There is no work in the village for us anymore. They do not let us enter their fields. Earlier, we used to work on their fields and get paid in cash or kind. We used to pick dried wood for fuel as well from the fields, but all that has changed now. They hire labour from outside Mirchpur village. They don't give us work. We are all agricultural workers. How are we expected to survive? A handful of us who are in government service no longer live in the village. We told the government right in the beginning that we cannot live in the village anymore, said Santra Devi, an elderly woman from the Valmiki colony. She said women and children lived in fear.

The Jats have relations in all the neighbouring villages. We do not get work anywhere. There are a few good people among them, but they succumb to pressure, said Nihali Devi, another Valmiki woman. Most of the families in the village have moved out, either to Hisar or to nearby districts.

In Hisar town, Valmiki families had moved en masse to the farmhouse of Rajesh Tanwar, a local businessman who, according to Rajbir Dhaanda, nurtures political aspirations.

There is no danger to Valmikis in the village. Tanwar aspires to be a leader and is doing all this for publicity. There is no ill-will in the village. We have socially boycotted Tanwar for attempting to foment caste tensions, Rajbir Dhaanda told Frontline at his house in Budana village. According to him, certain non-governmental organisations were keeping the issue alive. The Valmikis, he said, had agreed to withdraw the cases against those who had been framed.

Mirchpur was an accident. Rahul Gandhi and Kumari Selja [Union Minister for Culture since January 20] vitiated the atmosphere by promising the Valmikis homes, he said.

Rajbir Dhaanda was one among the 41 representatives who met Hooda in the parleys with the protesters. Had the police and the administration not helped us, the protests would have taken a violent turn, he said and added that in all only five to seven people were involved from both sides in the Mirchpur violence. There is really no need for police protection of the witnesses, he said.

The assurance cut no ice with the Valmiki families. I have a gunner as an escort. He is with me all the time, but how long can this situation continue? Every family wants to leave the village and be resettled in alternative plots elsewhere, said one of them.

Anxiety among Dalits

The mobilisation by the khaps on the Mirchpur issue has only increased tensions and anxiety among Dalits. Interestingly, other Dalit groups have begun speaking up. Some persons from these groups told Frontline that members of the Jat community had tried to force the non-Jat groups to participate in the blockade.

They said that if we didn't join, they would not let us enter their fields, said a youth. Other people said members of the Dom caste, who are Muslims, were the worst off as even their burial grounds had been taken over by the powerful sections in the village. As we are forced to burn our dead in the Hindu cremation grounds, we do not get alliances from our community as they say that we are not Muslims, said a youth from the Dom community, requesting anonymity.

The problem in Mirchpur is that once the issues relating to the incident die down, it will be status quo. Barring the Left parties, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in particular, none of the other political parties in the State cares even to respond to the developments. In a statement, Inderjit Singh, State secretary of the CPI(M), cautioned people to be vigilant against vested interests operating under the garb of caste or khap.

The frequency of caste-related violence indicates that it is not just an outcome of caste conflict or caste tensions but is symptomatic of the sweeping changes taking place in economic and agrarian relations. Indeed, the caste mobilisation on issues such as that in Mirchpur is a worrisome trend and its ramifications go beyond rail and road blockades.

There are enough indications that the non-Jat communities are appalled by the State government's benevolent response to the 11-day blockade. This, along with the aggressive posturing by the dominant caste on various issues, ranging from honour killings to the demand for Other Backward Class (OBC) status, an amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act and the release of the accused in the Mirchpur incidents, does not inspire confidence in them of a return to peace anytime soon.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Feb 25, 2011.)

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