While heading to Surana, a village in the western Rajasthan district of Jalore, one can see the tricolour hoisted on roadside tea stalls and schoolchildren animatedly laughing and talking on their way back after Independence Day celebrations.
But inside the tin-roofed house of Indra Kumar, the Dalit boy who died on August 13 after allegedly being beaten up by his upper-caste teacher for drinking water from a pot meant for the latter, the mood is that of mourning. Long wails of women can be heard from afar, and Dewaram Meghwal, who completed the last rites of his nine-year-old son just hours before India completed 75 years of Independence, sits with a blank expression on his face.
Men from the Meghwal community, wearing long kurtas and turbans, surround a garlanded photo of Indra while the women of the house peep through windows to see the regular flow of people visiting the house.
While police maintained that their investigation had not thus far revealed any caste angle to the death of Indra, the Dalit family stuck to its claim that the assault on the boy had something to with casteism.
The family found support from Congress MLA and Rajasthan Commission for Scheduled Caste Chairman Khiladi Lal Bairwa, who lambasted his own government on Monday over the death and criticised police for ruling out the caste angle.
“My nephew died because of casteism and we are sure about it. Dalits are treated inhumanely in our region. Even today, we have to go several kilometres away to cut our hair as barbers in our village are unwilling to cut Dalits’ hair. Ever since registering the FIR, we are also living in fear for our own safety,” said Kishore Kumar Meghwal, uncle of Indra and the complainant in the case.
Indra’s elder brother, who studies in Class 5 of the same school, said the teacher had indeed abused the boy with casteist slurs after beating him.
Around 4km from Indra’s home, a cluster of people is steadily growing inside the one-storey building of Saraswati Vidya Mandir, the school where Indra studied.
Locals say that Chail Singh, the accused teacher, has been running the school for nearly two decades and has rented the building from a Rajput family.
An Indian flag is hoisted over a bamboo pole in front of the school.
Singh is in police custody, with the FIR accusing him of beating up Indra and abusing him with casteist slurs after the Class 3 boy drank from the drinking water pot meant for the teacher.
On Monday, Jalore superintendent of police Harsh Vardhan Agarwalla and other police officials recorded the statements of several students, including those who were present on July 20, when the incident allegedly happened.
“We are investigating the allegation of the boy being beaten up for drinking water from a pot, and are also interrogating people from the school. But in our preliminary investigation, this allegation hasn’t been proved,” Agarwalla said.
Singh has also found support from his colleagues, who say that no drinking water pot was kept in the building.
“I cannot say what exactly happened on July 20. However, most of the staff of this school are from SC/ST communities and we never faced any discrimination from Singh. No earthen pot was ever kept at the school. Students and teachers drink water from the water tank inside the school compound,” said Ashok Jeengar, a teacher who is from a Scheduled Caste community.
A student in Class 3 said amid police presence at the school that on July 20, he and Indra had an argument over a piece of paper and that Singh had slapped both of them.
According to Himmat Charan, investigating officer in the murder case, out of the eight staff members in the school, three teachers are from Scheduled Castes, two from Scheduled Tribes, one from the OBC category and two others including Singh are Rajputs.
“Saraswati Vidya Mandir is owned by Singh through a personal trust. The school at present has 344 students. It was started back in 2005 and has classes up to the eighth standard. Fifty-four of these students study under the Right To Education Act. It is one of the three private schools in Surana,” said Shriram Godara, district education officer, Jalore.
The local Rajput community submitted a memorandum to the superintendent of police demanding a fair investigation in the matter. “We believe the allegations of caste discrimination against Singh are false. We want a fair probe,” said Suraj Singh Rathore, who led the Rajput community while submitting the memorandum on Monday.
Parbat Ram, another uncle of the boy, showed his bandaged head and alleged that he sustained injuries and had two stitches to his head after police lathicharged those who had assembled at the boy’s home on August 14.
Asked about the injuries, investigating officer Charan said, “Yesterday, some anti-social elements tried to snatch the body of the boy. The police just dispersed them and there was no intention to use force against any family member or relative.”