The last time clouds of despair descended on Trimohi, a hamlet in Rajasthan’s Barmer district about half a kilometre from the Pakistan border, was during the 1971 war. This time, the pain is a lot more personal.
Delta Meghwal, 17, the first Dalit girl from the village to pursue higher education, was found dead in a water tank of the Jain Adarsh Teachers’ Training Institute for Girls in Nokha, Bikaner on March 29.
“The entire village is in panic and we have that sense of despair coming back to haunt us,” said Delta’s elder brother, Prabhu Ram, 22. “Our father had the courage to send three of his kids out of Barmer for higher education. Today, he is being accused of giving ‘too much freedom’ to girls.”
“Villagers use our sister’s example to stop their daughters from attending even primary school.”
Delta’s death, however, is rife with unanswered questions.
The Bikaner police claimed it was suicide by drowning, but no water was found in her lungs. It was suggested that she killed herself after being caught in a compromising situation with the college’s physical education teacher, Vijendra Singh. But it emerged that the hostel warden, Priya Shukla, used to send Delta to the physical education teacher’s room for cleaning, and she had complained about it to her father several times.
“[She was] an ambitious and talented girl who always led our school in cultural events and was the star of our village... [But she was] forced to wash utensils and clean rooms in her hostel. If this is not casteism then what is?” said Delta’s 18-year-old brother, Ashok Kumar. “Her self-confidence was shattered.”
Delta’s father, Mahendra Ram, a primary school teacher, has been a strong proponent of education for girls, and made sure his children had every opportunity to excel.
Delta was the third of her siblings to leave the village for higher studies. Prabhu is pursuing Bachelor of Veterinary Sciences from a private Bikaner college and Ashok is preparing for the pre-medical test. The youngest, Kumari Nakhu, is a Class 11 student.
“My father took a loan of Rs 18 lakh to fund the career of his children,” said Prabhu. “Despite being a third-grade school teacher with a basic salary, and villagers constantly harassing him for loan overdue, he never let us see (his pain).”
From a young age, Delta was a beacon of hope for girls in Trimohi. She won awards from local legislators and then chief minister Vasundhara Raje for oratory, singing and painting skills, and always led the Independence Day and Republic Day parades.
Delta reflected every quality that her father had imagined when naming her.
“Just like a river that gets distributed into different streams, leaving beautiful patterns in the earth, Delta was named because of her multitalented persona,” Mahendra said.
She aspired to be a teacher like her father. Delta, her father and another primary school teacher, Ganesharam, gave free tuitions to 15-20 children of Trimohi and adjoining villages.
“It was not just buying books, notebooks and uniforms for them. Mahendra personally used to visit their homes to convince their parents,” said Ganesharam.
Dalit activists began a fight for justice on behalf of Delta’s family. Social media was flooded with #justiceforDeltaMeghwal, and shared by thousands of people on Facebook and Twitter.
Sudhendra, a Jawaharlal Nehru University scholar, and social activist Ramesh Balach, who headed protests demanding action against the perpetrators, told HT that media’s attitude towards the case was far from ideal.
“Despite #justiceforDeltaMeghwal campaign going viral on social media, state-based newspapers and television channels never carried the story initially,” said Sudhendra. “Only when Congress leader Sachin Pilot visited Delta’s home a few days ago, the entire circus arrived. They shoved mikes in front of grieving family members.”
“A certain correspondent for a TV news channel in Barmer city called up Delta’s family and asked them to shoot a video of them grieving and send it on WhatsApp because they couldn’t travel 90 kilometres,” said Ramesh.
“It was unbelievable.”
Family members said a Hindi daily newspaper even ran a smear campaign against Delta, questioning her character based solely on an allegedly biased police’s version of events leading to her death.
“The newspaper stated that my daughter was in regular contact with the PT teacher. When I confronted them at a press conference, they had to apologize. But the damage was done,” said Delta’s father, adding that the blame shifted from the college administration and the physical education teacher to his daughter.
Pall of silence
Once the media focus shifted to other news, a pall of silence once again covered Trimohi.
Delta, who once was hailed as an inspiration, is reduced to an example to prevent girls from studying. Almost all the girls in Trimohi and adjoining villages have stopped going to school.
“Two days back, I personally requested parents to send their children back to school but I was asked if I wished for their kids’ death as well. Delta’s demise has given them an opportunity to marry off their daughters quickly,” said Ganesharam.
Balwant Jangid, an ‘e-Mitra’ centre operator in Gadra, said the demand for Basic School Training Certificate test entrance forms too has dissipated. “Till March 29, I was busy filling forms for applicants. After that date, not a single form was filled by any applicant from adjoining villages. The last date too has passed,” he said.
Dejected, Mahendra’s resolve is breaking.
“I have always supported education for girls, the entire village knows this,” said Mahendra. “If my daughter receives justice, then I will motivate more girls to continue their education and pursue jobs. If not, then I will never ask any father to send his daughter to school.”
Life for Delta’s siblings too has come to a standstill. Prabhu and Ashok have returned to the village, leaving their careers behind, and Nakhu has stopped going to school.
“My father started his career with a paltry salary of Rs 1,200. Today, after sacrificing everything for the education of his children and that of the village, he is being told that he should not have let them study,” said Prabhu. “We are witnessing a slow and torturous death of an educator — my father.”
The fear is palpable that the case will be brushed under the carpet and the perpetrators will go scot-free. But what Prabhu fears most is the flame of an educator being extinguished.