Persecution of Dalits is on the rise in Bihar. Every such incident leads to a frenzy of arguments and counterarguments, which continues for a few days and then there is silence. On 25 September, more than 100 Mahadalits fled Pura village in Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi’s native district of Gaya as a result of threats from upper-caste goons. Five days earlier, Arjun Manjhi, a Mahadalit from the village, had been beaten to death after his younger brother refused to withdraw his nomination papers for elections to the local Primary Agricultural Cooperative Society. When the other members of the community spoke out against the murder, the goons allegedly threatened to massacre all of them. This is what led to the exodus.
The villagers expected the chief minister to visit Pura in the aftermath of the incident, but he chose to stay away. Though the local administration somehow managed to persuade the Mahadalits to return to their village, they continue to live in the shadow of fear. “Even today, the main accused, Guddu Sharma, often turns up at the village, but the police do not arrest him,” says Sunil, one of the Mahadalits who had fled Pura.
The Pura exodus was only the first of a number of recent cases of caste atrocities in Bihar. On 8 October, six Mahadalit women were gangraped in Kurmuri village of Bhojpur district. One of the main accused, Neelnidhi Singh, was allegedly a former member of the Ranvir Sena, an upper-caste militia said to be responsible for several massacres of Dalits. An FIR was filed 24 hours after the incident, but no action was taken on it — not even after Chief Minister Manjhi’s statement promising speedy action, a trial in a fast-track court and jobs for the victims. The victims are so scared that they are not willing to speak to the media.
While these incidents somehow managed to make it to the headlines, many others largely went unnoticed.
In Nawada district, a Dalit family had to face the ire of the upper castes because it dared to organise a music and dance programme as part of a wedding celebration. The upper castes took it as an insult and threatened the family, which was forced to leave the village and seek refuge in a school.
In yet another incident in Bihata, a town near Patna, upper-caste youth raped a Mahadalit college student.
Another barbaric incident was reported from Mohanpur village in Rohtas district. An upper-caste landlord burnt alive a 14-year-old Dalit boy, Sai Ram, after the boy’s goat wandered into his fields. The persecution did not end with the boy’s killing. After the murder was reported to the police, the upper castes began threatening the boy’s father, Jiut Ram. And Sai had to be buried by the roadside as the upper castes did not allow him to be cremated within the precincts of the village.
“I have no idea how far the murder case has progressed,” says Jiut Ram, weeping inconsolably. “I didn’t try to find out and no one bothered to inform me. I am more worried about what is in store for me. Sai was the only one who could have taken care of me; my other son is mentally challenged.”
Politicians made a beeline for Jiut Ram’s hut and made promises galore — free ration, employment and land. But all he has got so far is a cheque for Rs 28,000 as compensation for losing his son.
In the face of numerous such instances of atrocities on Dalits, the administration seems to be least bothered. Chief Minister Manjhi, himself a Mahadalit, has often been in the spotlight for making controversial statements such as “Only Dalits, Mahadalits and some most backward castes are natives, the rest are outsiders”, but he has done precious little to address the issue of the persecution of Dalits.
So, should the rise in anti-Dalit atrocities be seen as a backlash against Manjhi’s political ascent? Is it the result of growing anxiety and resentment among the upper castes? Why has there been a spike in such incidents after the JD(U) severed its ties with the BJP?
On 6 December, BR Ambedkar’s death anniversary was commemorated in a big way in Patna. The programme was organised by members of the ruling JD(U). Analysts say that it was a brazen display of tokenism to divert attention from the continuing persecution of Dalits in the state. It was here that Manjhi and Nitish Kumar made a public appearance together after a long time. While Nitish was being booed by some protesters, Manjhi kept smiling at them. The chief minister also announced a plethora of schemes for Mahadalits.
There have been many such events in the past three months, but violence against Dalits has only gone up. The real issues are lost in the din of a war of words between various political factions. And the debates fail to address the question of whether there is a link between the growing atrocities and the shift in the political equation at the top.