Every time he goes to the local store, the 50-year-old says, the shopkeeper tells him to stand at a distance and chucks what he has purchased. Upper castes abusing them is so common that they no longer feel the sting, he adds.
The silence of the Dalits has another reason. In the village in Hathras district, where a 19-year-old Dalit woman was battered and allegedly gangraped by four upper caste men, leading to her death, Valmiki families number just about 15. Out of the 600-odd families, nearly half are Thakur, and Brahmins another 100-odd. The cremation grounds for them are separate, they are not allowed into the local temple, and the officials starting from the local school are upper castes, the Dalits say.
And, while the teenager’s brutal assault has become national news, the families, all of whom The Indian Express spoke to, don’t expect things to change. Instead, they fear a backlash once the media attention has moved away. Only a few own land, and most of them work as labourers in the farms of upper castes.
The 19-year-old’s mother says that none of their neighbours, most of them Thakurs and Brahmins, had paid a visit to offer condolences. “We collect fodder from their farms. We thought they would come at least once.”
One of the teeanger’s aunts said they were shocked at the way she was cremated. “I have daughters too… The police would never have done this if the woman was a Thakur.”
A 25-year-old woman recalled how on her wedding day, her palanquin wasn’t allowed to take the main road. “My family had to take the long route. I wanted to cry, but my family said this was normal and we should learn to compromise.”
In death too, they face discrimination, said another woman. When her mother died, they wanted to keep the body outside for some time. “We have a small house. But they didn’t let us. My sister calmed me down,” she said, adding, “They don’t even look at us; they don’t care if we die or get raped.”
The incident with the teenager has also renewed the fear of the families that nothing might change for their children. “I have two sons aged 10 and 5. They go to a government school in Hathras. They often complain that their classmates don’t speak to them because we are Dalits, ‘untouchables’. I want them to study, leave this village. They shouldn’t be forced to do the same work as their parents, they deserve better. But what can we do? The teachers, police, administration—everyone is either a Brahmin or a Thakur,” said a farmer.
The school officials refused to comment on the allegations.
A woman said they can’t go to the local panchayat either. “How do you expect to resolve our issues if you don’t even allow us into meetings? They tell us to go home if we try to attend.”
The village pradhan, however, denied any caste tension. Saying those who alleged so were “lying”, he claimed that the panchayat was for “everyone”. “I can’t speak for all but I haven’t witnessed any such acts. I speak to people irrespective of their caste and listen to their complaints… This is a peaceful place.”
About what had happened to the 19-year-old, the pradhan said, “The men can also be innocent. I understand that the family is hurt, but they should wait for the investigations to be complete before making allegations.”
At the woman’s home though, hope is dying, much like the embers on her pyre. Her sister-in-law, whom she was closest to, wails, “We are Dalits, and that is our sin.”
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