Friday, May 7, 2010
The Lynch Mobs of Haryana
Suman’s charred, government-issue tricycle sits in rubble outside the broken walls of her home. “She had polio, so she could not run out,” says Rajinder, a young resident of this Dalit basti. He points to the sliding lock on the door as we walk into what remains of her house. “When her father went in to get her, they locked them both in with that latch. Then they dumped kerosene on the walls and roof and set the place on fire.”
Suman and her 70 year old father Tarachand were casualties of the caste violence that beset the village of Mirchpur, in the Hisar district of Haryana, from 19th to 21st April. The tricycle itself was a gift from a munificent government so she could go to school like the other children from this basti of Balmiki Dalits. When I meet her mother Kamala at a protest outside the office of the District Collector of Hisar, she says, “More than anything, Suman wanted to go to school. She used that tricycle to get around everywhere. We brought her up so well. Then they came and took everything away from us.”
That blackened shell of a tricycle is an indelible symbol now. It encapsulates the rhetoric of politicians and administrators who would have you believe that a gift of a hand-operated tricycle is sufficient to enable a polio-stricken Dalit girl to climb from the depths of poverty. And now, with the rubber from the tyres burnt like flesh against its spokes and rims, the tricycle stands as a symbol of the instant, devastating violence that some upper caste communities can still inflict upon the lowest rungs of the village when the mood is upon them.
And that is all it takes: a shift in mood. Usually it is some sort of perceived affront that is the motivation, an “insult” to a member of the upper caste community by the lowest of the low, by people who – if it were not for this whole democracy experiment – would not have had the courage to respond to any sort of provocation.
Those who say that caste is dead have not witnessed its unique power of mobilisation in India, how much more effective it is as a political tool than money, sex, even religion. An insult to caste pride will make brothers of strangers, comrades who will fight and burn and pillage until they have had their revenge. In Mirchpur, young Jat toughs were brought in from neighbouring villages to exact retribution. Even today, caste permeates through rural India, patterning every interaction. The gutted Balmiki basti of Mirchpur is smouldering testament to its power.
I am walking up the steps of Chander Singh’s house, where eleven children were trapped on the first floor by the fire until Hisar Police arrived and rescued them. Without rancour, only disappointment and curiosity, my guide Rajinder asks me: “Look at what they did to us. Why is the media not writing about what they were allowed to do? Why don’t the local journalists tell our story? Is it because of government pressure?”
I cannot bring myself to speak of the current fascination with Twitter and cricket. But I promise to relate to the best of my ability an accurate record of the events over the three days of violence. Below is what I have been able to glean from eyewitness accounts, conversations with policemen and villagers in neighbouring areas, students and social workers from Kurukshetra University and beyond who travelled to the site, and some government functionaries who were willing to speak.
On 19th April, two Jat men of around 23, Rajinder and Ajit, walked through the Dalit basti of the village, reportedly drunk. Some of those attacked say Ajit is a member of Haryana Police, though this could not be confirmed. A dog began barking at them as they walked through the road that bisects the neighbourhood. They began throwing stones at the dog, which the owner, Jai Prakash, objected to. A fight ensued between some young Dalit boys and the two Jats. The outnumbered Jats returned with only bruises and cuts to their own part of the village.
That evening, two elders from the Dalit community, Karuna and Virbhan, are summoned to the village panchayat to provide an explanation. The summons has come from Ajit (“his family is very powerful in the area”, says one young boy I meet in the village). But there is no meeting – the two elders are beaten up badly and sent back to their neighbourhood.
On 20th April, the chowkidar of the Balmiki neighbourhood, Gulab Singh, is picked up and thrashed with sticks and rods. He is hospitalised. The Dalit villagers go to the local police station, Narnaud, where the Station House Officer, Vinod Kajal, assures them nothing more will happen.
That evening a mob of around 50 Jats from the village come into the Dalit neighbourhood, ready to ruin: they destroy people’s property, break objects in the small shops that line the road, enter people’s homes and break down doors. A second appeal goes out to the police.
Later that night, a meeting of the influential members of the Jat community is held in the government school in the village. A plan of revenge is hatched. Through the night, a steady stream of Jat youngsters from the neighbouring villages begins to arrive. By dawn there are more than 300. They gather in one of the Jat houses and wait.
On the morning of the 21st, at around 8 AM, Narnaud S.H.O. Vinod Kajal visits the Dalit basti. He tells them this violence must be resolved and asks them to congregate in the village choupal. The Balmiki men gather in the choupal and begin their meeting with the SHO, the naib tehsildaar and other police functionaries. At the same time a mob of Jats – both local and those brought in from neighbouring villages – enter the Dalit basti armed with rods, kerosene and torches. They target the most affluent houses (more on this later), burning them as much as possible. Houses are torched with people inside them. Tarachand is locked inside his house with his 18 year old daughter before it is set on fire.
A little after 10 AM, Hisar Police arrives and begins to put out the fires and restore order. Amongst other things, they rescue 11 children who had been left to burn from the first floor of one of the houses.
Pradeep, Suman’s brother, says: “The SHO told the Jat boys that they have one hour to do their work. He took our men were away and this was the time they had before the Hisar Police could get here. He is the bhaanja of Tare, one of the important Jats in the village. We should have gone to the police in Hisar right away. Then my father would be alive.”
A Congress MLA from Haryana, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the Hooda administration recognised the culpability of the S.H.O. very quickly. “He was suspended almost immediately. The speed with which action was taken suggests he must have played a role.”
The information about who is responsible has reached the highest echelons of government. On 30th April, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi wrote a letter admonishing Chief Minister of Haryana Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who has been in power while a number of grievous caste-based clashes have taken place, most notably the 2005 mob attack on Balmikis in Gohana. Mrs Gandhi wrote to Hooda: “It is a matter of shame and horror that this brutal and deplorable incident occurred at all, and it is totally unacceptable that this occurred in the presence of Naib Tehsildar and S.H.O. of the police. This cannot be allowed to pass without firm and severe action against those responsible for the crime.”
Item: As Rajinder shows me the 18 or 20 houses that bore the brunt of the mob’s fury, he tells me the name and father’s name of the owner of every house. In each house, he insists I write both names down. He wants all the names to be published, kept on record so that the government can provide compensation to everyone affected.
Harkishan Kaakra, a student of Kurukshetra University who has come on a fact-finding mission, says that the lists being prepared by the government are not adequate. “A lot of these houses are multiple family domiciles. The government is trying to minimise the compensation they will have to pay. The lists only acknowledge one family per house. They are taking a lot fewer names than they should.”
Item: There is, irrefutably, an economic component to this outpouring of ethnic hatred. The mob chose to burn the most affluent of the Dalit houses. They went into the houses and stole little pieces of wedding jewellery. In one house, the owner takes me to the back to show me a destroyed black-and-white television set: “that was mine,” he says, almost proudly. A second hand motorbike has been torched beyond recognition. The roofs of houses have been brought down so that maximum destruction is inflicted. The tiny shops that sell sweets, beedis and knickknacks – symbols of Dalit commerce – are mostly destroyed.
The message that has been passed: how could you Dalits have the effrontery to live in brick houses, with refrigerators and wedding jewellery, own shops, ride on motorbikes?
There are very few Balmiki Dalits left in Mirchpur now. Teams of Hisar Police have been stationed there on double shift since April 21st, but most of the Balmikis have moved out. They are camped outside the District Collector’s Office in Hisar and refuse to move.
The strikers want two things: for the Balmikis of the village to be relocated to another part of Haryana, or perhaps even Rajasthan; and for the central government to remove Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who they have lost faith in. Suman’s mother, Kamala, a frail, old woman, has become the figurehead of this movement. Despite media inattention, the movement is gathering momentum amongst lower caste communities across the country.
Virender Rana, a young man from the village, says “We want the central government to give us justice. The most important thing is we don’t go back to the village. The Jats there have never let us live peacefully and they won’t in the future as well. Rahul Gandhi needs to come and see the plight of the Dalits in Haryana [this conversation was held the day before Rahul Gandhi’s surprise visit to Mirchpur]. We have nothing against the Congress, but this Government has to be changed. These guys, the opposition, all the big leaders in Haryana are from the same community [Jats]. They will never do anything against their own kind, there are too many votes involved.”
Gaurav Sarvate, another Balmik youth, says, “we want to take this movement across the country. There are people like us all over.” When we speak again on 1st May he says, “we have started the Mirchpur Agnikhand Andolan. On 4 May at 6 PM we will hold a candelight march in cities across India; in Hisar, other places in Haryana, Bombay, Delhi. We will march so people acknowledge the wrongs that have been perpetrated against us.”
Item: Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda visited Mirchpur almost immediately after the violence had ended. The MLA for Narnaud, Ms Saroj Mor, a member of O.P Chautala’s INLD, also visited the small village once things had settled down.
I ask Suraj Bhan, one of the Balmiki elders, about their visits. “We asked to be relocated, but Hooda-sahab told us they cannot move us out of here. He said that we must show our strength, that we must not be scared of such people. Keep courage, he said. I suppose he is right. If they are going to watch us burn, we might as well keep our courage.”