when I woke up on the morning of 24 May, I saw missed calls from Lambodar Takri. I called him back but could not get through. Lambodar was one of those who played a key role in the research for my 2014 film Mlechha Sanhaara: India’s Kalki Project, which mapped the organised violence against Dalits, especially in Khaprakhol block of western Odisha’s Balangir district, on the foothills of the majestic Gandhamardan range — and so I was keen to know why he had called.
Unable to speak with him, I called Mukesh Suna, another local Dalit activist who had helped in the research. He seemed to be in a hurry and this is what he said before disconnecting: “Lambodar has mailed you a few photographs and some documents. Please check. I am on my bike, heading to Sargipali village. A Dalit girl has been raped and murdered. I will call you later.”
I reached out to my laptop and opened the email from Lambodar. What I saw sent a shiver down my spine. We had seen scores of atrocities on Dalits in Khaprakhol and thought we were immune to further shock. But the sheer brutality of this singular act of extreme hatred surpassed all the horrors that had preceded it.
Snehalata, a 15-year-old schoolgoing child, had fallen victim to entrenched caste hatred, which, instead of withering away in the wake of globalisation as the champions of the neoliberal economic fix to India’s economic woes keep promisThe uprising Dalits find an outlet for their rage against a biased administration ing, is finding new and more terrifyingly violent expression across the country.
missing What the rape and murder put an end to was a story of hope. Snehalata had just passed her Class 10 exams and convinced her wage-labourer parents to let her continue her studies. The hurdle in her way to getting an education came not from her parents — the issue that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign claims to address — but by the defining role that caste continues to play in deciding the destiny of youngsters among India’s most oppressed.
Like she did every day, at 7 am on 22 May Snehalata picked up a steel bucket, kept in it the laundry, her toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste, a soap and a pouch of detergent and headed for the nearby jor (rivulet). She would normally return home in 40-45 minutes. When she didn’t come back by 8.15 am, her mother, Dalimba, 36, began to worry.
For Dalimba, it touched a raw nerve and triggered age-old fears. And why not? It was not ancient history, after all. Over the past three years, some of the locally dominant upper-caste men had been openly threatening that they would kill at least four Dalit women. “Had they chosen to target me, I would have fought them tooth and nail,” she says. “But my daughter was just a child. She was yet to see the horrors of the world. I couldn’t stop worrrying about what would happen if the demons attacked her.” Tears fill her eyes as she recalls how her fears came true.
Snehalata did not return and her mother walked towards the river in search of her. She did not find her daughter on the riverbank, not even her belongings. Upstream there are two more ghats (bathing points) — one for caste-Hindu men and another for caste-Hindu women. In almost each village in Balangir district, there are segregated bathing places for Dalits, whether it is a river, pond or canal.
Dalimba took another Dalit girl along and went to the nearby Tambi Padar village, hoping that her daughter might have gone there to visit some relatives. She also sent a message to her husband, Arta Chhatria, 40, who was 12 km away in another village where he works as a construction labourer.
In the afternoon, all the Dalits in the neighbourhood joined the search for Snehalata. They formed teams and spread out in all directions, looking for the missing girl in every village she could have gone.
At sunset, the teams returned one after another, defeated and drained. As they gathered in the open, darkness shrouded the neighbourhood while the pealing of bells at a Hindu temple in a nearby village mocked the silence, fear and pain forced upon the Dalits. “Not one soul in the Dalit neighbourhood could sleep that night,” says Gajamani Bag, a leading local Dalit activist.
The search was resumed the next morning in the gruelling heat even as Arta went to the Khaprakhol Police Station and lodged a missing person report.
Then, around 4 pm, a group of young Dalits stumbled upon a ruthlessly ravaged naked female body. Snehalata was dead. The spot had been checked a couple of hours earlier but at that time it was not there. All the Dalits in the neighbourhood gathered around the mutilated body that spoke of the unimaginable torture Snehalata must have gone through for more than a day at the hands of the perpetrators. Her eyes were gouged out, her throat had a deep cut, her tongue pulled out, her breasts chopped off, her upper belly and back stabbed several times and her vagina mutilated with sharp objects. They had also poured acid on her face.