Silence is not an option

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On a muggy monsoon evening in a tiny village in Haryana, 16-year-old Manju*, her voice steady and clear, recounts the story of the day she was raped. It is a story that in its horrifying essentials can be heard in villages across the state, across, for that matter, the country. On 6 August 2012, Manju, a Dalit from Kalsi village in Karnal district, was waylaid on her way to school. Two men, Ajay and Krishen, from the upper-caste Rod community, allegedly forced her into their car and took turns to rape her. Warning her to hold her tongue, they dumped her near her school.
It took Manju two weeks to admit to her mother that she had been raped. Her mother already knew. A neighbour implicated in the crime allegedly gloated about her role in the rape, gloated about Manju’s lost honour. Manju’s mother was steadfast in her support for her daughter. Accounts differ about who said what but the upshot is that less than a month after the gangrape, Manju’s mother disappeared.
On 3 September, her body was found in a ditch next to a small canal that runs by the village. Like her daughter, she too had been gangraped. Her murderers, allegedly her daughter’s rapists, had thrown acid on her and strangled her with her own chunni.
It’s hard to look Manju in the eye when she tells you her story, though she compels you to by having no trouble looking you directly in the eye. Her tone is matter of fact, a product of recounting these same events to a barrage of police, lawyers and activists. Her face is pale and since the rape she has fallen ill with alarming frequency. But her voice doesn’t waver, breaking slightly only when she talks about her mother.
Ordinarily, Manju’s story might just have been filed away as another statistic in a state full of terrible crimes against women and Scheduled Castes (to be both is deadly), but she decided to do something radical — seek justice and redress. She is now part of a more heartening statistic, that of young Dalit women in small clusters across Haryana who are standing up and speaking out against the caste-based discrimination and violence that blights their lives.
There is a change happening in Dalit communities,” observes Brinda Karat, CPM leader and vice-president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA). “It stems from young Dalit girls who are challenging the status quo, unlike their parents 10 years ago.” These girls are taking on an entire, entrenched culture of bigotry as individuals and as community organisers, fighting for the right to education, to dignity of labour, to not be silenced. It is a fierce and necessary resistance.
But taking a stand requires deep reserves of courage. Manju and her father Dharampal, who used to work on the paddy fields owned by Rods, recall how when they went to the police to report both the gangrape and the murder, SI Ram Prakash at the nearby Butana Police Station refused to register their FIR. Prakash, also a Rod, allegedly threatened and insulted them because they were Dhanuks, a Dalit subcaste. It took pressure from NGO workers to ensure that the complaint was lodged at all and the accused arrested. Eventually, as is mandated by the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, Dharampal received compensation from the Deputy Commissioner of Karnal: Rs 60,000 for his daughter’s rape and Rs 3.75 lakh for the murder of his wife. The accused are currently under trial for rape in a specially constituted fast-track court. Since the Justice Verma Commission report, each district in Haryana is now supposed to try rape cases in these courts.
The meagre financial compensation is scant comfort for Dharampal, who is no longer employed on fields owned by the dominant Rod community. He scratches out a living now from casual work at uncertain intervals. A job promised to him by the Deputy Commissioner has not materialised. Manju’s illnesses, her need to look after younger siblings and lack of money have forced her to drop out of school. Barring extended family, the Dalits in their village no longer speak to them, angered by Dharampal’s decision to name his neighbour, Kusum — a Dalit woman — as the third accused in the trial.
It was Kusum, who the family say, taunted Manju’s mother about the rape. Kusum, they allege, colluded with Ajay and Krishen possibly for financial gain. Still, Manju remains determined to live life on her terms. She may have dropped out of school but continues to study commerce through tuitions.
Mujhe yahaan se nikalna hai (I have to get out of here),” she says, gesturing around the little galli where her house stands. After a year, her neighbours still avert their faces when asked about Manju’s rape.
Statistically, violence against Dalits in Haryana, the country’s caste-ridden heartland in the imaginations of many, does not appear as rife as in many other states. According to the 2011 census, Haryana’s population was 2.5 crore and Dalits, a government report calculates, make up 19.35 percent of that population. It’s a significant slice, but according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) figures, last year there were only 252 crimes reported against Scheduled Castes. It’s a rate of only 4.93 crimes per 1 lakh SC/ST people, compared to 29 in Bihar and a national rate of 16.71.
“In Haryana,” says PL Punia, a Dalit leader of the Congress and chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, “incidents against Dalits may be fewer, but they are more brutal. The message from that one incident is intended to spread to the whole community.” But, he adds, somewhat cryptically, “Dalits are not that oppressed. They are getting an education. Administration is a little lax (in dealing with crimes against Dalits) but a proper investigation is always carried out against those who commit crimes.”
The NCRB numbers suggest otherwise. If there are few reported crimes against Dalits in Haryana, the conviction rate, at 7.9 percent, is abysmal, compared to the national rate of 23.9 percent. And at 50.31 crimes reported per 1 lakh people, the state has one of the worst records of crime against women.
Between September to October last year, 21 rapes were reported in just 45 days. It is perhaps a sign of progress that so many cases were reported at all. Asha Kowtal, the general secretary of the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM), a movement within the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, describes the rash of rapes as putting Haryana in “an embarrassing spotlight and forcing the police to work faster”. The efforts of such organisations to persuade reluctant girls, some of whom say nothing about their rapes for 10-15 days, to press charges and speak out about being raped deserves credit. It requires near constant vigilance to try and achieve a semblance of justice for Dalit women.
Kowtal recalls the case of Ritu*, a 13-year-old girl from Panipat, who was raped by two Sardar Jats in November. She was abducted from a government hospital while visiting her mother. In a cruel irony, she was discovered lying bleeding on a dirty bed by AIDMAM members in that same hospital. The hospital staff ignored the girl, claims Kowtal. Despite protests from the activists, the two-finger test was conducted and the girl was reported to be sexually active. Hospital staff also tried to pressure the family to state that Ritu was mentally challenged, adds Kowtal. The family and AIDMAM also allege that CCTV footage showing Ritu’s abduction had been tampered with.
It is incidents like these that catalysed AIDMAM to go on a 10-day karwan across 10 districts in Haryana. The march was led solely by Dalit women. “For the first time, I think, it was Dalit women at the forefront of such a movement,” says Kowtal.
The women met rape survivors and senior police officers; they demonstrated outside the offices of the Deputy Commissioner of each district, even getting lathi-charged in Karnal. Organisations such as AIDMAM, AIDWA and the National Confederation of Dalit Organisations (NACDOR) are actively working to recruit young women and often men from Dalit communities to travel from village to village, reaching out to young girls who have been raped, their families, and the victims of various crimes and atrocities. Their goal is to spread education and an awareness among people of their rights, that they do not have to tolerate extreme violence as their birthright.
One of the most troubling aspects of these efforts, various activists interviewed for this article said, has been the attitude of the police. Sridutt Sharma, the station house officer (SHO) of the Butana Police Station, told TEHELKA bluntly that “the Kalsi case” (Manju’s rape and her mother’s rape and murder) was the “only Dalit atrocity” in his jurisdiction. He maintained that the police did everything in their power to serve justice and that Dharampal and his family were being protected by two security guards. Throughout the time TEHELKA spent in Kalsi, with Dharampal and Manju, the guards were conspicuous only by their absence. Sharma went on to claim that in his six months as SHO, there had been no caste violence against Dalits. His jurisdiction extends to 56 villages. The claim, when put to lawyers and activists, was met with hoots of derision.
One of the scoffers is Colin Gonsalves, Supreme Court lawyer and founder-director of the Human Rights Law Network. Gonsalves recently ruffled feathers at a gender rights conference in New Delhi by making the polemical argument that the only way to reform the police would be to sack over half the personnel. Gonsalves is handling several Haryana rape cases, including Manju’s, and frequently attends AIDMAM and NACDOR meetings.
He explains how the police systematically collude with the upper-caste accused. Of course, the policemen generally come from these same subcastes. Knowing this, many Dalits don’t even report crimes.
Gonsalves says, resigned, that the under-reporting of crime is why he doesn’t pay much attention to existing statistics, why any statistical analysis is flawed by the skewed data. Policemen often refuse to log FIRs or correctly take down statements. Sometimes, Gonsalves says, the police even inform upper-caste communities about accusations so that victims are met with loud, intimidating crowds when they leave the police station. Bribes, threats and intense pressure to take back or falsify statements are normal tactics.
“If they don’t compromise,” Gonsalves points out, “they lose jobs on lands controlled by the upper castes. They can’t even leave their homes to attend nature’s call in the fields without crossing the landlords’ farms.”
Dismissing Gonsalves as hyperbolic would be easy, if it weren’t for such widely reported cases as that of a 19-year-old Dalit girl in Banwasa village in Sonepat district, who was raped by four men over four days last September. A Dhanuk, like Manju and Dharampal, she reported the rape to the police only to be put, along with her family, under so much duress by the panchayats of the villages the accused men belonged to that she caved to the pressure and changed her statement. On 24 April, she was sentenced to 10 days in prison for perjury.
Gonsalves claims that the police often helps to hide rape, instructing victims, if they report the crime immediately, to wash their clothes, wash themselves, to postpone their medico-legal exam by a week, by which time no traces of the assault may remain. He doesn’t offer specific examples of this blatant dereliction of duty, though he does say he takes his details from cases that are already before the Supreme Court.
TEHELKA tried to reach the SPs of Hisar and Karnal and the Inspector General (law & order), Haryana, to verify these allegations but they did not reply.
Balwant Singh Boundiya, a lawyer in the Hisar district court, does offer an example. He tells of a girl from Shastri Nagar, Hisar, who was abducted by three men, including a Dalit and a Brahmin. The Dalit had promised to marry the girl. In her statement, she said they took her to Mumbai and raped her for a week before she was able to escape. Back in Hisar, she tried to lodge an FIR but was repeatedly rebuffed by the police until, after two weeks, her family approached BS Balan, the Hisar Superintendent of Police. The three men accused of the rape are in custody and court proceedings are underway.
Persistence can result in convictions, however piecemeal and unsatisfactory. Komal*, a 17-year-old Dalit from Dabra, a village in Hisar, was taken by eight men in a car and gangraped for three hours on 9 September 2012. Hers was one of the 21 rapes in 45 days that received sustained media attention. She accused 12 men between the ages of 20 and 50, from her village’s Jat community of being involved, eight of whom were later put on trial. There were eight in the car and four who arrived later, she said in her statement to the police, on three motorcycles. Some of the men owned the surrounding land by a canal on the outskirts of the village. The men filmed the rape on mobile phones and circulated the clips around the village. It was rumoured, although not confirmed, that the men were selling the clip for Rs 200. Komal’s father was shown the clip by an acquaintance, who worked as a “gunman”, according to Hisar lawyer Boundiya, for a well-connected local family. Reportedly, Komal’s father tried to go to the police but was threatened by the men involved. He committed suicide by swallowing poison. Four men were convicted of the gangrape on 4 May, but four others were let off due to lack of evidence. An appeal has been filed at the Chandigarh High Court.
Speaking to TEHELKA, Komal said her father’s suicide forced her to put aside her fear and go to the police. Not that they were particularly helpful. Komal’s lawyer, Rajat Kalsan, a Dalit from Hansi known for aggressively pursuing Dalit cases in the courts, said the police didn’t even record Komal’s statement, preferring to make up their own facts. Komal was unaware of this until Kalsan showed her the statement. Her case caused such a storm among her community and activists that they refused to allow her father’s body to be cremated until the police took action. It was this protest that led to the arrests.
“No Dalit before me ever spoke out about what they (the upper castes) do,” she says, sitting in the small, sparse government flat she, her mother and brother have been given to live in (complete with armed security guards) at an undisclosed location outside Dabra. “I’m going to study law, and fight against these crimes,” she says, her voice subdued but hard, steely with anger and determination. “Perhaps, I wouldn’t have fought so hard if my father hadn’t killed himself, but I will fight now.”
Alongside Komal in her fight stand the civil organisations that Brinda Karat says are “working against the hostility present in the politics, administration and police of a state like Haryana”. Karat describes the police’s application of the SC/ST (POA) Act in the state as a “sham”.
Manisha Devi, a 27-year-old activist working with both NACDOR and AIDMAM, bears eloquent witness to the systemic oppression of Dalits. A Valmiki Dalit from Badarpur, Kurukshetra, Manisha lives a semi-nomadic life, spending one night in a village in Sonepat, for instance, before moving on to another district, another town. She’s on the road for three or four days out of every week. Manisha understood caste discrimination at an early age, seeing the difference with which the teachers in her government school would treat Dalit children and their upper-caste classmates. She says a teacher once even assaulted her for her outspoken criticism. She currently in the final year of a Master’s degree in women’s studies from Kurukshetra University and has been an activist for Dalit rights for eight years, since she was still a schoolgirl.
Manisha was with Dharampal and Manju when they went to file their FIR at the Butana Police Station. “I spoke to one of the officers there,” says Manisha, “and he told me that such problems would only end when there are no Dalit women left.” She quotes the policeman with disgust: “Yeh sab khatam ho jaani chahiyen (These women should cease to exist).”
Her years in the field, on the frontlines of the fight for Dalit rights, has made her an unflagging proselytiser for girls’ education. Her brother dropped out of college and worked as a construction labourer to pay for Manisha’s extensive schooling. She and fellow workers travel from village to village seeking young people to volunteer and help convince others to educate themselves and organise their communities.
Her colleague, 26-year-old Savita, the AIDMAM state coordinator, says with justified pride that “in Haryana’s 21 district, we have volunteers in about 19 now”. Manisha talks about all the people they have mobilised.
Reena in Badarpur, Kurukshetra, for instance, whose land was appropriated by Jat zamindars. While she was in hospital after the birth of her daughter, the Jats loaned 8,000 to her illiterate father-in-law, making him put his thumbprint on a document giving up the deeds to the family’s land. She has been fighting the Jats in the courts for eight years, refusing to be cowed. Her experiences have turned her towards activism. She tutors Dalit children in her village and encourages the women to stand up for themselves and for the dignity of their labour.
It’s the sort of positive, inspiring life lesson all the volunteers seek to impart. One of the youngest volunteers recruited by AIDMAM is 16-year-old Rekha from Nau Munda village in Samalkha tehsil. Though Rekha does not go to school — she is the only earning member of her family — she has been organising girls into groups so that they feel safety in numbers when they travel the 4-5 km to the senior school in the neighbouring village of Kiwana.
“They used to be scared to go that far,” says Rekha, “Gujjar men on motorbikes would follow and harrass Dalit schoolgirls.” Her younger sister Suman is one of those schoolgirls. Rekha is known around her area for her spunk, her fight. Silence, for her, is akin to defeat. “I remember,” she says, smiling with the thrill of her memory, “that the tailor masterji wouldn’t give a Dalit girl her school uniform. I marched up to him and asked for it. He said, ‘De toh rahan hoon behenchod (I’m giving it, sisterf***er).’ It didn’t bother me. I just said, ‘Yeh behenchod nahi hai, choti ladki hai (She isn’t a sisterf***er, she’s a child).’ He hasn’t bothered anyone since.”
Rekha is charismatic. She is wiry-strong, her hands a scarred, calloused mess from her job in the bhindi fields where she earns the 120 daily that keeps her family going. She faces down the taunts of upper-caste men and women. “They laugh in my face: ‘Yeh toh champion hai. Yeh sab karke apne baap ka naam roshan karegi (She’s a champion. She will make her father proud).’” Her father, she says, is a drunk whose addiction drove his wife to suicide.
TEHELKA witnessed some of the ritual humiliation that Rekha routinely faces. Om Prakash, a Gujjar school teacher, has been at the village’s government primary school for 17 years. According to Rekha, there are several allegations against him of sexually harassing Dalit girls. In his speech, he betrays both cynicism and self-satisfaction. He says there are teachers who will not teach Dalit children, “but that is everywhere”. When some students bring chairs and bowls and a large thali of kheer for their out-of-town visitors, there is none for Rekha. “How will it look,” says Prakash, “if a former student sits and speaks with me as an equal.”
If Prakash is sly enough to veil his distaste at sitting with a Dalit girl as guru-shishya propriety, Puran Singh Dabra, former MLA of the Indian National Lok Dal from Dabra, Hisar, is too privileged, too assured of his place in his society to bother. His family is powerful, owning several plots of land and so many houses that asking for directions to his residence proves to be trickier than expected. In an expansive mood, he graciously acknowledges the gap in the fortunes of upper- and lower-caste people.
“Dalits,” he says, “are an exploited people.” He believes though in the natural feudal order of things, a past in which castes lived in harmony because everyone knew their place. “It these organisations that started causing mistrust,” he argues, blaming those working towards empowering Dalits. “Bhadka detein hain woh logon ko (They provoke people).”
He cites, as an example, what happened in Mirchpur in 2010 after Jat men torched Dalit houses and set fire to a Dalit senior citizen and his handicapped daughter as revenge for a quarrel that began over a stray dog. Nearly 130 families were displaced, living in makeshift tents on a small plot of land on Tanvar farms in Hisar. The flimsy tarpaulin that shelters these families gives way during a drizzle.
A government team came to investigate what had happened,” says Puran Singh, puffed up with self-regard, “but they spoke only to the Dalits. Their job was to speak to both parties to ascertain who was at fault. You tell me, won’t Jats be angry at this unfairness?”
As a demonstration for the mutual respect prevalent in his village, he points to his man Friday, saying that ‘Kaka’ was in school with him, his family has served them for three generations and none of Dabra’s offspring speak rudely to him. “My driver’s family has been with mine for seven generations. All my children speak properly to him. Isn’t this mutual respect?” The ‘Kaka’ in question, as old as Dabra’s 67 years, scurries in and out of the house barefoot serving tea in hot, humid evening.
His anger at what he sees as Dalit activism is common in villages in Haryana. Many see it as a breach of the peace, a threat to the status quo or the way things have always been. Many upper-caste men and women even deny that there is an essential inequity to address.
Activists say that in every village meeting, someone from the dominant caste will inevitably stand up and declare that discrimination doesn’t exist. Resentment towards the activists often manifests itself in physical threats. Manisha, when she was helping Manju and Dharampal, was stopped by unknown men on her way home one evening and advised to watch it, in case “Kahin koi tumhe bhi na utha ke le jaye (Hope you aren’t picked up like her one of these days).”
Much is stacked against the activists. Asha Kowtal remembers meeting with Haryana mp Deepender Hooda about the 21 rapes of Dalit women last September and October. According to Kowtal, Hooda’s reflexive response was to blame the rapes on Dalit men. TEHELKA tried to contact Hooda, leaving several missed calls and text messages, to verify Kowtal’s account but to no avail.
Kowtal also said she pressed Hooda on the schemes his government is implementing to uplift Dalits. His uninspired response, she says, was to mention a scholarship for girls in all of the state’s districts. The scholarship is not restricted to Dalit girls and when Kowtal looked for a Dalit recipient of Hooda’s scholarship she says she found none. Again, TEHELKA could not verify Kowtal’s claims, despite repeated attempts to contact Hooda.
The government’s indifference is a national problem, not just one restricted to particular states. On 7 June, at a side event during the 23rd session of the UN Human Rights Council, Navi Pillay, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights declared her “fullest commitment in contributing to the eradication of caste discrimination and untouchability and the correlated deeply rooted exclusion, exploitation and marginalisation of Dalit women”. Her support was the product of powerful presentations made by Dalit women from across the subcontinent, from Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and India.
International attention and support though doesn’t necessarily translate into action at home. The efforts of Dalit activists and, of course, the women who have suffered at the hands of the upper caste are met largely by apathy still largely ignored.
Dalits themselves are strongly divided along caste lines. Surinder Jhodka, chair of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Centre for the Study of Social Systems suggests that Dalits in Haryana have failed to organise effectively. “They have no political momentum,” he says, “particularly compared to Dalits in Punjab, such as in the Doaba region where they have formed very powerful communities.”
Perhaps, in the activities of these young girls is a glimpse of the organisation Jhodka seeks. Jagmati Sangwan, the Haryana state president for AIDWA, says that “Dalit girls are asserting their rights now, especially after the rapes of last year and then the December gangrape in New Delhi.” Sangwan herself has been fighting against khap panchayats for over a decade. She sees it right now as “personality-based rather than cohesive movement” but it is still in its incipient stage.
The scenario may seem bleak but when you meet girls like Manju, girls like Komal, committed activists like Manisha, volunteers like Rekha, it’s hard not to feel hope. The world may be opening up to these Dalit women and they are not afraid to step up and claim their place in it.