As one approaches Tehri Garhwal’s Basan village in Uttarakhand, a one-room structure with blue walls can be spotted from a distance. The first house as one enters the village, it stands apart from the other establishments — because its occupants are Dalits, residents say.
The one-room house is where Jitendra Das, 21, lived with his mother and two siblings. Jitendra’s death, his relatives say, occurred because he “challenged” members of upper castes over discriminatory practices and “dared to take a stand”.
He succumbed to injuries days after he was allegedly beaten by seven people, all from the same family and a higher ‘Savarna’ caste, for eating in front of them.
The incident occurred on April 26, at the wedding of his cousin. Jitendra’s relatives said he reached the venue early to help with the arrangements. “After completing the preparations, he took some food on a plate and sat on a chair to eat. Some high-caste members did not want him to sit near them. They asked him to move, but he refused,” said Padam Das, his cousin.
As matters escalated, one of the accused allegedly kicked Jitendra’s chair, causing him to fall. “Jitendra got up and slapped him. The men hurled casteist abuses at Jitendra, but bystanders managed to separate the two groups and maintain peace,” he said.
Jitendra then left the venue. As he was walking home, he reportedly stopped at a handpump, and the seven accused allegedly confronted him again and beat him up. Jitendra was taken to hospital and succumbed to injuries on May 5.
The accused — identified as Gajendra Singh, Soban Singh, Kushal Singh, Gabbar Singh, Gambhir Singh, Harbir Singh and Hukum Singh — have been arrested. Apart from Gabbar, who is 25 years old and worked at a hotel in Dehradun, all others are above 40 years old and engaged in farming.
“A case was registered under sections of IPC and SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Section 302 (murder) of IPC was added after Jitendra’s death,” said Uttam Singh, Circle Officer of Narendra Nagar, who is investigating the matter.
A relative of the accused claimed they were being framed. “They are saying this just to get reservation. Jitendra had fits, he took medication, and there are rumours he may have died of an overdose. The accused are being framed,” the relative said.
Jitendra’s family admitted that he took medication, but denied these allegations. “We were all sleeping in the house that night, the doors were locked. In the morning we found him unconscious in the verandah. How could he have come inside and taken his medication?” Geeta Devi, Jitendra’s mother, told The Indian Express.
“A boy saw him being beaten by the accused. Other people at the wedding told us what had happened,” she added. Their relatives said they had little hope of change. “Segregation is deeply ingrained. Dalit families live on the outskirts of villages. At festivals, we have to carry our own plates,” said Padam.
Basan village, Shrikot (where the incident occurred) and Bhatwari (from where the seven accused hail) are within 2 km of each other. According to the 2011 census, 93 of the 340 residents at Basan are Scheduled Castes, as are 78 of 636 in Shrikot, and 60 of 331 in Bhatwari.
A farmer from Shrikot said, “I am from the same caste as the accused, and I admit that these practices are a part of our lives. If higher caste people take a stand, they will be made outcasts.”
Jitendra’s 22-year-old sister Puja said that despite the segregation, the two groups were never aggressive with each other. Her uncle added, “Earlier, people followed these practices. Today’s generation has started resisting, and upper castes do not like that.” Jitendra worked odd jobs and was training to be a carpenter. “He was the primary earning member of our family,” said Geeta Devi.
Her daughter recalled the last time she saw Jitendra alive. “He had been unconscious since he was beaten, but on May 5 he opened his eyes. I told him we would get those people arrested. Now that he is gone, I will ensure I keep my word and justice is done. We are being pressured to drop the charges, but I am not afraid.”