Print edition : November 27, 2015

Jitendar, whose children were burnt alive on October 20. He and his wife suffered burns while trying to save the children. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

The room in which the children were burnt using petrol. Photo: MANOJ KUMAR

Outside the house of the Dalit family after the incident. Photo: MANOJ KUMAR

The events of October 20 at Sunped village in Faridabad district of Haryana where an infant of 10 months and her two-and-a-half-year-old sibling were charred to death as they slept point to the unequal, barbaric and complex nature of social relations in parts of rural India. Their mother was admitted in hospital with serious burns, while their father, Jitender, sustained burns on his hand.

They were Dalits and their extended family was involved in a running feud with a Rajput family in the village. Sunped hardly has any mud or non-cemented dwellings. Like many villages in Haryana, there is no clear demarcation of Dalit homes and upper-caste dwellings, the only distinguishing feature being the larger size of Rajput dwellings.

According to Jitender, who worked as a medical practitioner at nearby Ballabhgarh town, 11 Rajput men, led by the head of the family, poured petrol through the window of the room where the children were sleeping and set them afire.

His wife, Rekha, who was sleeping close to the children, also suffered burns, and he sustained injuries on his hand when he attempted to save them. Local media reports speculated, on the basis of the forensic team’s reported observations, that the fire most likely started from inside, that it was a suicide attempt or murder.

On October 29, the Central Bureau of Investigation, on the basis of the first information report (FIR) of the State police, registered a case of murder against 11 persons. The case drew national attention and condemnation and found resonance in the campaign in Bihar as Union Minister V.K. Singh’s objectionable references to the incident drew sharp reactions from the Dalit allies of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) such as Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan and former Bihar Chief Minister Jiten Ram Manjhi.

With the growing clamour in the country against violence and intolerance, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh termed the incident highly unfortunate, perhaps the only statement from the party and the government that showed some degree of empathy.

The feud between Jitender’s family and the Rajput family was nearly three decades old but had got worse when members from the Dalit family contested panchayat elections and twice got elected as sarpanchs too. After talking to people from both communities, it appeared that sexual exploitation of women and harassment of Dalit girls was the reason for the feud.

Last October, three members of the Rajput family were murdered following an altercation over a mobile phone. Eleven members of the Dalit family, including two women, were arrested. The women were released on bail later. Among the arrested were also two minor brothers of Jitender and the former sarpanch of the village.

“There was hardly anyone staying in the village. With most of the male members in jail, several of us moved to either the city or to Delhi. Only Jitender’s family stayed back,” said Vijay, a young man from Jitender’s family who is pursuing his PhD at the University of Delhi. “We have no land, but many in our family are educated now. That is what these Rajputs can’t stand. Several of us moved out of the village because of the situation,” he said.

Jitender said that his wife had been threatened by some members of the Rajput family and that they had complained to the police. “The Commissioner told me, ‘No one has died in your family yet. You can complain when that happens’,” he said. On October 6, he said the women of the Rajput family threatened his wife. It was one year since the three Rajput men had been knifed to death. “We don’t know how they died, but they blamed us,” he said.

Narrating the events of that night, he said he had taken his wife and daughter with him to the Kalkaji temple. “We returned home tired and had milk. My wife was too tired to cook, so we slept early. My mother took my son to the village jaagran (a quasi religious community event that goes on all night). So the gate and the door were not locked, and my mother dropped him home sometime in the night. It must have been around 2 a.m. when they poured petrol from under the door and the window. I saw 10 to 12 people inside,” he said and added that the police protection given to the family after last year’s incident was totally ineffective.

Whatever be the background and the truth of the matter that led to the deaths of two small children, the harassment of Dalits in the State is a reality that cannot be wished away. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) figures for the State over the last 15 years show a steady escalation in violence against Dalits, with some minor variations. In 2014 alone, according to a reply in Parliament, there were 444 cases registered under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act; in 2013, it was higher, at 493. The rate of conviction has hovered around 12 per cent only.

At Sunped, residents take pride in the fact that there is no discrimination against Dalits. “It was because of Jagmal, Jitender’s cousin, that the village got an award from the State government for cleanliness. When he was sarpanch, he did a lot for the village. But he is in jail now,” said Dinesh Singh, a Rajput. He said that in his “father’s time” the police would never dare enter the village as all disputes would be resolved “amicably”.

Being numerically smaller, the Dalits of Sunped do not have political patronage. Tek Chand Sharma, the legislator from Prithla Assembly constituency in which Sunped lies, got elected on the Bahujan Samaj Party ticket, but he later joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The Rajputs, on the other hand, wield considerable clout, politically and economically. They are also considered a traditional vote bank of the BJP. Questions like why did the political class not land in Sunped when three Rajputs were murdered are being posed often, but those who pose them fail to see the distinction between the deaths of two infants and adults.