CAUGHT IN CROSSFIRE Traumatised children reliving the horror of seeing their father killed and those blissfully unaware of losing one. Of poor, ailing parents mourning the death of their only earning son and widows fearing more suppression in patriarchy. The Jat quota agitation in Haryana has left a terrible legacy of death and destruction. There is anger, fear and helplessness among those who lost their kin, homes and businesses in the worst caste violence in Haryana’s history. Turning into a caste blow-up, the medieval violence has left deep scars of distrust and disturbing faultlines in society. Hindustan Times travel through the worst-hit Rohtak and Jhajjar districts to reveal tales of horror and despair from a state whose social fabric has been torn asunder in less than a week
‘They entered our home to kill us’
Its interiors enveloped in black soot, the Jat dharamshala in Jhajjar town where Jaideep’s body was kept became the stage for a full-blown caste war between Sainis and Jats leaving a trail of destruction at Chhawani colony, half-a-kilometre away. Six more children lost their fathers — two Sainis, ironically with name Krishan and Shyam, with three kids each — were killed over what started as rumours of some Jats being burnt inside Sir Chottu Ram Jat dharamshala in the town where another body of a Brahmin youth, also reportedly killed in police firing, were kept.
“We did not know which caste the bodies belonged to, so we brought them to the dharamshala. The people of other 35 biradaris (a non-Jat prop) came to claim the Brahmin youth’s body and tried to burn down the dharamshala when over a dozen people were inside. It happened during the curfew and the police and army was nowhere to be seen,” says Shri Bhagwan, a Jat standing outside the dharamshala. In a retaliatory attack, Jats entered Saini homes at Chhawani, burnt down their vehicles and shops.
The two children of Shyam Saini (43) are still reliving the horror of seeing their father being dragged out and killed. His son, Hemant, a Class-12 student, says he took his mother Batheri, 18-year-old sister, Priyanka, and mentally-challenged uncle to the roof when Jats attacked. “I thought my father will manage to escape but they dragged him out and killed him. My sister is so traumatised that we had to send her to my grandmother’s home in Gurgaon and she is not in a condition to return home,” he says.
Sitting outside their home, his uncle Sewak, is blissfully unaware of the tension in the colony or loss of a brother. “Acha hai isko kucch pata nai chalta, nai toh iska dimaag ye sab dekh kar kharab ho hi jata (mercifully, he understands nothing otherwise he would have lost his mental balance after the mayhem),” a neighbour said as Sewak sat outside looking at the street.
‘My own shop could have burnt my three kids alive’
His small shop, Saini Electricals, was his lifeline till the day it made him run for his life. Sukhpura Chowk, a pre-dominantly Saini neighbourhood dotted with small shops and homes, saw one of the worst mob violence in Rohtak town.
After curfew was clamped in the town, Sunil Saini, like all others from his community felt the worst was over. Till he heard gunshots and saw a mob on foot and motorcycles shouting slogans carrying agricultural tools and petrol cans.
“While the news channels were showing shoot-on-sight orders have been given and army is patrolling the area, the mob entered the area in a filmy style. We have a police station right in the front of the chowk. But they had a free run burning down our shops,” says Ram Narayan Saini, an ex-servicemen, adding that they did not even spare the stools of poor cobblers. While they saw their shops go up in flames, in case of Sunil the danger was closer home.
“We live on the first floor of the shop with our three kids. The fire from the electric shop spread to the first floor and we were trapped in flames along with our kids, including one-year-old daughter. We ran to the roof, holding the kids and asked a neighbour to get a ladder to jump onto their roof,” says Sunil’s wife, Pooja.
Still staying with neighbours, she says they have no income from shop to rebuild their home. Many like Sunil are demanding compensation by staging dharna at the chowk under the banner --- 35 Biradari Sangarsh Committee.
“We are small shopkeepers. We have no insurance for our shops,” says Dalbir Saini, whose general store too was gutted down. Justifying the banner, he says the divide is open now --- “You are either a Jat or a non-Jat in Haryana now.”
‘We have lost the only breadwinner who also cooked for us’
At Jhajjar’s Dighal village, few knew Anil by his name. For directions to his home, you have to ask about the “Khati” youth killed in firing during the Jat unrest in the district. His caste Khati signifies those in carpentry, but 25-year-old Anil was an employee at the nearby toll plaza making `4,000 a month as a cleaner.
In the disturbing silence in the entire neighbourhood, his aged father Satte Singh and mother Santosh, too, are at a loss to voice their terrible loss. “Humare bete ki jaan bewajah gayi. Woh to tension ki khabar sun kar sirf doston ke saath wahan gaya tha. Humein kama kar dene wala wahi ek beta tha. Humara toh chulha hi bhuj gaya (He lost his life for no reason. He had just gone with his friends to the area where tension was reported. He was our only earning member and we have no money to even cook our meals),” says his father Satte. Anil’s elder brother Pardeep is married and stays separately. Of the two younger brothers, one keeps unwell and the youngest one takes up odd jobs.
“I keep unwell. He (Anil) also cooked for us before going to work and after coming back,” were the only words his mother utters. The killing of a non-Jat has surprised many in the village but not his Jat friends who call him a “martyr for their cause”. “I am a graduate and also have a JBT degree. But I could not get a government job and still work in the fields with my father. My friend died for our cause,” says Anil’s Jat friend, Paramjeet Ahlawat, who prefers to call himself Anil’s “guru”.
‘We saw our dream go up in flames’
Dr Anita Narula and her husband Dr Arun Narula realised their Punjabi caste and not their profession was their only identity in Jat-dominated Rohtak on the day rioters took the town under siege. Located in the heart of the town, their diagnostic centre was a dream come true after 30 years of hard work, first as medical students and later as practitioners.
“We had both slogged hard to set up this centre. We had ploughed our lifetime savings into it. The diagnostic machines for MRI, CT scan and ultra-sound, are not only expensive but also heat-sensitive. They have been totally damaged after the floor was set ablaze and we have suffered losses to the tune of `13 crore. The ultrasound machine was bought for `60 lakh just two days before the riots,” says Dr Anita Narula.
The same building houses Life Care Hospital of Dr Rajesh Jale, who had to lift a patient in the ICU to the roof to shift him to another hospital in the back street and later to the PGI, Rohtak. He still shudders to think what would have happened had the 25 oxygen cylinders and a helium gas container at his MRI centre caught fire. “These would have blown up things half a kilometre away. I have to now think if I want to continue working in Rohtak,” Dr Jale says.
‘My pain as widow is not more than my kids losing their father’
Not very far from Dighal, tension is still simmering at Mehrana village after death of a Jat youth in Jhajjar town. The village has many theories, depending on which community is floating them.
The one of non-Jats is that 25-year-old Jaideep Nandal fell to the bullets of the security forces while he was out with the mob indulging in loot and arson.
But his father, Satbir, who had lost one of his arms in childhood, says his son was caught in cross-firing at Bhagat Singh Chowk in the town where he had gone for some personal work.
Showing wounds sustained from sharp agricultural tools, Satbir says he was attacked by Sainis when he went to lift his son’s body from the Jat dharamshala in the town.
“They were armed and set afire the Jat dharamshala. Why is no newspaper or TV channel showing what they did to Jats,” he says. Satbir’s elder brother Umaid Singh questions what would Jaideep do with his two acres of land.
“Do bhaiyo mein baant kar ek kila hi reh jata. Ek kisan ko apni zameen se kya milta hai (The division of two-acre land among two brothers would have left one acre each. What does a farmer make from his land),” he asks.
As wailing women enter their home, Jaideep’s wife Sonia sitting in the adjoining room is quiet. “We were married for seven years. Worse than becoming a widow is my kids will grow up without their father’s love,” she says looking at her two children --- Prince, 6, and Priya, 4, dressed like a boy in her brother’s clothes --- both blissfully unaware of the tension in the village and loss of a father.
‘I am not sure if I should reopen the mall in Rohtak’
When Rohtak donned a modern look, those like Suresh Kumar Sharma took immense pride in making that happen. Sharma’s thriving RN Complex that housed shops, gym, multiplex and McDonald’s is now a sad reminiscent of the fury unleashed by the ravaging army of quota protesters, who have also vandalised his RN Engineering College.
“I took loan against my home to make the mall. Some of gym equipment from the US was worth `10 lakh each. Central air-conditioning has been completely destroyed. The loss at the mall alone is `5 crore. McDonald’s has its own insurance but I had yet to get one done for the mall. I had started the two movie theatres only two months back. They have broken toughened glass windows of my college and vandalised everything. The loss in this case is `6 crore. I have lived for 30 years in Rohtak and called up the police and fire brigade. But the administration was missing. I am now contemplating if I should reopen the mall in Rohtak or shift to Gurgaon. My heart breaks when small children walk up to me to ask when will McDonald’s reopen,” Sharma says.
‘I will need psychologists to help students deal with trauma’
“We did not weave the web of life, we merely stand within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves,” reads the quote on the entrance of John Wesley School. “Wish the mob that vandalised the school read it,” says its principal
Mamta Malik with a wry smile. The school was attacked by a mob of over 2,000 Jat protesters, both men and women, over four days with no police or army to stop them.
“They burnt down 14 school buses, projectors, library books, broke windowpanes, school broadcasting system, computers, chairs and blackboards, and even play things and chairs of primary students,” Malik says. Ironically, in one of the soot-covered corridors lies a poster, which reads, “Peace House”.
The main worry of Malik is not only whether they can start the new session in April but also how to prepare children for what happened at the school and why.
“It is not just the physical scars of destruction that will have to be dealt with but the psychological ones. How can such small children understand caste violence and why their school was a target? I have written to some psychologists to help counsel students and even teachers. Even my ex-students are calling up and are traumatised,” she says.
Barely half a kilometre away, the IB School, which unlike John Wesley did not belong to a Punjabi but Jats, has been left untouched while the Siksha Bharti School right next to it was also targeted.
Perhaps the only school to have been targeted despite a Jat tag is the Indus School being run by family of Haryana finance minister Capt Abhimanyu, whose house in Rohtak too was attacked.
“The mob included women and they were all laughing while vandalising the school, and took away LCDs, computers and projectors. They did not spare even the rooms of cooks and guards. I called up some Jat teachers for help. The looting appeared to be more of a class divide than caste divide. I could not believe I could feel so unsafe in my own country,” says Indus School principal Dr Sushma Jha who had to leave the school with her aged parents after her house on the campus too was damaged.