On July 11, a Dalit RTI activist, Baburam Chauhan of Jaisalmer, was brutally attacked and humiliated for allegedly exposing land grabs by the dominant Rajputs of the area. The same week marked two months since the Dangawas killings of Dalits. Both incidents are reminders of how the continued denial of land rights to Dalits strengthens the oppression of lower castes. While the CBI has begun its inquiry into the Dangawas killings, and the police have been fairly prompt and active in Jaisalmer, such attacks are likely to continue. These incidents are growing signs of Dalit assertion as well as the extremely sharp reaction to it.
Baburam, a government schoolteacher posted at Ranau village, was using the RTI since 2008 to expose illegal encroachments and allotments by non-Dalits on large tracts of canal-irrigated lands reserved for the landless poor, SCs and STs. His exposés provoked the dominant castes. Baburam was not only beaten up but deliberately humiliated, with exemplary cruelty. After being waylaid on the road when he was returning from school, he was allegedly abducted in a Jeep, mercilessly beaten, his hair was cut and shaved, he was forced to consume urine, iron rods were driven through his legs, before he was tossed towards the canal. It was chance that he did not fall into the canal and lay inert at its side, where he was found by a search party of family members.
While Baburam managed to survive the attack, the Dangawas victims were less lucky. Two months after the killings, Dalit families in Dangawas village in Nagaur district are still haunted by the happenings of May 14 — a bloody war that raged on for an hour, resulting in the deaths of six people, with 11 hospitalised.
Dangawas has, 600 Jat families and 120 Dalit Meghwal families. The attack by a predominantly Jat mob on the Dalit families was allegedly triggered by an attempt on the part of Ratnaram Meghwal’s family to start living on land that was legally theirs by evicting the family of Chimnaram Jat, who had apparently illegally occupied their land for nearly half a century. A court order in March 2015 had ruled in favour of Ratnaram Meghwal, after which he built a house and began living on this land with his family. But on April 20, barely a month after the court’s ruling, the two sons of Chimnaram Jat allegedly began constructing a water reservoir on this land and cut down a few khejri trees. When Ratnaram objected to this, the two left, but they returned the next day and allegedly sexually assaulted a young Dalit widow sleeping alone in a hut. The police reportedly refused to register an FIR. Tensions grew. The Jats set the date of May 14 for a caste panchayat to discuss the issue of Ratnaram’s land. Sensing danger, the Dalits wrote to the police seeking protection. But as the caste panchayat concluded, hundreds of Jats reportedly went to surround the Dalit homes armed with sticks, iron rods and other weapons.
Tractors were allegedly used to crush three unarmed Dalits, many were mercilessly beaten up, the women had sticks inserted in their private parts. Two Dalits succumbed to their injuries in hospital later. Many among those attacked are seriously injured and battling for survival, some have lost their limbs and others are under treatment. One non-Dalit bystander reportedly died of bullet injuries. Shockingly, this attack was later allegedly celebrated on social media by some of the Jats. Their comments state that after the SC/ST atrocities act and reservation policies, Dalits had become so bold that they needed to be reminded of their place.
Not surprisingly perhaps, the sarpanch, sachiv, patwari and many others in administrative posts are Jats. Nagaur district has seen at least four other instances of atrocities on Dalits in the last year. Both the Jaisalmer attack and the Dangawas killings are examples of the reality of caste oppression. As Dalits assert their basic rights, it is the state’s responsibility to implement laws relating to land and human rights. Baburam Chauhan and Ratnaram Meghwal should have had the state machinery standing by them as they took on their land battles and faced upper-caste reaction. Despite grave threats in both Baburam and Ratnaram’s cases, written appeals for police and administrative protection went unheeded.
The sequence of events in both Jaisalmer and Dangawas confirms how caste-ridden our politics and administration are. While swift and exemplary action is crucial, those who failed to prevent the attacks must also be punished. Policies must be in place to proactively support Dalit communities. In the 15th Lok Sabha, an ordinance was passed to strengthen the SC/ST atrocities act. Why did this “ordinance raj” Central government allow this ordinance to lapse?
The Central and state governments must carry out a proactive drive to protect and restore Dalit land, strengthen the SC/ST atrocities act and its implementation. Land encroachments constitute a continuum of violence against Dalits. We need to stop looking the other way when we see the obvious injustice perpetuated.
The writers are activists with the MKSS and TISS