Relatives and neighbours did not allow Dalimba to come near the body, fearing that the horrifying sight of her daughter’s corpse might be too much for her. Nevertheless, she fainted several times. Snehalata’s father, who had been looking for her in another village, arrived on the scene later amid heart-wrenching wailing and cursing, and collapsed the moment he saw the body.
CHRONICLE OF A MURDER FORETOLD
Sargipali had been simmering since 2012, when the Dalits of the village were slammed for allegedly not picking up their plates after a community feast to commemorate the end of the three-day Prahari or Naam Yagnya (non-stop chanting of god’s names along with Brahmanic fire rituals) organised by caste-Hindus. Arta says, “We didn’t leave behind a single plate but the villagers held a meeting and falsely accused us as a pretext to begin a cycle of harrassment. We were stunned and didn’t know what they had in mind.”
The growing atrocities on Dalits is the outcome of a sustained process of Hinduisation that takes various forms in these parts. Take, for instance, the Prahari Mandaps set up in the main square of most villages. A community centre of sorts, it is a site for religious programmes organised to induct Adivasis into the Hindu fold while the Dalits are kept out. The cost of building them are generally borne by the local mla or mp from their kitty meant for “local area development”, besides contibutions from traders and, in some cases, government officials.
“This means exploitation and oppression of the lower castes is finding legitimacy under State patronage,” says Abhiram Mallik, a Bhubaneswar-based Dalit activist. “This will intensify the organised victimisation of Dalits.”
The feast in Sargipali was followed by a social boycott of Dalits in the village by the caste-Hindus, mostly obcs (other backward castes). The Dalits were denied access to water sources, grocery shops and other basic services. Dalit students were made to sit separately in classrooms, served mid-day meals in a segregated corner and barred from accessing the borewell inside the school premises for drinking water.
The Dalits were outraged and they knocked on the doors of various government bodies to get some relief, but to no avail. It only got worse for the Dalits thereafter and they were forced to give written apologies for not having picked up their plates at the feast, something that they had not done.
The social boycott continued for a year until the police intervened and worked out a compromise. No one was booked even though such atrocities come under the purview of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
Even after the so-called compromise the social boycott did not stop. In 2013, the customary village committee was formed without any Dalits. The caste- Hindus refused to allow the Dalit wage labourers to work in the village. Labedi Bariha, a local Adivasi resident who went to the Dalit neighbourhood looking for labourers to hire, was later stabbed and severely injured by some drunken youth. This incident prompted a self-help group (shg) run by Dalit women in the village to launch a campaign to close a countryliquor vend run by caste-Hindus, leading to its eventual closure. The episode infuriated the caste-Hindus and they threateaned to kill four Dalit women who were at the forefront of the fight.
The greatest hatred was reserved for Dalimba, who heads the shg. The other three Dalit women facing the ire of caste- Hindu men were Bhanumati Chhatria, 45, Srimati Chhatria, 40, and Laxmi Chhatria, 32. All three were Snehalata’s kin. In fact, a couple of months earlier, Laxmi and Bhanumati had to run for their lives when they were stalked and abused by two caste-Hindu villagers on the riverside.
“When they could not get hold of any of the four women after months of waiting, the culprits perhaps found a soft target in Snehalata,” says local activist Gajamani Bag. “They kidnapped her and tortured her brutally for a day-and-a-half.”
The record of the State in dealing with anti-Dalit violence has been dismal and gives the impression that there is near total impunity for the perpetrators and abettors. For instance, in the case of the widely reported Lathor carnage that took place in the same district on 22 January 2012, when an upper-caste mob set on fire an entire Dalit neighbourhood in the village, the prime accused were not properly investigated by the police, despite being named in the testimonies of the survivors. Some of them got anticipatory bail even though the provision cannot be invoked in cases of caste atrocity.
The police, however, showed extreme alacrity when it came to arresting local youth for allegedly burning down a country-liquor distillery owned by an upper-caste trader, who is also active with a Hindutva outfit and believed to be the mastermind of the Lathor carnage. Local activists claim that all the youth picked up were Adivasis and Dalits, none of whom were responsible for the arson.
No wonder this obvious difference in the seriousness with which the police took up the burning down of a Dalit neighbourhood compared with the gutting of a liquor vend emboldened the upper castes in Khaprakhol block, who resorted to more attacks on the Dalits.
It was this sense of impunity that beefed up the extreme caste arrogance evident in the perpetrators returning to the spot where they had abducted Snehalata and placing her mutilated body barely a few metres from there in broad daylight. Just 10 km away is the Khaprakhol Police Station, which is almost a fortress with armed paramilitary personnel guarding it round the clock as it is a control room of sorts for anti-Maoist operations in the Gandhamardan region. “For whose security are the police deployed if they cannot protect us from the atrocities perpetrated by the upper castes?” asks Mukesh.
In this vicious environment, Snehalata’s parents have been going through hell. When Arta lodged the fir, the police nonchalantly asked him to keep looking for the girl on his own for one more day, and if he could not find her, they would then come to help him! The body was found around 4 pm but the police could reach the village only at 6.30 pm. Even the sight of the ravaged body did not shock the police into taking action. Instead, they demanded 3,000 from Arta to hire a vehicle for carrying the body to the police station. The distressed father had no option but to give in to the demand.
Next morning, the local government doctor and his assistant demanded 4,000 for conducting the post-mortem. They settled for nothing less than 2,500 and only then unwrapped the body. But they immediately wrapped it back again with another sheet of cloth, saying the girl had clearly been “raped and murdered” and so there was no need to use the scalpel. The upper-caste doctor and his assistant left soon after, leaving the body with the family members.
After being fleeced by the police and the doctor, the family had no money left to hire a vehicle for carrying Snehalata’s body back home for the funeral rituals. They had to put the body inside a jute sack and carry it on a moped — an old and rickety Luna — belonging to one of their relatives.
Local Dalit groups took out a rally in Khaprakhol town on 27 May asking the police to immediately arrest all the accused and reiterating their longstanding demand to get the area declared “atrocity-prone”.
Sensing an opportunity, politicians of all hues visited Sargipali village and made big promises. Officials of the district administration, including the district magistrate and members of the SC/ST welfare cell, went there to probe the crime. But, none of this translated into firm action against the accused.