Jitendra Meghwal’s murder turned the spotlight back on the caste divide in rural Rajasthan, where prejudice has been normalised into a way of life.
If you went to rural, western Rajasthan before March this year, you would have seen signboards that declared certain villages as “Rajpurohitan”, or belonging to the Rajpurohit community. These boards stood on roads that are technically the property of the state government. While the signs established Rajpurohit dominance in the area, there was no indication that any other group – like, for example, the Meghwals, who are categorised as scheduled caste – could lay claim to belonging here.
Rajpurohits are brahmins and occupy a privileged position in the caste hierarchy. To locals who identified as upper caste, there was nothing casteist about the signboards.
“There is nothing controversial about it [the signage],” said Lal Singh, from Dhola Shasan village in Pali district. “This is how it has been here for the last 30 years,” he told Newslaundry.
Ghisu Singh Rajpurohit, also from Dhola Shasan, said the village had been “like this” for at least 70 years. “How come we are talking about casteism now?” he asked.
A caste-related board outside Dhola Shasan village.
By the end of March, Pali’s district administration would remove many of these signboards. Some would be uprooted. Others would be hastily painted over. The move came after representatives of Bhim Army and Pali’s Dalit community submitted a letter to the district magistrate in which they pointed out that the Rajpurohits’ signage was “illegal” and “unconstitutional”.
“In order to assert their dominance and for the purpose of instilling fear among Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, those with a feudal and casteist ideology are putting up such caste-related boards,” said the letter, dated March 25.
The letter made an impact because the situation in Pali district was already tense after the murder of 28-year-old Jitendra Meghwal by Suraj Singh Rajput.
On March 15, 2022, Meghwal, a health worker from Barwa village, was on his way home from work when he was stabbed repeatedly by Suraj Singh Rajpurohit, allegedly for sporting a moustache (which some in the region consider a symbol of upper caste identity).
Two years ago, Rajpurohit had assaulted Meghwal, allegedly for daring to look the upper caste man in the eye. “Nazar kaise milayi ?” How dare you look me in the eye? Rajpurohit had reportedly said to Meghwal. Back in 2020, Meghwal filed a police complaint against Rajpurohit, accusing him of verbal and physical, caste-based violence.
This time, after Rajpurohit’s attack, Meghwal had to be rushed to a hospital. He succumbed to his injuries later the same day.
Within a few days, the Rajasthan police would arrest Rajpurohit and an accomplice, but it also said Meghwal’s murder was a result of personal enmity between the two men. According to the police, it had “nothing to do with Dalits keeping the moustache or their appearance”.
An alliance of power and prejudice
“When it comes to Rajasthan, especially western Rajasthan, every conversation begins with which caste the other person belongs to,” said advocate Kishan Meghwal (no relation of Jitendra Meghwal), who is also a member of the activist collective, Dalit Soshan Mukti Manch. Speaking about how casteism is normalised within state institutions like the police, he said, “[Until] some years ago, even the matki, or water container, at these police stations used to be different for those from the Dalit community vis a vis others.”
According to the data collected by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) for 2020, of the total crimes recorded in Rajasthan, 57.4 percent were against people categorised as SC.
Pali district, in western Rajasthan, has a population of over 20 lakh as per the 2011 census. SCs constitute 15 percent of the total population. On the face of it, Pali seems to have an eye on progress. Pali city recently reported the highest sale on e-commerce portals. However, when you veer off the newly-constructed National Highway 62 and enter the villages in the district, it becomes clear that the age-old caste divide remains in place.
Journalist Devendra Pratap Singh Shekhawat, who has written about caste-based violence, said “the caste symmetry” in Rajasthan changes from region to region. “Rajputs and Rajpurohits, a brahmin sub-caste, are dominant in this region and are also the accused in most of the cases in this region,” Shekhawat said. “The reason behind the alliance of caste dominance and atrocities lies in the fact that these castes are among the accused in the pockets where they have political sway."
One example of this alliance is the letter of appreciation that Nandu Singh Rajpurohit of Barwa village was given by Bharatiya Janata Party leader and local legislator, Pushpendra Singh Ranawat. Nandu runs a wholesale crockery and cutlery business in Barwa and is the admin of a WhatsApp group of Rajpurohits known as Bahrji, set up in 2016. Bahrji claims to do social work and is responsible for the signboard reading “Rajpurohitan” at the entry of Barwa village.
In 2017, Nandu was awarded a certificate by Pali’s district magistrate, for “social work done in the field of education and health” by the Bahrji group.
The system is the obstacle
On March 19, 2021, Dayla Meghwal of Sirana village and her pregnant daughter were assaulted by a group of Rajputs. Dayla’s family believes the attack was part of a campaign to encroach on a piece of land that neighbouring Rajputs have laid claim to, using allegedly forged documents.
Dayla’s son, Ashok, is a law student. He was a short distance away from the site of the attack when it happened and filmed it on his mobile phone. Afterwards Dayla and Ashok went to the police who filed a first information report charging eight persons – all Rajputs – with trespassing, voluntarily causing hurt, assault and under provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
A year later, the case is ongoing and the main accused has not been arrested. Of the six whom the police did arrest, four were granted bail in April 2021. Meanwhile, the footage from Ashok’s phone is still under examination as the police are yet to receive the forensic report of the phone.
Whatever progress was made in the case happened under the first investigating officer, who was Dalit, Ashok said. In the middle of the investigation, a new IO – who happens to be brahmin – was appointed.
“I’m not saying that officers have a caste, but while the first investigating officer arrested the accused on the basis of video, the second investigating officer has kept the matter pending for six months,” said Ashok.
Advocate Kishan Meghwal said, “When it comes to conducting investigation of a case under the SC/ST Act, their [police officers’] own misconceptions around caste often play a role, including non-confiscation of weapons used in the incident, [as well as] picking and choosing certain eye witnesses that benefit the [upper caste] accused.”
Some say getting the police to simply respond to a Dalit complainant can be a challenge in Pali district.
In March 2016, in Ghenri village, a Meghwal boy was allegedly assaulted by Rajpurohits because he rode a bike past a Holi celebration. “I called the police at least seven times that day, but there was no response,” said Goma Ram, a driver by profession.
Ashok Meghwal recorded the 2021 incident in which the Rajputs assaulted his mother and sister.
Goma Ram in Ghenri village has been following a case of alleged caste atrocity since 2016.
Hoping for justice from the judiciary can be equally laborious, as Anjali* knows. Anjali, who is Dalit, was in-charge of a government residential school in Pali’s Sojat tehsil. In 2016, five girls from Class 8 – all of them Dalit – told Anjali that during an exam, the male invigilator had “pinched their thigh and rubbed his private part over their shoulders on the pretext of taking signatures”. The invigilator belonged to an upper caste.
On March 21, 2016, days before Anjali was going to go to the police, a mob showed up on the school premises and there were allegations that Anjali “supplies girls”. After Anjali requested the sub-divisional magistrate to provide her security, she and the five girls were able to file a police complaint and an FIR was issued.
Once the case reached the trial stage, the situation became increasingly frustrating.
The SC/ST Act stipulates victims may choose their own public prosecutor, but when Anjali asked for a change in counsel, the state denied her request. “The public prosecutor was showing very little interest in the case. He hadn’t gone through the files and yet the administration took the decision that there’s no need to replace him,” said Anjali.
Later, four of the students turned hostile and the accused got bail. Anjali is still following the case with one student. They’ve filed an appeal at the Jodhpur High Court. Anjali has hired a private lawyer at her own expense to pursue the case.
“On one hand the state and Central governments talk about beti bachao, beti padhao [save girls, educate girls] and yet all girl students from that particular village dropped out of school after this incident,” said Anjali.
Advocate Kishan Meghwal pointed out that casteism plays out within the judiciary in subtle ways. “When it comes to the judiciary, apart from casteism, nepotism also plays a role and therefore, people from the SC/ST and OBC [other backward castes] communities are hardly visible among judges, most of whom belong to brahmin and vaishya communities.”
Reality vs Dreams
Adding to the already-toxic situation are quasi-political organisations like the Bhagwa Swayamsewak Sangh, founded by Suresh Norva. On his Facebook timeline, Norva can be seen standing alongside Praveen Togadia, former chief of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and currently heading a Hindutva outfit called Antarrashtriya Hindu Parishad.
Two weeks after Meghwal was murdered, Norva attacked Bhim Army chief, Chandra Shekhar Aazad, for demanding justice for Meghwal. During a Facebook Live, Norva said, “Such anti-social elements need to be given a befitting reply. So if you have cases filed under the SC/ST Act, talk to the authorities. Or else – I have said this earlier as well – set aside the police for 10 minutes, and see what we can do.”
Norva’s implied threat of violence is underlined with a conviction in upper caste privilege, which informs the everyday lives of traditionally-oppressed communities. “The caste equation of the dominating caste plays a key role in the caste atrocities cases in Rajasthan,” said journalist Devendra Pratap Singh Shekhawat. “In other parts of India, mostly the accused are from the upper castes. While this pattern remains the same across the state [Rajasthan], every caste has its own set of regulations for Dalits.”
Bhavna, a resident of Ghenri village in Pali district, remembers caste divides being enforced in school. “We had to call Rajpurohit girl students ‘Rani sa’ [your majesty] and maintain a certain social distance,” she said.
In Guda Endla village, Naresh*, who belongs to the Meghwal community, said Dalits are expected to get off the vehicle they’re on when they enter lanes that have homes of Rajpurohits and Meenas, an ST community that is dominant and has political sway in the region. “Irrespective of whether there is a pillion rider or not, even if it’s one person driving the bike, we have to get down as a mark of respect,” said Naresh.
Naresh also remembers an instance when a Rajpurohit priest reprimanded Naresh and his son for sitting inside a temple. Even though this is a legal offence under section 3 of the SC/ ST Act – “obstruction or denying access to a member of Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe to a place of public resort” is punishable with a prison term between six months to five years along with fine – Naresh never thought of filing a complaint.
“Hamari chalti nahi hai [we don’t have power here],” he said.
A signboard outside Guda Endla village with no caste mentioned.
Back in Barwa, Meghwal’s death and the subsequent police investigation led to a round of protests that the state tackled using measures like section 144. By April, the situation was tense, but not volatile. The Rajpurohits of Barwa refused to accept there was a caste angle to Meghwal’s murder while the Dalit community maintained that Meghwal was the victim of a caste-based hate crime.
While his untimely death and the reactions to it show how certain sections of Rajasthani society are unwilling to change, Meghwal’s life – his good cheer, his hopes and aspirations – is a reminder that despite the efforts of the dominant castes, the old world order is changing.
“My brother dreamt that I would study and become a teacher,” Meghwal’s sister, Divya Sarel told Newslaundry. “He told me, ‘You must study and get a good job. That’s how my dreams will come true.’”
*Names changed upon request.
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