She is 17 and on the verge of college next year. But far from pondering over where to apply and for which course, she is worried these days whether she would be able to complete even her Class XII. “How can I dream of college when I am not sure of completing school?” she says, idling in her semi-pucca, two-room house which she shares with her parents and five siblings.
Since July 20, she and 149 other children, mostly girls, of Paharpur village, 50 km from Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh, have not gone to school. That day, her father, along with 35 men and boys of Paharpur, had gone to the banks of a small stream of Dhonda river, and waited for “boys from the other village” to turn up. As soon as five boys from Tanda, a village on the other end of the river, emerged after a dip in the water, the Paharpur men chased them and beat them up.
Since then, the girls are afraid to cross the 50-metre stretch of river to attend Lajpat Rai Inter College in Shergarh town, the only intermediate school within 15 km of Paharpur. This, despite the police having arrested the five boys who were allegedly beaten up. The boys were picked up after they were accused of harassing Paharpur girls in an FIR filed by the men of their village.
“What if they harass us again?” asks another girl, a 15-year-old student of Class X.
For the last two years, the girls allege they have been facing regular harassment on their way to school — a difficult route, which includes a 3-km walk through a narrow path in the fields, and a 50-metre ride across the Dhonda stream on a makeshift boat made of wooden planks planted on four drums.
It’s on this boat ride, they allege, that boys from Tanda would harass them. “They would bathe in the river nude, pass lewd remarks splash water at us, and rock our boat,” says the 15-year-old, adding that “no girl crossed the river alone”. “We would move in groups of six-seven girls, but now we fear even going in a group,” says another girl.
On the other side of the river, Tanda is still to come to terms with the arrest of five teenage boys of the village — Shahid Ali, Yusuf, Abid, Zafar and Sharafat — on July 22 when the men of Paharpur filed an FIR accusing them of harassing the school girls.
Numaish Ali, the brother-in-law of 18-year-old Sharafat, says it was “they who started it”. Showing two damaged motorbikes, he says, “The boys had taken a visiting relative on a tour of the village. They decided to bathe in the stream — a common practice on both ends of the Dhonda. When they were returning on their bikes, they were stopped by men of Paharpur, who beat them with sticks. They took away their money and cellphones. We filed a police complaint against them.”
On July 20, Sharafat filed a non-cognisable report at the Shergarh police station against three Paharpur villagers — Omkar, Brijesh Singh and Prem Singh — accusing them of assaulting him and four other boys of his village.
Two days later, several villagers of Paharpur filed the FIR against the five Tanda boys.
Zainab, Sharafat’s cousin, questions the veracity of the FIR. “My brothers had gone to the stream at about 10.30 am and were beaten up around 11 am. They say they caught my brothers misbehaving with girls on way to school but 11 am was neither the time to go to or return from school,” she says.
It’s not just the river that divides the two villages, but also religion. Tanda is Muslim-majority, while Paharpur is dominated by Thakurs. And this divide, say villagers, is being fuelled by political parties. Paharpur residents allege that Tanda enjoys the “protection” of the ruling Samajwadi Party. The 17-year-old Paharpur girl’s father, who was among those who beat up the Tanda boys, says, “Earlier, we used to sort such issues by sitting with the elders of Tanda, but not now. Our gram pradhan complained to the gram pradhan of Tanda a few days before July 20 about the harassment faced by our girls. But he did nothing. They think they have the SP’s shelter.”
On the other hand, some BJP leaders arrived in Paharpur on July 22, and went with the gram pradhan to Shergarh to file an FIR. Union Minister Santosh Gangawar also “intervened” for registration of the FIR. The same day, the five Tanda teens were arrested.
Why did the Paharpur villagers wait for political intervention to lodge an FIR? “We had approached the police in the past but were asked to sort out our differences among ourselves. It’s only when we went with politicians that the police lodged our FIR,” says the 17-year-old girl’s father.
The police, though, deny the claim. R K S Rathore, Deputy Inspector General of Police, Bareilly, says the FIR “was filed before the politicians came”. “The girls came with some other people to meet me for proper investigation. We are doing our best to protect them,” he says. Besides, Bareilly District Magistrate Gaurav Dayal has announced that a bridge will be built over the river soon.
Rathore says the girls’ families are being “unreasonable”. “They are demanding that unless we close the complaint made by the Tanda boys against them, they won’t send the girls to school. But we cannot do that. They took law into their hands and beat the boys so severely that they had to be hospitalised.” Without naming anyone, he says the girls are “being influenced by some people”.
A few days ago, VHP leader Sadhvi Prachi was detained by the police before she could hold a “Beti Bachao Mahapanchayat”. However, BJP leaders are still visiting Paharpur and raising the issue. Arun Kumar, BJP MLA from Bareilly, along with district unit leaders of the party, has been telling the villagers, “The administration was protecting boys of one particular community and you all know we intervened when we got to know of your girls’ plight.”
In the haze of politics, the real issue of education for girls has been lost. The lone school the girls attend offers only the humanities stream. There are infrastructural hurdles as well. For years, the girls have been taking the perilous route to and from school. The stream that falls in the middle has little water and can be crossed by foot, but in monsoon, it fills up, and the girls need to take a boat.
After a 1.5-km walk, and a 50-metre boat ride, the girls walk another 1.5 km through a mud track to reach their school. “Why can’t they just build a bridge? There would be no problems and we could study,” says the 15-year-old high-school student.
The lack of the bridge is why most girls in the village drop out after Class XI or X. Jyoti Singh, an 18-year-old, dropped out after Class X two years ago, as “it is unsafe to go to school”. “My father is a farmer and cannot take us to school each day and bring us back.”
Shikha Singh, another school dropout, watches the all-male BJP meeting with village elders from a distance. She sighs, “We could not dream of becoming doctors or engineers since we had only arts stream. Even if we did complete our intermediate, our parents would never send us to Bareilly city for college. They would just marry us off.”
The17-year-old is worried she is headed the same way. Her father says he “won’t let her go to school till the situation improves”. Her mother jumps in, “Studies are important but honour is everything. She has studied enough to read and write.”