Most horror stories are set against a dark, stormy night. The story was no different for four Dalit girls, three of them minors, from Bhagana village of Hisar district in Haryana — survivors of sexual assault, including “gangrape”, by several upper-caste men. It is also the culmination of a tragic tale of around 300 Dalit families of that village, oppressed by khap panchayats and discriminated against by the state.
As per their statements to the police and family members, what allegedly happened is as follows: On the night of 23 March, the girls aged 13, 15, 17 and 18 went to a wasteland across the road from their houses to urinate. This is the road that connects the villages of Bhagana and neighbouring Ladwa, and then onwards to Hisar, the district headquarters.
A car stopped and one of the five men inside the vehicle beckoned to the eldest girl to come forth. When she refused, the men dragged her to the car and used a rag dipped in chemical (possibly chloroform) to render her unconscious. The other three girls rushed to her aid but the men overpowered and took them away.
A Dalit later told TEHELKA that it was probably a combination of fear and the stormy night that prevented the four girls from screaming for help.
When the girls failed to return, their fathers went out looking for them. When they failed in their search, they approached the sarpanch, Rakesh Panghal, for help. And that is when the penny dropped. The sarpanch told the distressed parents that “the girls had gone somewhere; he knew where; and they would be back the next morning”.
The parents reportedly returned home and came back the next morning and again asked for the sarpanch’s help.
“Panghal said he knew exactly where the girls were — somewhere near Bathinda in Punjab — and they would be back the next evening (25 March),” recalls Jagdish Kajla, a Dalit farmer.
Kajla’s family is among those who left their homes in Bhagana two years ago due to the alleged exploitation and oppression of Dalits by the upper-caste Jats.
The parents wanted to seek police help, which propelled Panghal into action. Along with two other relatives, he accompanied the four fathers to Bhatinda, located 170 km away in neighbouring Punjab. A kilometre or so before Bathinda, he asked the others to wait, suspecting “danger”, and after some time returned with the girls.
According to their fathers, the four girls appeared groggy and could not say anything about what had happened. But the eldest of them revealed that they had been raped by as many as 10-12 men several times during captivity.
“While on their way back to the village, Panghal stopped at a dhaba on the pretext of having tea and beat the four men and threatened to wipe out their families if they dared to file any police complaint,” reveals Kajla.
Panghal allegedly wanted to keep the girls at his house that night, saying that it was past 10 pm and it would be a matter of shame if the four girls were seen entering the village that late. However, the girls’ relatives intervened and managed to extricate them from the sarpanch. The girls managed to recount their ordeal and, early next morning, their families took them to the police station.
According to Kajla, Special Superintendent of Police Sibas Kabirat accepted their complaint at the Hisar (Sadar) Police Station, but rebuked them for filing false complaints. Additional Superintendent of Police Manisha Chaudhary was also present and was supposedly assigned to the case. Without being accompanied by the police, the families of the girls took them to the local government hospital for medical examinations. After waiting several hours past midnight, the medical examinations were completed but no reports (medico-legal certificates) were provided to the families.
After this traumatic ordeal, the families did not go back to their village. Instead, they and 90 other Dalit families joined the 137 Dalit families from Bhagana, who have been sitting on a protest outside the mini secretariat of the Haryana government in Hisar since 21 May 2012. TEHELKA had reported the earlier exodus (A wall adds to Haryana’s caste divide, by Prakhar Jain, 16 June 2012).
This brings back memories of the infamous 2010 Mirchpur case in which the murder of two Dalits led to caste violence and rendered many Dalits homeless.
The story in Bhagana began 25 years ago when a playground in the common gram sabha land was created where children of all communities could participate in sports. For the Haryanvi, participation in sports is as important as sending one child to serve the defence services. Every Haryanvi family has a wrestler, weight-lifter or athlete of some sort. It also means jobs, but the pride of sporting excellence brings a different mantle to the family.
Bhagana village has three private and two government schools where children of all castes study together. The playground and the schools served as a social equaliser of sorts because the common ground helped prove that caste could not determine athletic prowess.
“In the local football team, nine players of the starting line-up are children from Dalit families,” says Kajla.
This evidently did not go down well with the Jat community, which, though hankering for reservation in education and government jobs, is considered a forward caste. The Dalits are positioned lower in the social hierarchy, originally covering professions that were the lowest in the food chain in post-Vedic India.
The Jats control the social order using khap panchayats. According to the Panchayati Raj system, every village has an elected body called a panchayat. However, the khaps run their parallel panchayat, which passes diktats that even the lower castes are supposed to obey or else suffer the consequences.
“At a khap meeting in Bhagana, the Jats decided to distribute the gram sabha land among themselves,” says Kajla. “When it came to the playground, we objected because it was a source of empowerment for Dalits. Some Dalit children also found employment under sports quotas thanks to their athletic prowess developed here.”
This made it an all-out feud between the Jats, who had already started measuring parcels of gram sabha land meant for common community use and development, though they own most of the arable land in the village. In contrast, the Dalits are landless peasants. The schools are another source of empowerment — several Dalits, like Kajla, have completed their graduation and have migrated to urban centres in search of employment.
The landless Dalit peasants are paid Rs 50,000 per year for their agricultural labour. This covers labour by the entire family, including children, whether it is a family of five or less. After harvest, they are also given one sack of grain per acre. Some labourers, who are more belligerent than the others, get two sacks per acre harvested. The landlords provide advances against the wages for 2-5 percent interest per month and control the finances.
On 2 June 2011, the Dalits complained to the Hisar deputy commissioner about the illegal distribution of the common gram sabha land, and asked for his intervention. According to the Dalits, some of whom are now camping in New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar area, the deputy commissioner replied that there are no khap panchayats. Nevertheless, district administration officials raided the village with a police team. The Jats fled, leaving behind measuring tapes and other tools that they were using to demarcate and encroach upon the common gram sabha land.
The move resulted in a complete social boycott of the Dalits in the village. On the khap’s diktat, grocery stores were ordered not to sell their goods to the Dalit families. The Dalit children were no longer welcome on the playground or at the school. Worst of all, their livelihood was snatched away as the khap said the Dalits were no longer allowed to get any agricultural or labour contracts.
For a year, the Dalits managed to sustain themselves on their own. There was constant tension in the village as Jat boys allegedly harassed Dalit girls. There were murmurs of sexual assault, but it was suppressed. On 21 May 2012, 137 Dalit families packed their belongings and camped outside the mini secretariat in Hisar.
Despite the two-year-long protest, the Dalits allege that the public representatives and civil servants did nothing to assuage their concerns. In fact, local Congress MLA Ram Niwas Ghodala, a Dalit himself, reportedly told the hapless Dalits that he was scared to enter the Jat stronghold and challenge the khap diktat.
On 17 January, a Jat landlord allegedly assaulted his Dalit labourer — the father of the 17-year-old girl who was among those sexually assaulted — for sleeping on the job. The peasant had been busy irrigating the field all night. The next day, he took a nap after lunch and was beaten up as a result. The man complained to the police, a medical examination confirmed the battery, and a case was registered. The landlord reportedly warned that he would pay a dear price for complaining to the police. The price extracted is that of the sexual assault of four girls and the exodus of 90-odd Dalit families.
There is information that 70 other villages in the area have similar complaints of encroachment of community land and caste-based harassment. The media covers the impact of the repressive khap diktats, which are sometimes brutal and fatal. But, it has only pushed them to operate in stealth, while politicians use them as vote banks and refuse to entertain this as an election issue.