On 23 March 2014, four Dalit girls from Bhagana village, in the Hisar district of Haryana, were allegedly gangraped by upper caste men from the same village. It has been one-and-a-half years since, but the alleged perpetrators are yet to be brought to justice. The local court in Hisar has acquitted all the accused in the case. The Dalits of the village have been protesting but the government appears to be deaf to their voices and the legal system has abandoned their cause.
Located just 10 km away from Hisar town, Bhagana is a typical Haryanvi village inhabited mostly by upper caste Jats who live in the centre and a small number of Dalits who live on the periphery. The various agendas of the present and past governments have given this rural prototype of caste relations a miss. Now, Bhagana has become one more epicentre of caste violence that is erupting across villages in Haryana and other parts of north India.
The victims of the Bhagana gangrape and their families now live amidst fear as the alleged rapists roam around freely. By denying justice to the victims, the system has itself made caste hierarchies concrete in the village. According to the Dalits of the village, the upper caste men continue to evetease girls, which is why Dalit women prefer not to venture in the village after sunset.
Shanti (name changed), 14, one of the victims, waited for a long time to see the alleged perpetrators get punished but now she has little hope for justice. “Initially I was determined to fight, I believed that I would be able to send these people behind bars. But I am broken now and I have lost hope. The rapists roam freely while I have to bear the brunt. For what? For being raped!” she says before breaking down. Her mother narrates how they struggled to get justice, “We did everything we could; we contacted the National Commission for Women (NCW) and even Sonia Gandhi, but nothing changed. The NCW refused to even take up our case.”
Shanti’s family had lost hope. However, some of the other Dalits of the village chose to come together and struggle against a callous and unfeeling system. In the Dalit quarters of the village, the walls are decked with portraits of BR Ambedkar. The children greet one another with a Jai Bhim rather than a Namaste. Dalit activists from the village have been holding protests and demonstrations ever since the gangrapes took place. When the judiciary gave them no respite, they set up several fronts against the government and its machinery. Presently, they have one front in Delhi and one in Hisar.
The consequence of protesting against violence committed by the upper castes against them has been grave: many were locked up behind bars, others were framed in cases which range from ‘stealing wood’ to sedition and a large number of protesting families were even evicted from the village. According to these activists, the state government and the dominant castes want to break their struggle so that they can be made to submit to daily forms of caste oppression. The activists voiced their grievances to many ministers and state officials, but empty promises were all they received.
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When innumerable appeals and protests failed, the activists did something that would expose the inherent hypocrisy of the entire system surrounding the caste issue. As a final mark of protest, the Dalit families from Bhagana, many of whom were sitting on a dharna in Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, announced that they would be converting to Islam. Suddenly, an issue that had been sidelined for almost two years became the centre of attraction for political organisations and media houses alike. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) rushed to the spot to forcefully stop the conversion and the Delhi Police, in order to wash their hands off the issue, assaulted the protestors and asked them to abandon their protest.
The conversion episode only reflects the cold and bare realities of the system. The police, hand-in-glove with the self-appointed guardians of ‘Hinduism’, cracked down upon a people who wanted to escape the confines of an oppressive social order by choosing another religion. However, the same forces were least concerned about the inhuman atrocities that were repeatedly being inflicted on the Dalits of Bhagana. All this happened in Delhi, the seat of democracy. This begs the question: is the state a mere mute spectator or has it become an accomplice of casteism?
Satish, now Abdul Kalam, has been at the forefront of this struggle for justice. “I have left everything for the upliftment of my community. I have decided to follow the path of our great leader Babasaheb Ambedkar,” says Satish. His eyes look deeply determined. “I am hopeful that one day we will be able to get justice from this system if we continue to struggle.”
Satish believes that because of their consistent and sustained struggle, certain things are changing. “I am optimistic that if we don’t break down, we will win eventually and get the perpetrators punished,” he says. The struggle of the Dalits of Bhagana is not confined to getting the rapists punished. There are bigger issues, like the commons of the village being occupied by the Jats of the village; despite complaints, the police have done nothing about it. The struggle is also against the social boycotts that the Dalits have to face on the orders of Khap Panchayats. Their struggle is to let their cattle drink water at the same pond from which cattle belonging to upper castes drink water. Their struggle is, in short, for a dignified and equal life.
Delhi, our bastion of progress, development and modernity, is a mere three-hour drive from Bhagana. Though the incidents of caste violence from rural Haryana may come across as primitive tales of a barbaric past to the average Delhi citizen, the fact is that it is not the only news from the neighbourhood. There is such news in abundance: last month two Dalit children were burnt alive by caste Hindus in Sunpedh village in Faridabad, merely two hours from Delhi; again last month, in Bathla near Hisar, three hours away from Delhi, a Dalit man was hanged to death from a tree by upper caste Hindus; three weeks ago, in Sonepat, only two hours away from Delhi, a Dalit boy of 14 was found dead after the police caught him for petty theft. The list goes on.
A look at the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) figures reveals that caste atrocities across Haryana have risen sharply in the last one year. It is not just mere coincidence that caste crimes have increased ever since the BJP came into power in the state in 2014.