Early in the morning of February 29 this year, Raju Bairwa was awakened by a phone call. A wedding was taking that day in his small village, which lies on the outskirts of the Dausa district in Rajasthan, and somebody was calling him to ask for help with the preparations. Three hours after Raju left the house, his wife Gita received another phone call. Her husband had been beaten up, a voice informed her.
Half an hour later she found him by the riverside severely wounded. The perpetrators had put sand in his mouth, so he wouldn’t be able to scream. After Gita had cleaned his mouth, Raju asked her how she would survive, knowing that if he died, he would leave a jobless wife and three young boys.
Raju did die, a couple of hours later, on his way to the hospital. He was just 28 years old. His death was hardly a surprise: The family had been harassed and threatened for 25 years over a piece of land they had acquired in the village. Raju’s family is Dalit, a scheduled caste formerly considered “untouchable” and landless in the ancient Hindu caste order. Although the Bairwas legally own the land, their ownership is disputed by the upper caste villagers, who still control the plot.
In India, national crime statistics show that violence against Dalits is on the rise. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), crime against Dalits – ranging from rape, murder, beatings, and violence related to land matters – increased by 29 percent from 2012 to 2014. In 2014, 47,064 cases of crimes against Dalits were registered, up from 39,408 in 2013 and 33,655 in 2012.
Recent figures for Rajasthan, the state with the highest rate of atrocities committed against Dalits, indicate that this violence continues to rise. Between April 2015 and March 2016, 617 severe incidents were registered by the Centre for Dalit Rights (CDR) in Jaipur, the only organization in Rajasthan monitoring these atrocities. It should be noted that these numbers are the tip of the iceberg. Among them, 161 cases related to land disputes, 127 cases included violence against women and rape; and 97 were physical assaults. In 2014-2015, 566 cases had been reported.
“Our feudal history, high poverty rate, and the important role religion has in society, are among the reasons why Rajasthan is at the top,” CDR Director P.L. Mimroth told The Diplomat.
While modern Indian law has officially abolished the caste hierarchy, untouchability is in many ways still a practice. In most villages in Rajasthan Dalits are not allowed to take water from the public well or to enter the temple. In public schools, Dalits are not allowed to serve meals to superior castes; they often have to sit outside the classroom; and are made to clean the toilets.
“Recently a Rajasthani teacher asked a Dalit student to dispose of the dead body of a street dog,” Grijesh Dinker, the state coordinator of the National Dalit Movement for Justice, recalls. “When he refused to do so, he was beaten. Last year, two 8-year-old Dalit children drank water from the pot of their teachers. After beating them brutally, the school dismissed 11 children from school, but just two had drunk from the pot. We took this case to the national level, but the police investigation was closed down.”
In recent years, because of affirmative action policies, some Dalits have managed to escape the vicious circle of poverty and discrimination. A growing number can buy land, although this often meets with resistance from the community.
“Half of all atrocities committed against Dalits are related to land disputes,” says Mimroth, “The overall number is rising because Dalits have increasingly started claiming their rights. On the one hand, cases are more likely to be reported now. On the other hand, the fact that Dalits tend to speak out more results in more violent confrontations. In Rajasthan, every day two or three Dalits are raped or killed.”
Raped and Poisoned
On March 28, 2016, Delta Meghnal, a 17-year-old Dalit girl was raped in her school in Bikaner, a city in Rajasthan. Her physical trainer allegedly attacked her when she was cleaning his room, a task she had to fulfill every day. Later that night, Delta called her father to explain him what had happened. He promised to pick her up the next morning. But when he arrived, he found that Delta had been poisoned, and her body was thrown into a water tank.
The post-mortem established both the rape and the murder. The teacher, the principal and the warden, the latter two suspected of being accessories to the murder, were arrested. But neither Delta’s family nor the Dalit community carry high hopes for justice. According to Grijesh, “The warden’s husband is associated with the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and the other accused are affiliated with the BJP ruling political party. Because of their powerful ties, I don’t think a charge sheet will be filed in court within 60 days, and thus the investigation will be dropped. Even the recently recommended Central Bureau of Investigation probe into Delta’s death will not change this.”
In Rajasthan, 60 percent of rape cases are closed during the investigation; 20 percent of cases are lost after filing them in court. Of the 20 percent that result in a guilty verdict, only 4 percent receive a punishment. The overall conviction rate for crimes against Dalits in Rajasthan is 7 percent – compared to a 28.8 percent conviction rate for crimes against Dalits for the whole of India.
This relative impunity persists despite India’s strong laws. The 2014 amendment of the Prevention of Atrocities Act introduces offences such as garlanding with footwear, compelling to dispose of or carry human or animal carcasses, or undertake manual scavenging, and abusing Dalits (Scheduled Castes) and Adivasis (Scheduled Tribes) in public. The law even seeks the establishment of a special court at the district level to try the offences it defines.
But enforcement appears to be very weak. In Rajasthan, Mimroth blames law enforcement: “Police, the revenue department, and judiciary – they all belong to the superior castes and have biased attitudes towards Dalits.”
Also in Gujrat, a state bordering Rajasthan, which has the highest rate of sexual violence against Dalit women, weak enforcement of the law due to a lack of political will is a major issue according to Manjula Pradeep, a well-known activist. “In this state, atrocities committed against Dalits are on the rise as well. Apart from increasing violence against Dalit women, lots of Dalits are killed over land issues. They increasingly stand up for their rights, but the state is not ready to listen to them. Registering a complaint doesn’t mean you will get justice. Gujrat does not have special courts or police stations, such as obliged by the Prevention of Atrocities Act.”
Three years ago three young Dalit boys were killed by police fire in Thangadh, a town in Gujrat. So far, there has been no trial. “We have been raising this issue since September 2012,” Pradeep says, “We presented the case to the United Nations, and launched a petition in the Gujrat High Court. But we don’t expect any result. Whenever police are involved in killings we are not able to get justice for the Dalit family.”
In his last statement to the police, just before he died on the way to hospital, Raju Bairwa identified the nine men who had attacked him. He knew them well, as they were the same men who had been harassing his family for 25 years. In one incident, 500 people gathered around the Bairwa family’s house. When they started shooting, three family members were wounded, Raju among them. Some years later, Raju’s elder brother was found dead under suspicious circumstances. The case remains unresolved.
Three years ago, these same nine men were sentenced to three years imprisonment for multiple instances of harassment of the Bairwa family. But as they belong to upper caste families with powerful political ties, they were able to bail themselves out.
At the time of writing, only six of the nine accused have been arrested for Raju’s death. Three remain free due to “insufficient evidence.” Meanwhile, the upper caste community continues to occupy the Bairwa’s land, and is holding meetings to have the case settled.
“We were wrong to believe that education would eradicate untouchability,” sighs Mimroth, “The dominant mindset in Rajasthan is still guided by the caste system. It will take more than 100 years to change that.”
Hanne Couderé is a Belgian freelance journalist specializing in South Asia who writes for various print media about international politics, migration and conflict.