“Main sharminda hoon aur aapse haath jod ke maafi maangta hoon (I am ashamed and ask for your forgiveness),” Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat told 28-year-old Meena, wife of the Dalit labourer who was killed, allegedly by a member of the upper-caste Brahmin community, for entering and “defiling” a flour mill in Bheta-Karedia village in Bageshwar, Uttarakhand.
But the words seemed to provide cold comfort to Meena, who is pregnant with her third child. She has barely spoken a word since her husband, 32-year-old Sohan Ram, was killed on October 5, allegedly by government school teacher Lalit Karnatak. According to police, Karnatak hurled casteist abuses at Ram before slitting his throat with a sickle.
In a family of six, Ram was the sole earning member.
With protests erupting in Bageshwar and Dehradun, and assembly elections scheduled next year, the Uttarakhand government rushed into damage control mode.
Karnatak was arrested a day after the murder. His brother and father, who allegedly threatened Ram’s family against filing a complaint, were arrested hours before Rawat met the family on Tuesday, becoming the first chief minister to visit the village.
Bheta-Karedia is 3 km from the nearest motorable road, and lacks even basic medical facilities.
Rawat ordered that a small anganwadi centre be opened in the village and Ram’s wife be given a job there. He also handed cheques worth Rs 10.65 lakh, from the Centre and the state, as compensation to the family. Meena’s father said he would deposit the money in his daughter’s newly opened bank account.
Rawat, who arrived in a helicopter from Dehradun, stayed in the village for about 30 minutes. He spoke only to Ram’s family.
“This is not the time to talk to anyone. It is the time to express grief and solidarity. The entire village is standing with the family today,” he said.
He may have been off the mark.
For, a clear divide exists in Bheta-Karedia village. The 17 Scheduled Caste families live in Bheta, while the 20 Brahmin and Thakur families live in Karedia. A small stream divides the two areas, located about 1.5 km from each other.
Houses in Karedia are made of concrete and are painted in different colours. In Bheta, houses are made of stone and mud, and all are white.
When a rush of people entered Ram’s two-room home along with Rawat, many were asked to step outside as the weak structure could give way.
Ram’s father, back from a “cleansing ceremony”, sat quietly in one corner; his mother in another.
In shock, Ram’s immediate family did not think of filing a complaint after his death. It was his uncle, Ramesh Ram, who eventually approached the police despite the threats from the accused.
No one from Karedia has visited Ram’s home to offer condolences. “The upper castes do not enter our houses. They don’t come this side,” Ramesh said.
Jagat Prasad, who lives near Ram’s house, said, “The higher castes will not eat anything that we touch. If we touch a glass of water, they will not drink it. If we come face to face on the road, they will stand on one side so that we don’t brush past each other. But murder and physical violence is not a common occurrence.”
Students who study in the local school, Rajkiya Inter College Bheta, say they are routinely discriminated against. Some drop out as a result.
“School teachers, all from high castes, call our children by the names of our cattle. It is insulting. My son stopped going to school because of this behaviour,” said Pavan, who lives in Bheta.
In Karedia, a member of Karnatak’s family said he had been “depressed for the past few days because of some job-related issues”.
But Superintendent of Police Sukhbeer Singh ruled out any personal angle and said the killing was a clear case of violence against Dalits.