|Dalit resentment becomes widespread in Haryana following the murder of a Valmiki youth.|
Police personnel trying to control protesters at Gohana.
ON the night of August 27, Rakesh Lara, a popular local leader of Valmikis, the community considered to be the lowest in the Dalit hierarchy, was shot dead by three motorcycle-borne assailants in Gohana town of Sonepat district in Haryana. The date was perhaps a coincidence: on August 27, 2005, Baljeet Siwach, a Jat youth, was murdered by some Valmiki youth following a petty quarrel. In the reprisal that followed, 50 Dalit homes were singled out for arson and looting.
As soon as news of Lara's death spread, a police assistance booth was set on fire in Sonepat, window panes of vehicles were broken and two oil tankers were almost set afire on National Highway 71. For the next two days, Dalit resentment became widespread in Haryana and neighbouring Punjab. Angry Valmikis, in response to a call given by the All India Valmiki Mahasabha, poured out on the streets in an unprecedented manner in Hisar, Sirsa, Sonepat, Rohtak, Hansi, Gurgaon, Bhiwani, Jhajjar, Panipat, Karnal, Yamunanagar, Fatehabad, Ambala and Panchkula districts and in Chandigarh and set public property on fire. In Punjab, members of the Balmiki Samaj in Sangrur, Jalandhar, Amritsar, Phagwara, Nawanshahar and Patiala districts staged protests. Normalcy returned on August 30 after some arrests were made. Even the lynching of five Dalits on October 15, 2002, in the presence of the police and civil administration officials at Duleena in Jhajjar district, did not draw the kind of reaction that Lara's death provoked.
The Gohana administration had not anticipated protests on this scale. The message that seemed to go out to the Valmikis was that Lara's murder was a revenge killing carried out at the behest of the upper castes, apparently with support from government officials.
It was widely believed that the 2005 incident would not have happened without the backing of Lara. There was little doubt then that the administration had acted in a partisan manner by allowing an upper-caste mob to loot and burn Valmiki homes. Lara went underground and the Valmiki families fled, fearing reprisal. The Dalit youth was, however, discharged in the Siwach murder case.
Bhupinder Singh Hooda. His government is facing Dalit ire.
By and large, the protests that followed Lara's killing were led by a motley group of organisations representing "backward and Dalit" interests. In some districts, the protests were spearheaded by caste organisations affiliated to the main Opposition party, the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), and in some others by the rival factions within the Congress. In Gohana, Congress legislator Dharampal Malik was not allowed to participate in the condolence meeting called by the Valmiki community. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) jumped into the fray, demanding the arrest of the killers, and served an ultimatum on the Bhupinder Singh Hooda-led Congress government to deliver results by the month end. BSP State president Prakash Bharti told mediapersons that he had been deputed by BSP supremo and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati to assess the situation.CHAMPION OF THE DOWNTRODDEN
As a community that has been struggling for social acceptability, Valmikis saw Lara as the champion of the downtrodden. In 2001, this local hero grabbed the collar of a Deputy Superintendent of Police whom he accused of helping members of the dominant caste in a land grab case. "How could he [Lara] do that? It was as good as challenging the system," Arun Nehra, DSP, Gohana, told Frontline. Nehra himself has come under a lot of pressure since Lara's murder. There are demands from caste organisations for his removal. "For two years, I kept the peace in Gohana. No one can accuse me of taking sides," the police officer, known for his uprightness, said. The investigation into Lara's murder has been taken from his jurisdiction and handed over to the Superintendent of Police, Sonepat. The Haryana Police are now relieved that the government has ordered an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI).
The police maintain that Lara was a small-time thug and extortionist. His iconic status was unjustified, especially as he had eight cases pending against him for robbery, assault and other crimes, they say. Valmikis refute this. "If he was a criminal, would hundreds of people turn up at his cremation?" asked Rampal Singh Pradhan, representing the Valmiki Mahasabha. "In fact, he used to protest against extortion. Where are the industries in Gohana for him to extort money from? There are only two bazaars here." Lara's mother, Shakuntala, is certain that her son was not an extortionist. "Yes, he used to help adjudicate disputes," she said, but insisted that he intervened mostly on behalf of the poor.
Mother, wife and sisters of Rakesh Lara at a public mourning for the murdered Dalit youth, in Gohana.
Pran Ratnakar of the Dalit Nyaya Andolan, an organisation fighting for the rights of Dalits all over India, told Frontline that Valmikis had no intention of making the issue into a Jat-versus-Valmiki one. "We have lost faith i n the administration and the police here. Even if the CBI inquiry does not come out with anything concrete, we'll believe it," he said. Valmikis feel that there is an attempt to target Valmiki youth as the community has attained some economic success in the past few years. "They [Jats] do not like the status we've acquired for ourselves. They probably want to see us only as safai karamcharis," said Ratnakar, who is a small-time property dealer in Panipat.
Clearly, the social resentments run deep. Lara was seen primarily as a Dalit, and that is the identity that assumes importance with his fellow Valmikis after his murder. Whether or not he was an extortionist becomes immaterial from this perspective. No wonder, then, that the protests have taken on a caste dimension.
The Sonepat S.P., Navdeep Singh Virk, told Frontline that the flare-up could have been far worse as it was known that members of the dominant community were involved in the murder. Virk said the police had little reason to believe t hat there was a caste or revenge angle to the murder. None of the five accused was related to Baljeet Siwach, Virk said, adding that they were all history-sheeters. "The person who fired the shot was a lifer who had jumped parole," Nehra informed the S.P. Police theories seem to suggest two reasons for the murder. One theory is that it was the outcome of a turf war; the other is that Lara got killed because he extorted protection money from shopkeepers, including those from his own community. Plans to murder him were hatched both "inside" and "outside" jail, police sources say.DALIT ASSERTION
There is no doubt that Dalits and backward castes are an exploited lot in the State. However, the overall social situation has changed drastically since the Duleena incident of 2002. The Dalits now assert themselves and articulate their anger at all available fora. The situation in cities and towns is no longer one of dependence. In a factory or an industry, a Dalit is less likely to be discriminated against. In towns, Dalit women work in upper-caste homes. They even cook food for their employers.
On the other hand, the caste politics practised by prominent political parties has affected Valmikis too. Lara, it is learnt, not only was a protector of his community but worked for certain political parties (he was known to be an INLD worker). But after the 2005 arson in Gohana, he "changed", as did many other Valmiki youth. Caste consciousness became stronger among the youth, and the political parties only helped entrench the feeling.
Family members of the rape victim at Ahulana village in Sonepat district. The potter family is facing a social boycott.
Ironically, on August 26, Chief Minister Hooda announced major relief measures in the form of enhanced minimum wages and special relief for farmers. "The problem is that even if Hooda adopts such measures, he is only seen as patronising members of his own community," Inderjit Singh, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said. His party colleague S.N. Solanki, who is a lawyer in Sonepat, said Lara's murder was not a caste killing but the result of the charged atmosphere in the State. It was interpreted as one because of the increasing number of reports on atrocities against Dalits and backward castes, he said.UP IN ARMS
Even as the Gohana administration grappled with the situation following Lara's murder, in nearby Ahulana village, members of the Vishwakarma community, a backward caste, were up in arms against the Sonepat administration for refusing to register a case of rape against two young men belonging to a dominant caste. The alleged incident, involving a Vishwakarma woman, took place on July 18.
This correspondent visited the village. The victim's family, potters by profession, claimed that the Station House Officer, Ishwar Rathi of the Barauda police station, refused to register a case on the basis of the victim's complaint. Her relations said the SHO had promised to arrange for a medical examination by a woman doctor, but it was not done. Finally, a case of molestation was registered against the two Jat youth.
To add insult to injury, on August 21, the Ahulana panchayat, allegedly with the connivance of the elected sarpanch, ordered a social boycott of the family and warned that anyone found violating the boycott would be fined Rs.1,100. The boycott was seen as a ploy to get the family to withdraw the police complaint.
"This means no one will let us enter their fields or sell us fodder, milk or any essential provisions. No one will talk to us; our children will suffer humiliation at school," said Sher Singh, the victim's uncle.
In Ahulana, there are around 40 homes of potters and 100-odd homes belonging to the upper castes. "Everyone is scared of annoying the powerful in the village," said Suresh, brother-in-law of the victim. The S.P. held that the family was not cooperating with the investigation and had refused to give the clothes the victim wore on the day of the rape for forensic examination, a charge denied by the victim's family.
The social boycott of the potter family has deprived their livestock of fodder.
On August 13, angry members of the Dalit and backward communities took to the streets demanding justice for the Ahulana victim and a Dalit woman in Joli village, again in Gohana subdivision, victim of an alleged rape attempt. The protesters condemned the formula of "compromise" (that is, withdraw the complaint and the social boycott will be lifted) used every time an atrocity is committed on Dalits and backward castes.
"Why can't the police lift the social boycott? Is it permissible under the law?" asked Mahender Singh Panchal, secretary of the Backward Classes and Dalit Welfare Committee, an organisation floated to protect the interests of these communities. The Gohana DSP said that the molestation case was in court and there was little that the accused could do in terms of manipulating the law. He, however, prevailed on the sarpanch to ensure that no "social" harassment of the victim's family took place.
The Hooda government may have little to do with the upsurge of revolt by the backward and Dalit communities. The problem is that successive administrations have ignored this simmering discontent, which, along with other socio-economic problems, including changes on the agrarian scene, is threatening to prove a major headache for the Hooda government.
The Duleena lynching took place during the INLD-Bharatiya Janata Party regime. The same parties are now portraying themselves as champions of Dalit rights. The accused in the Duleena case were let off on bail after an apology was extracted from them. Not a single government official was held accountable. Despite demands for a CBI inquiry, the Om Prakash Chautala government refused to recommend one. It was during INLD-BJP rule that an elected Dalit sarpanch of Pehrawar village in Rohtak district went missing. His body has never been found (Frontline, January 16, 2004).
Among the political parties, only the Left, notably the CPI(M), has consistently protested against these atrocities without any hidden "caste agenda". The Congress, which makes platitudinous noises at the Centre about the welfare of backward classes and Dalits, often takes a U-turn when it comes to the crunch in States where upper-caste constituencies matter, in an electoral sense.