Castes and killings in Jehrana and Hasanpur
Two Dalit families of Uttar Pradesh pay the price in blood for defying their upper-caste neighbours, and the State government apparently ignores the incidents.
T.K. RAJALAKSHMI: in Jehrana and Hasanpur
THE spate of murderous attacks on Dalits in parts of western Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere in the State in the past six months shows that despite all the rhetoric on Dalit mobilisation, Dalits continue to be killed in the absence of organised political resistance. This was in evidence in Jehrana village of Aligarh district and Hasanpur village of Fatehpur district where almost entire families of Dalits were wiped out around mid-June, for having defied the Thakurs. The conflict stemmed from social inequality rather than any form of oppression. The dominant Thakur community decided to "teach the upstarts a lesson", with, if the allegations are true, the backing of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in the State. Even children as young as one year old were not spared.
What was even more shocking was that BJP leaders did not condemn the incidents. Chief Minister Rajnath Singh saw in the killings an Opposition plot to discredit his government. The BJP's silence had its reason. For, given its predominantly upper-caste base, any expression of sympathy to Dalits would only alienate that vote bank. If anything, there was tacit support for the Thakur community from the BJP. Mayawati, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader, fuelled further animosity among Thakurs and Dalits through inflammatory speeches both in Jehrana and Hasanpur. The effect of her visit to Jehrana was disastrous. In both Jehrana and Hasanpur it was not the economically depressed Dalit who was killed but the ones who had become independent not only politically but economically. The affected families had realised the value of education and taken advantage of the benefit of reservations in education and services.
The incidents indicated the absence of any organised resistance from Dalits. In contrast, the Thakurs enjoyed political patronage and also mobilised themselves in the aftermath of the killings. One such meeting of the Savarna (upper castes) was held at Ogipur in Aligarh district and was presided over jointly by Sugarcane Development Minister Dalveer Singh of the Uttar Pradesh Loktantrik Congress (UPLC, an ally of the BJP) and Sheela Gautam, BJP member of Parliament from Aligarh. Interestingly, Gautam visited Jehrana village only to attend the meeting.
Jehrana, some 50 km from Aligarh city, is a Thakur-dominated village. While there is a fairly large number of Jatav families, the Thakurs and other upper caste families outnumber them. The Jatavs of western U.P. are better off than Dalits in eastern U.P. The family of Shankar Singh, which was the target of Thakur ire, has a reasonable extent of land holdings and most of its male members are educated and even working in towns.
The conflict between the family of Shankar Singh Jatav and Gullu Chauhan started in March. Shanker Jatav's teenage son Mukesh was hit on his knee by Gullu, who was riding a cycle with a friend. Mukesh protested mildly about his injury at which Gullu allegedly showered blows and abuses on him. When Mukesh retaliated, some Thakurs gathered and threatened him. The Jatav boy escaped unhurt but wanted to lodge a complaint with the Chandausi police station. The Station House Officer (SHO), a Thakur, apparently dissuaded his family from doing so. He advised Shankar Singh to send Mukesh away from the village for a few months until the matter died down. In retrospect, it is felt that had the SHO taken some measure, the June 12 incident could have been averted.
On the night of June 12, some persons attacked Shankar Singh, Mukesh and his two cousins who were sleeping outside their house. The women and the younger children were inside. Mukesh escaped miraculously while Shankar Singh and one of the children, Sookhi, 10, were shot. Sookhi was alive when taken to hospital, but procedural delays cost the boy's life. Sookhi's brother Anil, 12, was shot in the leg. The killers then scaled the wall between the houses of Shankar Singh and Son Devi, his relative. When Son Devi woke up hearing the commotion, they gunned her down and then killed Sheela Devi, wife of Shankar Singh, even as she called out.
Again, when the injured were being taken in a bullock cart to the Chandausi primary health centre, the attackers opened fire and killed Dulaari Devi, sister-in-law of Shankar Singh, and injured her son Rai Singh. The Thakurs suggest that the killings were an outcome of a dispute between Shankar Singh and Chittar Singh, also a Jatav, but this makes little sense as Chittar Singh's wife Dulaari Devi was also killed and his family stands solidly with Mukesh and his three siblings, who have been orphaned.
The attack is said to be in reaction to jibes by members of another Chauhan family, a rival of Gullu Chauhan's, that Mukesh had actually hit back at Gullu in the March skirmish. A total of 18 persons were reportedly involved in the massacre, but the police have arrested only six persons.
The fear among the Jatavs was palpable. The fear increased when banners appeared inviting members of the upper-caste community from 84 villages in the district to attend a meeting on June 24. The Jatavs told Frontline that the meeting was meant to collect funds to fight the cases against the accused and that it was for the first time that such a meeting had been called, excluding members of other castes.
The family of Gullu Chauhan dismissed this theory and said that the name of Minister Dalveer Singh was being dragged into the controversy unnecessarily. Similarly, the Chauhans lauded the SHO. They asserted that Gullu had been framed by the Jatavs.
Funds were collected at the June 24 meeting at which Dalveer Singh announced that he would not allow the misuse of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. One speaker was reported to have stated unambiguously that Gullu Thakur had committed the crime under extreme provocation and that his innocence was proved by the crowd support for him. The Kshatriya Mahasabha, an organisation of upper-caste people that is active in Aligarh, participated in the meeting. Not only did the district administration permit the meeting but speakers were allowed to make all kinds of statements despite the atmosphere remaining vitiated.
The brutal killings in Hasanpur on June 17 were no less shocking. Three children and two women were killed in broad daylight, and none protested. In a village dominated by Thakur families stood a lone Jatav bastion, the Raidass family, headed by Kallu and Tejani. The family had grown in size, with the arrival of children and grandchildren. Although there were other Dalit families in the village, Kallu's family lived amid Thakur dwellings. Kallu owned a sizable area of land and members of his family had received education: one son was a science graduate, another was working in Punjab and a third was employed in Delhi. Tejani was no ordinary, oppressed Dalit woman. The families of Kallu and Shri Ram Bhadariya, who belonged to the upper caste, took water from a common hand pump. Kallu's family members were usually made to wait until the Thakurs filled their pots, and to suffer taunts and jibes thrown at them.
What started as a petty fight between Lalitha, the 10-year-old grandchild of Kallu, and the wife and daughter of Bhadariya assumed serious caste overtones. Tejani objected to the rebuke of Lalitha. Devideen, a cousin of Bhadariya, joined by his wife, allegedly beat the girl. Tejani filed a report under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, against four persons. This was in March. The Thakur family tried to get her to withdraw the case but Tejani demanded justice and wanted to know why she and her family were being abused all the time.
On June 17, as Tejani worked on her patch of land with Lalitha in tow, Devideen allegedly beat both of them with a stick until they dropped dead. Kallu and Babu, his son, who were watching, ran away fearing for their lives. Devideen, it was said, was accompanied by several others. Devideen proceeded to Kallu's dwelling where Babu's wife was bathing her child while her six-year-old daughter played nearby. All the three were clubbed to death. None in the village came to their rescue.
According to Narottam Singh of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the police arrested the main accused several days after the incident. Moreover, Devideen was produced before presspersons as a hero who had been provoked. The incident attracted immediate attention as mass murders of Dalits were unusual in the village. Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan visited Hasanpur and made preliminary inquiries, and Mayawati made rabble-rousing statements. Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh was dissuaded by the Thakur community from going to the village. Nevertheless he went and even tried to meet Chief Minister Rajnath Singh in Lucknow to discuss ways to help the Dalit family. But the Chief Minister did not oblige. State Law Minister Radhey Shyam Gupta, who represents Fatehpur constituency, has not visited the village. Representatives of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Congress(I) were sent to Hasanpur, but the BJP kept a deliberate distance, obviously for political reasons.
The BSP has a presence in these parts of U.P. In the previous elections, of the six Assembly segments in the district the party was elected in five, with the sixth going to Radhey Shyam Gupta. Later the BJP weaned away three members, with one of them joining the Lok Janshakti of Ram Vilas Paswan.
Fatehpur is a smouldering caste cauldron, although unaffected by the kind of communal tensions found elsewhere in the State. Narottam Singh told Frontline that there was no direct political patronage in evidence in the village but the indifference of the BJP indicated that it would do little to antagonise the Thakur community. He said that certain changes were taking place in the Dalit community, much to the discomfort of the upper castes. One factor was the political support Dalits extended to the BSP; another was education. Dalits, he added, now opted for "respectable" names. While 50-year-old Tejani would have been derogatorily referred to as Tejaniya, her grandchildren had names like Lalitha and Ashish.
Although Dalit votes went to the BSP, the party has been merely a party to vote for, and it has never been able to organise the community to resist the Thakurs unitedly. In Hasanpur, Babu told Frontline that his family would move out of the village. "How do you expect us to live here? In one stroke five members of my family have been killed."
The BSP leadership's interest in the massacres and Dalits themselves can only be called superficial as it has not taken a consistent stand in such matters. While the BSP targeted individual leaders like Dalveer Singh, it refrained from mounting a direct attack on the BJP government. Moreover, the BSP's intention of putting up candidates from the upper castes as well is indicative of the fact that despite all the rhetoric its politics is not one for change but for the status quo. On April 7, six members of the family of Naresh Majhi, a brick kiln worker, were burnt alive on the Hathras-Sikandrarau route. This area is also near Aligarh. Majhi, a bonded labourer from Bihar's Newada district, had been demanding wages from the brick kiln owner, Bhanu Lal Gupta. At around 4 a.m. that day, Majhi's hut was set on fire, killing his pregnant wife and five children. Majhi was sleeping outside the hut with his teenage sons.
After the carnage, the bodies were burnt again to remove all traces of the crime. The police implicated Majhi in the case. On the sustained intervention of the All-India Agricultural Workers Union and a lawyer, a first information report was registered. None of the accused was arrested. It is alleged that a BJP figure supported the perpetrators of the crime. Subsequently, labourers from Bihar were driven away. There was no protest from Mayawati in this instance. In fact no political party took any interest in the migrant labourer's family.
The Hathras incident would have been forgotten but for the interest taken by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Janwadi Lekhakh Sangh.
There have been other instances of atrocities too ever since Rajnath Singh assumed office. In Bara Banki district, upper-caste men poured acid in the eyes of four Dalits and blinded them. In Mirzapur district, 16 Dalits were gunned down by the police on the pretext that they were naxalites. Similar atrocities have been reported from Banda, Kanpur (Rural), Unnao, Etah districts and Robertsganj in Sonbhadra district. According to figures compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau for the National SC/ST Commission, Uttar Pradesh tops the list of atrocities against the S.Cs. A total of 6,122 offences were committed against Dalits in 1999, with 2,597 cases registered under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Until November 2000, 6,599 offences were reported and 2,683 cases were registered under the Act. In Bihar, the figure of offences committed, although high, never exceeded the 1,000-mark both during 1999 and 2000.
The objective behind all the murders is the same - to impress upon the Dalits that the status quo will prevail. The killings in Jehrana and Hasanpur were the fallout of tensions between an economically and politically empowered caste and a downtrodden community that has been trying to achieve self-respect.