Guest Post by Tanvi Ahuja
The recent Dalit atrocity in Sunped, Ballabgarh is a stark reminder of how caste continues to shape our society and our very existence and dignity. Yes, it was an atrocity and any attempts to hide the same in the garb of personal dispute or family feud are not only misleading but a great disservice to the lived experiences of Dalits in this country.
Sunped is just another Jat- dominated village in the caste underbelly of the state of Haryana, famous for the Mirchpur atrocity that saw a 70- year old Dalit and his daughter burnt alive in 2010. Jitender’s is one of the approximately 80 Dalit families in Sunped, comprising the Chamaars and Balmikis. His immediate family and relatives are an educated lot; many of them employed in stable private sector jobs. The family also has a strong political lineage- Jitender’s grandfather and brother, Jagmal have held the office of Sarpanch in the last two decades, except in 2005-10 when the wife of the main accused Balwant became the Sarpanch on the reserved seat for women. It was Balwant however who called the shots throughout his wife’s term.
Last year, on October 5, 2014, an altercation happened between Balwant’s and Jitender’s families over a mobile phone. There are two theories to what started this altercation. Jitender’s relatives claim to have found pictures of women from their family, in compromising positions, on the mobile phone of Balwant’s relative. Balwant’s family claims in the FIR it filed with the police that their phone was found and intentionally thrown into a drain by Jitender’s relatives. The ensuing fight resulted in severe injuries on both sides and death of three Jat men from Balwant’ family.
It did not take the police a day to arrest 11 Dalits- all members of Jitender’s family- nine men and two women. Jagmal was indiscriminately named among the accused even when it is widely known that at the time of incident, he was at a political rally with an MLA. According to Hritesh, Jitender’s nephew, affidavits to this effect have been signed and submitted by other Sarpanches present at the rally but conveniently ignored. Balwant’s family began threatening Jitender’s relatives with dire consequences. The very next day, their houses were ransacked and vehicles set on fire. With no help forthcoming from the police, they were left with no choice but to flee. In January 2015, they were finally promised police protection and assured by the authorities that they could safely go back to Sunped.
The daily harassment, name calling, and threats however continued. As per a written complaint by Rekha, Jitender’s wife, dated October 6, 2015, she was threatened and verbally abused by Balwant’s relatives over October 4-5. When the matter reached Subhash Yadav, Commissioner of Police, he is alleged to have remarked, “Unke to teen mare hain. Jab tumhara koi mare, tab aana” (Three of their kin have died. When someone from your family is killed, then come and complain).
Well, little Divya and Vaibhav are now dead. Their charred bodies, displayed in full public view on Wednesday, first at their home and then on the Delhi- Agra highway, became the rallying point for Dalits to come out in large numbers and demand the arrests of Balwant and 14 of his relatives. The mass mobilization and protests forced M.L. Khattar’s government to take notice. Seven police persons have reportedly been suspended and the state government has ordered a CBI enquiry and formed a Special Investigation Team to investigate the incident. But why did it have to take the murder of two children to wake the administration from its reverie?
This incident can hardly be surmised as being the result of rivalry between two families as some reports have tried to do. This was not a tussle between two Jat families, but between a Jat and Dalit family. It is quite mind-boggling how the caste undercurrent is missed or rather, deliberately ignored even when it is staring one in the face. The economic and political standing of Jitender’s family in Sunped was nothing but an eyesore for the dominant castes and was accordingly perceived as a threat to ‘upper’-caste dominance. It is thus imperative that this incident be viewed in the larger context of the slow but steady social, economic, and political ascent of Dalits that faces a strong, often bloody resistance from dominant castes.
Dalit women are often at the centre of the caste politics that plays out in villages like Sunped. The notions of their sexual availability and commodification as well as their inherent unequal-ness owing to their caste serve as open invitation to degrade and humiliate them. As Lajjawati and Brijesh, relatives of Jitender testified- Balwant’s family did not miss a single chance in reminding them every single day that they were chamaars and hence, beneath them. From sexual innuendos to comments about their ‘clean’, ‘white’ clothes, they heard and bore it all.
Shyam Singh from the Balmiki community in Sunped, concurred that caste dynamics form the core of social relationships in Sunped. Seemingly innocuous remarks made by upper caste men when Shyam Singh forgets to greet them with a “Ram, Ram” or the fact that Dalits still cannot touch or drink water from an upper caste house, belie claims of a harmonious co-existence of Jats and Dalits. An illusion of peace is manufactured and sustained by upper-caste hegemony in collusion with the state machinery. The same police persons who were on protection duty for Jitender’s family would be seen socializing with Balwant’s kin over tea. And when Jitender’s relatives raised their voices to complain or assert their rights, the collusive forces clamped down to silence them.
This incident, like many others before and after it, is not about law and order or throwing stones at dogs, courtesy V.K. Singh. It is about caste privilege; about the dehumanization of the Dalit; and about the cold blooded murder of children who paid the price for our patriarchal, Brahminical society. Lest we forget, the caste monster is very much amidst us and here to stay.
Tanvi Ahuja is a graduate of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and a social activist in human rights and the law.