It was a special occasion and Meena Regar looked on happily as her daughter laughed with children of her age, waiting for her turn to have a glass of milk.
Barely a fortnight ago, they had enrolled the 5-year-old in Class 1 of a government school in Haripura, a tiny hamlet nestled between the Aravallis in Rajasthan’s Bundi district. On July 2, like many other parents, Meena had gone to witness the launch of the state’s Annapurna milk scheme under which, for the first time in the state, milk was being made available to students in schools.
“As she was standing in the queue, my daughter mistakenly stepped on the egg of a Titihari (Red Wattled Lapwing). A large crowd gathered as it is believed in our village that the egg of this bird is sacred,” says Meena.
The same day, the caste panchayat allegedly ordered ostracisation of the girl, and told her to stay out of the family home for 10 days.
The authorities intervened nine days later, but the family say they are still scared, and that villagers have warned them that no one would help deliver Meena’s third child, due within a month.
Meena’s husband Hukumchand, who works as a labourer at a cow shelter 10 km away, says he rushed home on being informed what had happened, and approached the caste panchayat on his own. “The elders said they would ostracise my daughter unless I pay back Rs 1,500 that I had taken as loan from one of them three years ago,” says the 32-year-old.
He claims that the caste panchayat members also demanded “a bottle of plain (country liquor)” in order to absolve the child of her “sin”.
Hukumchand says that he was ready to give them the liquor, some gram and a packet of namkeen, but pleaded that he be allowed to return the Rs 1,500 a month later, after his wife’s delivery. He alleges that the girl was ostracised following this, and told not to enter her house for 10 days.
Meena says the 5-year-old spent the first few days and nights alone in front of the house, under a structure with a half-thatched roof. Hukumchand says she cried and tried to enter the house, but they didn’t dare let her in. “After a few days, we too started staying outside. How could we have left our daughter alone?… We were lucky it didn’t rain heavily during this period.”
After the police and district administration came to know, the girl was allowed back into the house and a case registered against 10 men from the village. Four of the men were arrested Tuesday. The Rajasthan State Human Rights Commission has sought a report.
Hukumchand says the village is angry with them. “For the first few days, I was abused daily. The day I lodged the FIR against the caste panchayat members, they told me I would be beaten up… I fear for our safety.”
At their clay house, the child, the couple’s eldest, follows Meena everywhere, a blue school bag slung over her shoulders. Family members say they never let her out of their sight apart from when she goes to school.
Gyarsilal Regar, member of the Regar caste panchayat and one of the 10 accused in the case, says, “It is absolutely wrong to say we had ostracised the girl or barred her from entering her home. We asked Hukumchand to take his daughter to a temple, where she would have to take a bath. We told him that members of the panchayat would eat gram from her hand after the ritual so that she was absolved of the sin… We had taken the girl back in our caste and Hukumchand exaggerated the matter in front of the media.”
Gyarsilal also alleges that Hukumchand was drunk when he appeared before the panchayat and had declined to pay the borrowed Rs 1,500.
Villagers say at least one such case comes before them every year, and the person concerned has to do certain rituals as atonement. However, no one is willing to confirm whether there have been past instances of ostracisation.
Another villager, from a different caste, Bhagwan Saini admits it is wrong to blame the girl. As a Titihari lays eggs on the ground and in bushes, unlike other birds, anyone may step on them by mistake, he points out.
Fellow villager Rajesh Joshi adds, “Many people believe if the egg of a Titihari is broken, there will be no monsoon. Ironically, in this case, right after the girl broke the egg, it rained.”
Mangilal Meghwanshi, sarpanch of the Sathur gram panchayat under whose jurisdiction Haripura falls, says, “In rural areas almost every community has its own panchayat, which runs parallel to the elected one. We weren’t informed about the incident.”
He adds, “Even if the caste panchayat felt the girl had committed a sin, they could have given her a less harsh punishment.” However, Meghwanshi denies the family’s claims of receiving threats.
“We are investigating the case,” says Inspector Lakshman Singh of Hindoli Police Station.
Meanwhile, over at Government Primary School, Haripura, another Titihari has laid eggs in a corner of the sprawling grounds. The children look from afar at the bird nestling her eggs.
Saying they have told the students to keep away, teacher Lokesh Meena says, “How can a child know which bird is sacred and which is not?”