An excerpt from ‘Courting Disaster: A Report on Inter-Caste Marriages, Society and State’, a People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) report published in August 2003.
Talao in Jhajjar district of Haryana retains the appearance of a village despite being situated only three kilometers from the district headquarters. The village has a population of about 4000, with 600 households of which 150 are dalit including 70 families of jatavs (chamars), 30 of balmikis (churhas), 15 each of lohars, nais and dhanaks, besides 300 jat households. Jhajjar is a reserved Assembly constituency and. the present sarpanch, Vijay, belongs to the dhanak caste. The various castes are not clearly segregated spatially into distinctive panas or settlements within the village. Except for a low-lying neglected pana inhabited solely by dalits, houses of jats and dalits are situated adjacent on the same street. Yet the dominance of the jats is amply visible in day-to-day life. A dalit activist who runs a small tailoring shop in the village, attempted to use funds available with the local administration for developmental work in the dalit pana. This was strongly resented and prevented by the jats. Some change is however visible in the economic status of members of different dalit castes. Upward mobility among the jatavs is evident in their pucca houses, some of which at least look as prosperous as the jat households. Some run small shops in the village, others have made use of reservations to secure government jobs, while still others are employed in the army. Many among those working outside still continue to reside in the village and remain vulnerable to the power of the dominant caste.
Codes of behaviour are laid down and enforced through jat panchayats, known as khap panchayats, a mechanism whereby the consolidated social power of the jats in rural Haryana is kept alive. The rhetoric and expression of caste and patriarchal sentiments in large, all male gatherings mobilises the whole caste group. When its anger targets those seen as challenging its authority, like the dalits, women or young couples, its power can be awesome and brutal.
It was in this backdrop that in July 2002 Susheela, the 19-year old daughter of Ranbir, a jat who runs a small vegetable shop in the village, eloped with Rajpal, hailing from a dalit household, whose father is a Subedar in the army.
An elopement that turned fatal
On 5 July 2002, Susheela (19) a class eight dropout left home with her 17-year old sister Lalita, a class six dropout, at about 7:45 p.m. and did not return. The next day their father lodged an FIR (No. 298) at Jhajjar police station stating that his daughters had been kidnapped. A case was filed under sections 363, 366 (dealing with abduction and kidnapping), 376 ( r ape) and 120-B (criminal conspiracy) of the IPC. On the same day residents of Talao including a few dalits went in a group to inform the DC, SP and the DSP that the girls had been abducted from the village.
The DSP, Jhajjar, also a jat and known to be related to the father of the girls, personally led the investigations. The DSP was quick to believe that the girls were actually abducted by the ‘dalit boys’ as alleged by Ranbir. He immediately returned with Ranbir to Talao and began his investigation. He discovered that a white Maruti van had been spotted in the village on the night of 5 July. Notebooks of the elder girl Susheela revealed that she had written letters to one ‘Raja’, a code name for someone who turned out to be Bittoo alias Rajpal, a resident of the same village. The police zeroed in on Rajpal, a chamar whose paternal uncle worked in t he Maruti factory at Gurgaon. His ancestral house was located in the same neighbourhood as Susheela’s but he stayed there only during weekends since he was at that time living and studying in Gurgaon. Inquiries in the village revealed that Rajpal had indeed come to the village on 5 July and left after picking up his mother. He then went off to attend an army recruitment interview in Agra. But the DSP believes that Rajpal had actually come to take away the girls in a white matador van. Twelve dalits were picked up by the police. Rajpal’s chacha and 15-year old brother were among them. Besides, enormous pressure began to be exerted on the dalits of the village by the jats as well as the police. Since the allegation was that the missing jat girls had been forcibly abducted, the jats of the village started threatening the dalit community with reprisal rapes of dalit women. Therefore, on 9 July, 12 dalit men and 3 dalit women submitted a statement to the SP complaining of harassment. However the authorities took no action on this complaint. A version of that statement was published in the Dainik Jagran on 10th July and this possibly prompted the girls to return.
On 11 July the girls surfaced in Jhajjar and went to the police station. According to the DSP under sustained pressure built up by the jat community and the police Rajpal had sent the girls back to the village by putting them on to a bus from the ISBT at Delhi with the instruction that they should go straight back to Jhajjar and give a statement to the magistrate. According to him the girls surfaced in Jhajjar and gave a unbelievable and concocted story to the police of how they had got to Delhi.
On 12 July the two girls appeared in the court of the magistrate where Susheela first recorded her statement. According to the advocate for Rajpal and others implicated in the case, Susheela had stated that she left her house with her younger sister on the pretext of going to relieve themselves and went to a place where Rajpal was waiting for them with a vehicle. They first went to Gurgaon and then to Jaipur. When the magistrate asked Susheela if she wanted to say anything more, she said: ‘I am married to Bittoo (Rajpal) of my own free will.’
Lalita, the younger sister, gave the following statement: ‘My sister wanted to marry Bittoo but she was being forcibly married to someone else.’ Lalita also stated that her father beat her for speaking up for Susheela who did not want to marry anyone other than Rajpal. She decided to go with Susheela and Rajpal because she was scared of being beaten again.
The magistrate sent the sisters into the custody of their maternal uncle who took them to Beri village. According to a dalit resident of the village both sisters did not want to go home and sought to go to the Nari Niketan. It is unclear why Susheela was not set at liberty by the court given that she was a major, and in any case why both the sisters were not sent into protective custody given the content of their statements.
The girls returned to Talao on 17 July and were found dead the next morning. They had both died of poisoning in the night. While the family claimed it was ‘suicide’, women in the neighbourhood told us that they heard the girls cry out for help in the night, arousing a strong suspicion among many people that the girls were forcibly poisoned. The cries were privately confirmed to us by an elderly jat woman who argued that the family had no option but to kill the girls as the two refused to change their statements. The team could not ascertain whether a post mortem was conducted.
According to the DSP, ‘unable to bear the ignominy and shame of what had happened to them, [the girls] killed themselves’ by consuming rat poison, commonly available in cultivator households. According to him, Susheela had also tried to do so earlier in an apparent suicide pact with Rajpal and poison had been confiscated from her, a story that state functionaries often spin as a post facto justification, which is anyway impossible to verify. The DC, Jhajjar repeated verbatim the DSP’s account. He denied the possibility of murder or even abetment to suicide. His explanation revolved around the girls’ inability to withstand the scorn within the family and the community due to the elopement, which led to suicide. No crime was registered and the matter was closed.
Notwithstanding the above story of eloping, ‘shame’ and ‘suicide’, and oblivious of the statements recorded by the sisters, the case of abduction and rape against five accused, i.e. Rajpal (Bittoo), and four of his friends – Baljit, Vinod, Rajesh and Jagbir – continues. No statement of either Rajpal or Baljit had been recorded and both were in jail on 14 November. The last three accused have been granted bail. The mere existence of rape and abduction charges in the FIR was sufficient for the judge to keep two accused in prolonged detention considering the “gravity of the offence’.
According to the lawyer, the enormous social pressure in cases of inter-caste elopements in this region works against the accused in law courts. There have been a few acquittals but the process of law takes a year-and-a-half at the least. Meanwhile Rajpal’s house was vandalised with his family having to flee the village.
Consequences for the dalits: Two deaths and public humiliation
Following the discovery that Susheela had eloped with a dalit boy, the jats unleashed their fury on the dalit residents of Talao. One of the first victims was Poonam, a young newly married dalit woman who was a neighbour of the missing girls and was a signatory to the complaint of harassment to the SP, mentioned earlier. She was a friend of Susheela, and perhaps knew Rajpal and had foreknowledge of the elopement. Poonam was therefore a particularly vulnerable target. She was repeatedly interrogated in isolation, also personally by the DSP. Her husband and family were also grilled in custody. The police made imputations of Poonam having been in an illicit relationship with Rajpal and the same were repeated to our team. This insinuation is particularly rewarding: by implying that Rajpal did not love Susheela, it denies the possibility of a love marriage; by implying that Rajpal was of ‘loose moral character’, it becomes easier to carry through the charge of abduction and rape; and ‘loose moral character’ is a good reason to scotch any sympathy for the man in jail. Unable to bear the humiliation Poonam committed suicide by hanging on 11 July. (The mother-in-law of Poonam told the NDTV team that she was away cutting grass and so did not know what exactly happened, but perhaps the jats and/or the police scared Poonam as they would come daily and question her.)
The police still took no heed of either the complaint of harassment or of the tense situation in the village. The jat panchayat of Talao was very active throughout the days following the disappearance of the girls. On 11 July, the day after the report on harassment in Talao appeared in the press, the panchayat summoned Rohtas, the dalit activist in the village. He was charged with having brought disrepute upon the village by speaking to the press about the incidents at Talao. The jats were furious with him for having united the dalit villagers and brought their terror tactics in the village to public notice. Rohtas did not accept the charge but considered it expedient to apologize in order to diffuse the tension in the village.
Rohtas was summoned once more on 21 and 22 July, along with Sundar (who works in the local court at Jhajjar according to a report filed by NDTV on October 28, 2002). Emboldened perhaps by their ability to get away with the series of deaths occurring in the village in the elopement case, the community power of the jats was now fully evident. The panchayat severely reprimanded the two. They were fined Rs. 2100 and were publicly beaten with shoes before the jat panchayat. They accepted the punishment, as they feared that Rohtas could be killed. A final Panchayat was held on 29 July at which three elderly dalits were summoned and charged with being complicit in the “abduction” of the girls. A 60-year old man in particular was accused of having seen the girls go without trying to stop them. His son was also threatened. Both were again summoned before the panchayat the next day. Unable to bear this continuous harassment and fearful of what the morrow might bring, the older dalit (named Hari Singh, according to the NDTV report) committed suicide that same night.
Strained relations and tension were palpable even four months later. Five boys had been arrested, three were out on bail, and two were still in jail. Rajpal’s once modestly prosperous house had been vandalized and lay desolate, the family having fled the village. No case was registered in the case of the death of Hari Singh. Nor were cases filed under the SC/ST Act against the members of the police and the khap panchayat for the atrocities perpetrated on the dalits.
[Courtesy: People’s Union for Democratic Rights. Please read the full report here.]