Print edition : May 30, 2014

At a meeting organised to protest against the gang rape and other atrocities committed against Dalits in Bhagana, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on April 27. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Dalits at Bhagana village in Hisar district. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Dalits of Bhagana village protesting in front of the Secretariat in Hisar. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

The alleged abduction and rape of four Dalit girls by caste Hindus escalates tensions in Haryana’s Hisar district, which is already polarised on caste lines.

IF there is any district in Haryana that is highly polarised along caste and religious community lines, it is Hisar. Political contests in the district, the epicentre of the Jat agitation for reservation, are also known for their Jat versus non-Jat character. Mirchpur, where 18 Dalit houses were torched and two Dalits burnt alive in April 2010, is also located in this district. It was here that a khap panchayat hogged the headlines for declaring its support for inter-caste marriages, but with the rider that village exogamy norms should be observed, that marriages within the same gotra should not be allowed, and so on. While some newspaper editorials lauded the so-called progressive step by the Satrol khap, others dismissed this as an exercise in image-building and also questioned the legitimacy of such declarations.

The most recent cause of tension in Hisar was the abduction and alleged rape of four girls of the Dhanak community (a Scheduled Caste), two of whom were minors. The incident occurred on March 23 in Bhagana village, where members of the Dalit community had in the past charged the Jats with usurping not only the common Shamlat land but also of vandalising their public space, popularly called the Chamar Chowk. The Dalits also accuse the Jats of imposing a social and economic boycott of them for the past year and a half in response to the Dalits approaching the district administration for a resolution of the issues they faced, including land-grab. The rape incident has now opened old wounds and deepened the distrust between the two communities. Five persons were arrested, four of them Jats, while the fifth belonged to a backward caste.

According to the first information report (FIR), the girls, aged between 15 and 18, alleged in their complaint that they were abducted at around 8 p.m. by five men when they were returning home after defecating in the fields. One of them was called aside and dragged into a car. As her friends attempted to rescue her, they were also pulled inside. They were later found abandoned in the Bhatinda railway station in Punjab. The medical reports confirmed sexual intercourse. The parents alleged that the Sarpanch of Bhagana village knew their whereabouts and that it was with his help that they were found. They have demanded that his complicity in the crime should also be investigated.

However, the administration and the police have not booked the Sarpanch. The Dalits, their supporters and groups representing them, including Ved Pal Tanwar, a former legislator and a caste Hindu who contested on the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) ticket in the Bhiwani-Mahendargarh constituency, have demanded action against the Sarpanch and one of his relatives. They have demanded that old grievances of the Dalits be addressed.

M.L. Kaushik, District Commissioner, said, “They want to be resettled elsewhere, outside Bhagana. I told them that no caste-based settlement was possible in this country. There will be people living wherever we relocate them. There is no provision under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act to relocate them. It is impractical too.” He said that compensation as well as other forms of financial aid had been provided not only to those affected in the Mirchpur tragedy but also to the victims of the rape in Bhagana. But the embers of Mirchpur have refused to die down, with relocation still being a major demand. And now Bhagana too has become a rallying point for Dalits in the State.

Refuge for Dalits

Ved Pal Tanwar is their local patron. A Rajput, he has a farmhouse in Hisar where Dalit families have camped since the Mirchpur incident happened. While some have returned to the village, several others have stayed on at his farmhouse, demanding that the administration relocate them. Tanwar has backed the Dalit families of both Mirchpur and Bhagana financially and politically. And Tanwar’s own personal politics does not seem to be consistent. It was learnt that he was trying for the Bharatiya Janata Party ticket but when it was declined, he opted to contest from a different seat even though he focussed all his energies on rallying the Dalits behind him in Hisar. “Bhiwani-Mahendargarh has a significant proportion of Rajputs. That is why he is contesting from there,” said Satish Kajala, a Bhagana resident and one of the main spokespersons of the Dalits who is camping in front of the Hisar Secretariat. “We are not dependent on Tanwar. We are fighting our own battle and Tanwar has been helpful to us,” said the soft-spoken Kajala, who was instrumental in preparing a football ground in the village for the Dalits. But it was vandalised by the Jats.

The District Collector of Hisar maintained that he had told the Dalits to go back to the village and that there was little reason to fear retaliation by the Jats. “I told them to remove the bricks from their public meeting place, but they are not willing to do so. I told them also that it was not possible for the administration to build a separate football ground for them. As far as the Shamlat land goes, it is status quo now. They are free to go back, but they are not willing to. I cannot go to Tanwar’s farmhouse. It is a private property,” he told Frontline.

Kajala rebutted the Collector’s claims, saying that things were far from normal in the village. But he accepted that the administration had taken efforts to restore normalcy though it was far from adequate. “We have a few demands. First, the Sarpanch, who is the kingpin of all that has happened, including the grab of the Shamlat land and the rape of the girls, should be arrested. We want action taken against those who boycotted us socially. Our playground has to be developed by the administration as there is no other place where our youth can play, and our public meeting place has to be restored to its original state. We want security and employment for all those who left the village, and, lastly, we should each be given hundred-yard plots as promised by the Central government. We are all landless here, dependent on them [Jats] for everything,” Kajala told Frontline. He also said that the BSP and a few other Dalit organisations were exerting pressure on them to withdraw the agitation.

The problem is that the administration does not want to seen as taking sides, given the deep caste polarisation in the State. The people of Bhagana told Frontline that the Jats picked fights with their youth on any pretext and refused to give them work. The idea of reclaiming the Chowk, too, they said, was out of the question. “When the administration doesn’t have the courage to remove the bricks put there by the Jats, do you think we can?” they asked.

Diplomatic position

The police took a diplomatic position over the rape incident, hinting that they could not divulge the truth. “Yes, we arrested three persons within 24 hours of the incident and the other two later. We recovered the vehicle in which the girls were abducted. We did not find anything that suggests that the Sarpanch had something to do with the incident. He was instrumental in getting the girls back,” said Senior Superintendent of Police Sibash Kabiraj.

Two persons were booked for rape and three charged with abducting the girls. While the FIR of one of the girls clearly states that she was raped, the other three girls do not remember what happened to them but say in their statements that the men forced themselves upon them. They claimed they were chloroformed in the car and subsequently do not recall anything until they found themselves at the Bhatinda police station where people were speaking in Punjabi.

According to one official who spoke to Frontline on the condition of anonymity, some people in the village and also in the administration say at least two of the girls knew some of the accused and that they were planning to get married in some court in Punjab. And, he said, when it was discovered that one of the girls was underage while another was a minor, they abandoned the marriage plan. “Can you publish the truth that the girls went willingly? No one wants to accept it. The Jats are happy that the boys have been punished for attempting such liaisons. The Dalits have got a chance to rally around this incident yet again after Mirchpur. The Assembly elections are to be held later this year,” he said. Frontline was told that the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission was satisfied with the investigation and the speedy arrests made in the case.

The fact remains, however, that the two of the four girls were minor; their families claim that all four were under 18, with the youngest being 13 years old, though the medical report indicated her age as 15. Frontline met the girls in Delhi, at a protest meeting organised at Jantar Mantar. None of the older girls have passed Class X. All dropouts, they said that they had been abducted. There was no question of them having gone willingly, their mothers said.

“Even if they went willingly, it is commonly known that Dalit women are exploited on a routine basis. We are demanding an impartial inquiry. They abandoned the girls. Clearly, the intentions were not above board. Upper-caste boys are willing to have relationships, but not long-term ones leading to marriage,” Shakuntala Jakhar, president of the State unit of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) told Frontline. In this case, she said that the accused were known to be of dubious character. Shakuntala Jakhar, who had taken up the case of the infamous gang rape of a Dalit student in Dabra village in Haryana in 2012, said that such instances were on the rise though it was unfortunate that some Dalit groups were using it to fulfil their political ambitions. Of the eight persons accused in the Dabra case, four were acquitted. “I have moved the High Court against the acquittal,” said Lal Bahadur, counsel for the Dabra victim.

In a deeply polarised society, heinous incidents like rape are likely to get a political colour in an electorally charged atmosphere. Unfortunately, in most cases, it is the women and the poor who are at the receiving end.