Dalits in rural India are caught in the middle of the opposing forces of an expanding market economy that engenders formal relations at the workplace and the village’s social relations that are hierarchical and rooted in the caste system.
In India, following the formalisation of occupations through the Green Revolution in the 1970s, the availability of industrial jobs made it possible for the Dalits to move away from the rural economy.
Barbers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and potters who used to work for their upper caste clients in return for pay, protection, grains, or other goods, opened their own shops in villages.
This, coupled with the subsequent weakening of the patron-client relationships in the villages, brought about a change in attitudes among the Dalits, as deference for caste hierarchies began to erode. Positive legal interventions only helped the Dalits become more assertive about their human and political rights.
In this unraveling situation, the upper castes, in an attempt to prop up the status quo, used their clout and control over village resources to socially and economically ostracise the Dalits, whom they thought were breaking away from caste-based structures.
In 2017, the National Crime Records Bureau 63 cases of social boycott of the Dalits across India. One of these was in Bhatla village, Haryana. Three years later, the Supreme Court said the allegations of social boycott of the Dalits in the village should be investigated by police officials from outside Haryana.
Here’s what happened.
In 2017, around 500 Dalit families in Bhatla, Hisar district, were by their upper caste neighbours. The reason was that a few Dalit youth had filed a police complaint against eight Brahmin men for assaulting them and using casteist slurs during an altercation over drawing water from a handpump. The altercation took place on June 15, 2017 and the FIR was filed the following day.
Fearful of the consequences of the complaint, filed under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act, the parents of the Brahmin men reached out to the victims and their families, and apologised to them publicly.
About a week after the assault, the matter was moving towards a compromise. A written undertaking that the two sides had reached a settlement was about to be filed in the high court to get the case quashed when the Brahmins backed out. The Dalits claim that another dominant caste group of the village, the Jats, intervened and asked for a village panchayat to discuss the matter afresh.
The village handpump, where the altercation took place in June 2017.
Rajat Kalsan, a Dalit activist and lawyer, said the Jats, who are the dominant caste group in Haryana as well, were livid that the Dalits had sidestepped the traditional forum of resolving the issue — the village panchayat — and dared to take the legal route.
The upper caste villagers, Kalsan said, “consider referring to the Dalits with casteist names as normal and, in fact, their right”. “They have still not come to terms with the fact that this could be a crime, legally. They say they have been referring to the Dalits with such names for ages, so how come, all of a sudden, it has become such a big deal?”
“They wouldn’t have reacted like this had the complaint been only about the physical assault,” he added, explaining that it also referred to the use of casteist slurs.
The first meeting to work out a compromise, a few days after the incident, was held at the Ravidas temple, revered by most Dalits. The second meeting was called for about two weeks later by the Jats. This time, the upper castes asked the Dalits to meet at a venue at the centre of the village surrounded by Jat houses.
“We were reluctant to go there as we suspected humiliation and physical assault by the dominant community members,” said Ajay, a Dalit from Bhatla.
According to the villagers and from the 2011 census, of the 7,000-odd people in Bhatla, 42 percent are Dalits. They belong to such castes as Sansi, Valmiki, Dhanak and Chamar, with the last being the most numerous. The victims of the assault are Chamars.
When the Chamars did not turn up at the meeting called by the Jats, the village’s watchman was sent to their locality the next day with a message. “The watchman arrived at our basti and read out the message that a bundi — social and economic boycott — of the Dalits had been decided,” said Ajay. “It said the villagers had been told not to engage the Dalits in farm work or conduct any kind of economic transaction with them.”
Initially, the boycott was of all the Dalit castes in the village. Later, the upper castes realised that boycotting all the Dalit would not be feasible as they needed labourers to work in their fields.
“Chamars were at the forefront of the protest against the upper castes so it was important to single them out,” said Vikas, a Dalit from Bhatla.
The boycott rendered all the Chamars jobless. Even members of other caste groups were told to not have any economic transactions with them. If they did, they were threatened with fines of Rs 11,000.
“The barber would refuse to cut our hair, the electrician would not visit our houses, the sole dairy of the village, which is owned by a Brahmin, would not sell us milk,” said Ajay.
And nobody would let the cattle of the Chamars graze in their fields. “There is no public land available in the village where our cattle could graze,” Vikas explained. “Earlier, we used to let our cattle graze in fields owned by villagers in exchange for money. However, after the boycott, they would not let us do that. This forced us to sell our cattle at a huge loss.”
When out-of-work Dalits tried to find employment in neighboring villages, the Jats confronted the neighboring co-caste landowners and tried to persuade them not to hire the Dalits of Bhatla for work.
“When the Jats of the neighboring villages still insisted on hiring us for their fields, our villagers would deflate the tires of their tractors on which they had come to hire us,” said Vikas.
The Dalits told Newslaundry the boycott was ongoing, but the Jats rejected the claim. The Dalits also alleged that neither the police nor the local administration had helped them since the officials were divided along caste lines as well.
A second FIR on the social boycott was filed by the Dalits on November 1, 2018.
Social and economic boycotts of the marginalised people in India are a relatively new phenomenon, becoming more frequent since the Green Revolution. “Green Revolution ushered in an era of increased agricultural productivity with intensive agriculture and multiple crops being produced, giving the Dalits an opportunity to demand higher wages,” said Surinder S Jodhka, a sociology professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.
In parts of north India, Jodhka said, the Dalits were in demand as labourers but there weren’t enough of them, so big farmers started hiring labourers from other states, Jodhka said. This rendered the Dalits dispensable for the agriculture economy.
“Dalits also saw this as empowering as they could now go out of the village and look for different kinds of employment opportunities which, in many cases, they found more lucrative,” said Jodhka. “Gradually, the Dalits started to distance themselves from farming, as that involved patron-client relationships.”
Dalit elders in Bhatla.
Relatively freed from traditional patron-client relationships, and with the implementation of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment, which gave more representation to the Dalits in village panchayats, the Dalits started to make claims over common villages resources like ponds, religious structures, and panchayat land.
However, despite the formalisation of the village economy and the 73rd Amendment, the Dalits still don’t own agricultural land. According to a released by the Agricultural Census, the Dalits in India own of the total farmland despite comprising of the population as per the 2011 census.
In Haryana, the situation is particularly grim. Just over one percent of the Dalits own agricultural land despite making up 20.2 percent of the total population of the state.
“So when the Dalits started to assert their claims over common land, the Jats and the traditional patriarchs wanted to teach them a lesson,” said Jodhka. “Economic boycott is basically a method to put pressure on the Dalits, like what America does with other countries. Under pressure, they will give in and they will be shown their place.”
In the FIR filed with respect to the social boycott of Dalits in Bhatla, the Dalits alleged that the local police had been pressuring them to “compromise” in the previous case of assault. The complaint claimed that when the community didn’t compromise, a social boycott was imposed upon them. It accused seven people from the dominant community, the Brahmins, of the village.
On October 24 last year, the high court, in its final order, noted that Bhatla had been peaceful for the previous six months and ruled out a CBI investigation, which was the demand of the Dalit community.
The Dalits said the court reached the conclusion on the basis of a “biased” police investigation, and appealed the order in the Supreme Court.
On February 18, the Supreme Court the Haryana government that police officers from outside the state should investigate the social boycott allegations. The court is likely to set up a special investigation team and order a reinvestigation into the case at the next hearing on March 17, 2020.
Suresh Berwal, the village head denied there had ever been a boycott of the Dalits in Bhatla. Instead, he blamed “a few individuals” from the Dalit community who, led by their lawyer Rajat Kalsan, framed the charges against the upper caste members of the village to get compensation from the government.
“Why would a community that has been boycotted for three years still want to stay in the village?” asked Jagdeep Berwal, head of the village’s bhaichara, or brotherhood, committee.
Newslaundry reached out to Dharambir Singh, deputy superintendent of police, Hansi. He said he can’t comment on events that took place over two years ago since he was not posted in the area then.
“You can figure out the situation in the village by going over there in person,” Singh said. “As far as the police is concerned, we deal with the issue as and when it’s brought to our notice. The case of social boycott is over two years old.”