Print edition : April 06, 2007

Haryana's Dalits face upper-caste ire yet again, this time at Saalwan in Karnal district.

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI in Karnal PHOTOGRAPHS: S. SUBRAMANIUM

At Saalwan, a gathering of Anganwadi workers, mostly caste Hindus, and helpers, mostly Dalits, anxious about Dalit children who have stopped coming to the centres.-

AT Saalwan, the largest village in Haryana's Karnal district, an eerie calm prevails. The government school for girls, in the south of the village where Dalits' houses are also located, has been converted into a police cantonment with the Deputy Superintendent of Police P.S. Sheokhand himself camping there. Dalits are living in fear after an isolated incident metamorphosed into a casteist vendetta.

On March 1, Rajput youth destroyed 73 Dalit establishments, including four houses, in the village. One of the shops was set on fire. For the record, Saalwan, with around 5,000 households, is the latest in the long list of places where atrocities against Dalits have been reported in Haryana since the lynching of five Dalits in Jhajjar in October 2002. "This was another Gohana," said S.N. Solanki, State vice-president of the Kisan Sabha, referring to the torching of 50 Dalit homes in Gohana village of Sonepat district in 2005.

The flare-up began as a scuffle between a group of inebriated Valmiki (Dalit) youth and Mahipal Singh, a Rajput who was tending his one-and-a-half-acre wheat crop, on February 26. Mahipal objected to the youth letting their goats graze in his field, where the crop would be ready for harvest in a few weeks. In the brawl Mahipal was injured and he died subsequently. The police rounded up some of the accused, but failed to take steps to prevent untoward incidents despite open threats to Dalit families.

The Dalits' worst fears came true on March 1 when organised groups of armed upper-caste youth attacked their homes around noon. The assailants walked freely into the lanes and smashed and looted property in the Dalit houses, in particular television sets and gas stoves, which were seen as symbols of prosperity. There were no human casualties as, anticipating trouble, the women and children had moved out the previous day. Some of the men hid in the fields, while others watched helplessly from their rooftops.

Master Pradeep Singh, a teacher in one of the local government schools, recalled a similar flare-up some 15 years ago when Dalit homes were burnt after an upper-caste youth was murdered. But his upper-caste bias came through when he said "everything was normal in the village". Others in his community believed that this was not such a "big issue" at all and had been made one by the media and political parties. Some of them also felt, just as it was said about the arson of Valmiki homes in Gohana in 2005, that Dalits may have orchestrated the destruction in order to get compensation from the government.

The DSP, like Pradeep Singh, believes that things are quiet now. But the Anganwadi workers and helpers of Saalwan do not think so. At a meeting of workers and helpers of the 16 Anganwadi centres in Saalwan, the atmosphere turned tense at the mention of March 1. But eventually they all agreed that the incident should not have happened.

The helpers, mostly Dalit women, and the workers, caste Hindus, said children from the poorer families were scared to come to the four Anganwadi centres in the Dalit localities. Around 15 families had left the village. Roopmati, an Anganwadi worker and a relative of the murdered Rajput boy, said though she and other Anganwadi workers from her community wanted to visit their distraught colleagues they were dissuaded from doing so by their husbands.

Most of the landowners in Saalwan are small farmers. Dalits are employed mainly in the Municipal Department or as agricultural labourers and construction workers. Senior citizens like Darshan Singh are of the view that caste tensions in Karnal were not on the scale seen in the more Jat-dominated areas such as Rohtak, Sonepat and Bhiwani. Mohan Lal Valmiki, who works as a mason on a daily wage, said people of his community got some work or the other, mostly within the village itself. Dalits did not starve, he said.

March 1 may have changed all that. Dalits have lost a lot of their belongings. While one of the claims is that the police took them away for "safe custody", another is that the rampaging upper-caste youth took them away even as the police watched. Dalits are not sure what the future holds for them. "What was our fault?" asked Harpal, an agricultural worker who witnessed the looting and destruction. "Was it that we belonged to the same caste as the boys who killed Mahipal?"

Rajpal, a soldier who was posted in Jaisalmer when the incident occurred, has lost almost all his property. His younger brother committed suicide a few years ago and his mother, Gyano Devi, now fears for Rajpal's life. His wife, Meenu, who is an Anganwadi worker, said she could not understand why their property was targeted. Rajpal was more outspoken. "There are four or five Hitlers in this village, including the Block Samiti chairman, who are intent on fomenting trouble," he said.

A Dalit home ransacked and destroyed by an upper-caste mob.-

Most of the other Valmikis, too, spoke, though in muted tones, about certain influential people in the village instigating upper-caste youth to attack Dalits' houses. "The fact is we wear good clothes, eat decent food and are not totally dependent on them. They don't like that," said Mohan Lal Valmiki.

Not all upper-caste families in the village were seeking revenge. Even Mahipal's family did not want any retaliation. His brother Rajveer apparently gave a statement to the local dailies that he was against any revenge, but they did not publish it. Instead, the newspapers carried incendiary statements of influential Rajputs.

Neither did the dailies report on the peace committee, said Sheeshpal, a Valmiki himself and a State leader of the All India Agricultural Workers' Union (AIAWU). The peace committee brought together rational members from both groups and resolved that neither the murder nor the retaliation should be used as a pretext to foment caste tensions.

Soon after the incident, leaders of several political parties poured into Saalwan, among them the Congress legislator of the area, a Dalit, the Republican Party of India's Lok Sabha member Ramdas Athavale, Union Minister Kumari Selja and some Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party leaders. Some caste groups got proactive, with their members making incendiary speeches and calling for a bandh. On the other side were the AIAWU and the Kisan Sabha, perhaps the only fronts that took the initiative to set up a peace committee and to ensure that the victims got justice.

The Valmikis of Saalwan are relatively better off than their counterparts elsewhere in the country. Of course, their houses, like other Dalit houses in Haryana, are also located on the southern side of the village. The logic is that their breath would not reach the upper-caste homes on the northern side. Education and jobs and the concomitant higher incomes have brought in several changes.

Master Baljeet Singh, who taught for 14 years in the Saalwan Boys Senior Secondary School, said the educated among Dalits did not return to their community, preferring greener pastures. This created a vacuum as far as social reform was concerned. As a result, social tensions, induced more often than not by economic tensions, ran high in villages like Saalwan, where caste groups had almost equal numerical representation, he said.

Among Dalits, Chamaars as a sub-caste have greater political clout, with 11 representatives in the State Assembly, while Valmikis have only three. In Saalwan itself, Chamaars have better government jobs, while most of the Valmikis are agricultural or municipal workers. Education levels are, obviously, lower among Valmikis. Talking to Frontline, Rajinder Singh, an officer in the Agriculture Department in Karnal and a Dalit who is involved in the literacy movement in the district, said there were several stereotypes about Valmikis, including one that cast them as fighters or Lathaits (one who is adept with the lathi).

Dalits in Haryana comprise as much as 19.5 per cent of the State's population. The main Dalit groups are Chamaars, Dhanaks, Valmikis and Raisikhs. There are tribal groups as well, such as Sikligars and Gadiya Lohars.

A report prepared by the Haryana Gyan Vigyan Samiti, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) specialising in literacy and education, states that the notion that Dalits are not discriminated against in the State is untrue. In villages, it is common for Dalits to have separate wells, taps and chaupals or meeting places. Dalit children are forbidden from addressing village elders as Tau or Chacha and in temples holy water offered by Dalit kaanwads or pilgrims is accepted reluctantly. Dalits are not encouraged to participate in village congregations.

The study says that the majority of Dalits are landless; neither do they have control over the shaamlat or common grazing grounds. Even in government jobs, the bulk of Dalits are Class III or Class IV employees. In higher educational institutions, only 1.91 per cent of principals in colleges are from the Dalit community.

Some of the Dalits whose houses were attacked.-

In the case of teachers, too, the situation is no different. In Kurukshetra University, there are only 35 Dalits among 500 teachers; in Hisar Agricultural University, the number is only five in a total of 600 teachers, and in Guru Jambeshwar University it is only one in a total of 125 teachers. Maharshi Dayanand University has only 13 Dalit teachers.

Ironically, despite Dalits comprising 19.5 per cent of the population, their political empowerment is largely a myth even in seats reserved for them. Saalwan village has a woman sarpanch, but she remains "underground" most of the time. The legislator of Asandh, under which Saalwan falls, is also a woman, Raj Rani of the Congress. But there is very little she can do for Dalits of the place.

It is well known that in Haryana elected Dalit representatives are not allowed to function. And with khap panchayats tightening their stranglehold over communities, it has become increasingly difficult for elected panchayat representatives to function. The Dalit sarpanch of Pehrawar village in Rohtak, the constituency of the Congress Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, has been missing for years; the tears of his family have long dried up. The issue continues to remain alive in the public consciousness only because the Left parties have not allowed it to slip into oblivion.

Neither the Congress nor the Indian National Lok Dal, the main Opposition party, seems interested in the condition of Dalits. In Saalwan itself, the district administration arrested five persons the day after the incidents; more than 30 men were reportedly involved. The affected families were also given compensation, but the common belief is that the truce is a temporary one.

One view is that unless the perpetrators of these incidents are made to compensate for the losses, Dalits will continue to be at the receiving end of caste attacks. They were, yet again, on March 18, at Pangala village in Asandh block of the district. The Rors, a powerful peasant community, destroyed the chaupal of Dalits there and beat up several young men over an incident of eve-teasing.

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