FOR THE last seven months, a Dalit rape victim from Vadli village has been camping next to the office of the Amreli district collector along with 22 members of her extended family. While the government declared them hijrati or forced migrants Wednesday, those accused of committing the crime and later intimidating the family are out on bail, and have returned to the village.
Right opposite the collector’s office, the 18-year-old sits motionless in a chair in the BR Ambedkar community hall. A few metres away, some Dalits are staging a dharna inside a shamiana to protest members of the community being booked for alleged murder of a police constable during a recent rally. Near the shamiana, the victim’s father, her three uncles, her grandmother and a paternal aunt sit with a banner behind them that reads “225” — it’s the number of days since they fled their village to “save their lives and seek justice”.
Inside the BR Ambedkar hall, the girl’s elder sister and a cousin are sitting besides her, while her mother and two aunts sit on the state next to a heap of quilts. There is absolute silence in the hall. There are some utensils on a table near a window, and a stove kept under it.
Outside, a constable paces up and down while taking over the phone. He has been posted there to protect the family.
“It was really cold when they came here on January 1, 2016. We requested the authorities to open the locks of this auditorium for the families else we would be forced to break the doors open. The officers in social welfare department, to which the community hall belongs, agreed to allow them to stay inside the hall unofficially,” says Dhiru Khitoliya, a Dalit leader from Amreli. But whenever somebody books the hall for some events, the family has to spend the day outside. Khitoliya says there have been four such incidents.
It was last winter that the victim, a minor according to the family, was allegedly kidnapped from her village home and raped. The police says that Hitesh Khuman and his friend Umesh Dhakhda, both residents of Vadli village, came in a passenger vehicle to the victim’s home at around 11.15 pm on December 25, 2015.
Khuman reportedly assaulted the father and then took the victim to a nearby cattle shelter and allegedly raped her. According to police, Dhakda stood guard while the crime took place.
At 1.30 am on December 26, the the victim’s father rushed to Rajula police station and lodged a complaint of kidnapping. As the victim returned home after the alleged assault, the family went to the police station again. After the victim’s medical examination, the family then returned home under police protection on December 27, 2015. However, on the night of December 31, Khuman’s maternal uncle Raning Dhakhda allegedly went to the victim’s home and asked her father to withdraw the complaint. Five families, including victim’s and those of her three uncles and a paternal aunt, fled their village the next day.
“He threatened to raze our houses and kill us all if I did not withdraw the complaint of rape. He also threatened that he will make our lives miserable by not allowing anybody to meet us. This happened in presence of policemen… The next morning, we all came to Amreli,” says the 42-year-old father, who has been partially paralysed.
“Khuman was harassing my daughter for the three months before he finally kidnapped and assaulted her. I had complained to his two maternal uncles two months before that. They assured me that it will stop,” the father added.
Khuman, who police say is in his mid-20s, was booked for kidnapping and rape, while Umesh was booked for helping him. Raning, the former sarpanch of Vadli, was subsequently booked separately for criminal intimidation. All the accused belong to upper-caste Darbar community. While Umesh and Raning got bail from local courts, Khuman was granted bail by the Gujarat High Court in June after police had filed the chargesheet.
The victim, who has studied till Class X, worked as an farm labourer along with her mother and elder sister. The displacement affected studies of her younger sister, says the father, adding: “She was in Class X. After we came here, she attended school for sometime here. But they did not allow her to take her examination in Amreli. She was forced to go to Rajula. All the turmoil contributed to her failing the board examination.”
District Collector Dilip Rana said there are 90 other Dalit families in Vadli and that police had given protection to the five affected families. But the victims say that returning to Vadli is out of question. “How can we live in a village where our daughters are kidnapped and raped,” asked the victim’s 62-year-old grandmother.