On one side of the village of Bhagana, near the area that houses some of the Dalit families, there is a small patch of land. Traditionally, this is where small, local gatherings would be held. Nearby residents would come to feed their cattle. Wedding tents would be set up here. Despite the fact that the Dalits rechristened it Ambedkar Chowk two years ago, among Bhagana’s dominant castes, it’s still known as “Chamar Chowk”.
This word that is both abuse as well as a caste category carries with itself centuries of toxic prejudice. It’s used casually and unapologetically in Bhagana, especially by the dominant Jat community, which is accusing Dalits of encroaching upon the land of the chowk. Meanwhile, the Dalits allege the Jats have been attacking them in different ways, ranging from frustrating to brutal.
Take Ambedkar Chowk as a starter. In 2012, the Jats of Bhagana claimed the area as its land and erected walls along the edges of the chowk, effectively blocking the entry to two Dalit houses.
The area called ‘Chamar Chowk’ has been a meeting point for Dalits in the village for decades. The remains of the wall erected around it can be seen in this picture.
Rakesh Panghal, a Jat who was elected sarpanch from 2010 to 2015, denied Dalits have any claim over the chowk. “Since this village was established, the chowk has belonged to one of the two main Jat families,” he said. “It had been cut out from our fields for future use. C*****s are the ones who were encroaching upon that chowk. As they started populating the village, they started making their houses around this area. We did not say anything earlier. But the land still belongs to the Jat community. That is why we built up those walls.”
Bhagana is a small village, roughly 250 kms west of Chandigarh. According to the 2011 census, the Jat community forms the majority of population. Approximately 30 per cent of its population is made up of scheduled castes (SC). This 30 per cent has for generations been divided between themselves. For example, the Dhanaks – lower in the social pyramid than the caste after whom the chowk was named – had maintained a distance from the other Dalit community. In 2011, when the other Dalits (those known as the C****r) protested against what they argued was unfair land distribution by the dominant Jats (see box), the Dhanak cautiously stayed out of the controversy. Some allege that Jats threatened them and this was why they showed no support to the Dalits protesting against unfair land redistribution.
It took one horrific incident of gangrape to bring all the Dalits of Bhagana together.
In March 2014, four Dhanak girls of Bhagana were gangraped. They had stepped out on the night of March 23, 2014 to relieve themselves when according to them, five Jat men allegedly took the girls by force and smothered them. The girls remember a strong chemical smell on the handkerchiefs that were used to silence them. The next morning, the girls found themselves at Bhatinda railway station, in Punjab. “I do not remember anything from that night,” the youngest of the five told Newslaundry. “The next morning we realised that our clothes were torn at places.”
Their panicking families went to the police and the girls were found the next morning, along with one of those accused of the gangrape. “One of the five men was with us and the moment the police and our village sarpanch was informed, he fled,” said the survivor. This lone man had been stationed to keep an eye on the girls while the other men went to get some breakfast.
Shakti Singh, the current sarpanch of the village who belongs to the Jat community, denies the allegation of the gangrape. “The girls went with the boys on their own will and later blamed it on them,” Singh told Newslaundry.
Faced with this prejudice, 95 Dhanak families came to Delhi to demand justice. They stayed for almost a month, met political leaders and members of the government and returned to their village after the First Information Report (FIR) was lodged. It was here in Delhi that the Dhanaks and C****r community came together. In both the gangrape as well as the case of the land distribution, the offender was the same: the Jat landholders. As a result, the social boycott in Bhagana has extended to the Dhanaks. Satbeer Singh, a Dhanak labourer in Bhagana, told Newslaundry, “Since the boycott, we are not even being given MGNREGA work. How long will this go on for?”
“Things became extremely difficult for us,” said Satish Kajla, a Dalit protestor from Bhagana who has been in New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar since 2012. He and his family left Bhagana and walked to the Hisar Mini Secretariat with all their belongings, along with 136 other Dalit families. This was done to both leave behind the constrictions of the social boycott in Bhagana and also to draw attention to their complaint against the Jat landholders. Kajla came to Delhi afterwards and a tent in Jantar Mantar has been his home since then.
Satish Kajla sitting in a tent at Jantar Mantar, which has been his home and site of protest for 4 years now
Dalits allege that their complaints are not being taken seriously by the administration or the State. “When we complained to Bhupinder Singh Hooda, the former Chief Minister of Haryana, he blatantly refused to help us saying that he is a Jat first and the CM later,” Virender Singh Bagodhiya, one of the Dalit leaders, told Newslaundry. This isn’t surprising for those familiar with Haryana’s socio-political landscape. As another protestor put it, “In Haryana, there are two kinds of law – one for the Dalits and one for the Jats.”
Today in Bhagana, rows of houses in the Dalit colony are locked. Many families have shifted to neighbouring villages because of the continuing boycott while some sit in protest, outside the Mini Secretariat of Hisar and in New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. The case against the encroachment of the common land by some of the Jat community is being heard in Haryana High court with 233 Dalit families as plaintiffs.
Like the land encroachment case, the Bhagana gangrape case is also stuck in a seemingly never-ending legal spiral. Ram Niwas Sharma, who is representing the families of the victims of the gangrape, says they had lodged a complaint in the Haryana high court last year after the accused were let off from the sessions court. At present, the accused are out on bail. “I don’t know what will happen to the case,” he said. “The hearing will not come up at least for 10 years considering the number of cases which are already pending.”
Last year, there was a mass conversion of 100 Dalit families from Bhagana to Islam. “Through our struggle and our education, we have realised that the root cause of all the discrimination towards us is the Hindu religion,” said Kajla, who insists that to see the gangrape and land redistribution as separate would be to miss the most crucial factor in their story that connects the two cases: the attitude of the dominant Jats towards the Dalits.
Former sarpanch Panghal denied any wrongdoing when asked about the Shamilat land. He says the committee was made involving the members of the scheduled caste who were consulted regularly. Angry about the benefits reserved for the scheduled castes, Panghal said, “Since Independence, the general category has not received any benefits and the Dalits are allotted plots and other benefits by every government which comes to power. They are now taking advantage of this.”
Kajila sleeps under two huge portraits of Dr BR Ambedkar and starts his mornings by making tea for himself in his small makeshift kitchen in one corner of his tent. He’s aware of the power they are up against but he’s resolute that the Dalits will stand together and they will not surrender. “This fight will go on for long,” he said simply and took a sip of his tea.