‘They couldn’t tolerate a Dalit winning’: In Mirchpur, caste oppression divides
#LetsTalkAboutHate | In Part 2, we focus on violence against Dalits. Seven years after their homes were set ablaze, few families have dared to return to Mirchpur.
Shiv Kumar, a strapping 17-year-old with a budding moustache, won his first 1600-metre race in July 2016 running barefeet. His family could not afford to buy him running shoes.
The race is a monthly event in Shiv’s village. Since his first victory, Shiv has won every race despite never once getting to use proper footwear.
This triumph against adversity has not been a cause for celebration so much as abuse. Shiv’s success challenges the carefully regulated social hierarchy of Mirchpur, his native village, in Haryana’s Hisar district. Shiv is a Dalit from the scavenger Valmiki community.
Mirchpur is infamous in the recent history of caste oppression. On an overcast day in April 2010, following a dispute between Jat men and a Dalit man over a barking dog, a mob of Jats set ablaze 18 Dalit homes. In the inferno, a 70-year-old man named Tarachand and his handicapped teenage daughter, Suman, were burned to death.
For Dalit communities throughout India, the everyday humiliation of their caste identity can seamlessly morph into violent hate crimes. As with Mirchpur, the provocation is often something seemingly mundane. During the Tsundur Massacre of 1991 in Andhra Pradesh, for instance, a Dalit’s foot touching someone from a dominant caste and the sight of a Dalit reading a newspaper reportedly led to eight Dalits getting hacked, stuffed into gunny bags, and dumped into a canal. In 2014, the Andhra Pradesh High Court acquitted all those convicted by a special court. The appeal of the victims is pending in the Supreme Court.
The Mirchpur attack did not go unpunished. In a speedy trial, a sessions court in Delhi convicted 15 of the 97 accused for the Mirchpur violence, and sentenced three to life in prison.
But the legal victory did not reduce tensions among the different castes . A visit to Mirchpur showed that Jats continue to feel resentful and Dalits continue to feel frightened and angry.
Tarachand’s wife, Kamla Devi, still quakes with fury recalling the 2010 attack. “Why did they kill my family? What was their fault? How can a mother live after her child’s death?”
Kamla now stays with her three sons on the outskirts of Hisar city, about 60 kilometres from Mirchpur, in a small house provided by the government. The villagers say that all of the approximately 250 Dalit families from Mirchpur fled in the aftermath of the violence.
Many of them still live in the makeshift camp in Hisar. “It’s been seven years, but neither the Congress nor the BJP government gave us a place to live,” says Gulab Singh, 78, the oldest member of the community. He gestured at the black tarpaulin tent he lives in. “Look around at how we have been living, without even a roof over our heads.”
The Dalit dwellings in Mirchpur have roofs, but tend to be cramped, made of bricks. It is a small, dusty village abutting a large pond. Jats were once 35% of the population, and Dalits 18%. But since the 2010 attack, only 40 Dalit families, including Shiv’s family have returned to Mirchpur, residents say.
For every race he wins, Shiv dutifully gives the prize money, ?1500, to his father, Ajmer Singh, a daily wage labourer. In a good month, Ajmer earns up to ?10,000. In lean periods, he often makes no more than half of that.
The winnings help Shiv’s family meet the expenses for his monthly stock of fresh milk, which is important for his athletic training routine.
Watch | The deep caste rift in Mirchpur
Shiv says his talent and ambition cause him to be targeted. On January 30, during a performance of bicycle stunts in the village, Shiv was taunted by Jat boys with the colloquial slurs “ded” (used to refer to someone who skins dead animals) and “chura” (sweeper). When Shiv questioned their behaviour, he and eight other Dalits were beaten ruthlessly. Shiv sustained injuries to his shoulder, his brother received a wound on his head, and another friend fractured his arm.
“They could not tolerate a Dalit winning the race each time,” says Shiv. “It pinches them how a Dalit’s son can be better than them.”
The hostility he has had to overcome is evident when I cross over to the side of Mirchpur where the Jats live. Vishwajeet Danda, 21, one of the boys accused of beating Shiv and his friends, denies that Jats started the fight. “Maybe by mistake someone ended up pushing them, but then the Dalit boys attacked us. Their injuries are self-inflicted to extract compensation from the government. The media only believes what the Dalits say.”
Jitendra Danda, 26, who served a year in jail for his involvement in the 2010 violence, tells a similar story. He says he was framed. “Dalits have the SC/ST Act, so they think they can do anything. We have no recourse.” His younger brother, Gaurav, 16, was arrested for beating up Shiv and his friends.
The violence has taken a psychological toll on the Dalit boys. Standing away from the blazing sun under the shade of a tree one afternoon, Shiv introduces me to Monu, a younger friend who wants to drop out of school. “The Jat boys taunt me by calling me ‘chura,’” he says. “When I ask them why they say such things, they slap me repeatedly. If I complain about them to the teachers, they threaten to beat me outside school. Teachers can’t save me then.”
Shiv replies by saying Monu should be brave and stay in school. Then our conversation is interrupted by another young Dalit man, who has been listening in. “What do you think they will become?” he asks pointing to Shiv and Monu. “Goondas! What will happen to all of our young men if they continue to be treated like dirt by upper castes? They will be beaten to death or forced to drop out and become goondas.”
Shiv’s dreams are too big to be contained by caste hierarchy. “So what if I’m a Dalit? I will practice and train harder. The beating only increased my confidence. I will win more medals in the future — next time for India.”
But Shiv’s personal determination to succeed may not sustain him on its own. He is planning to leave Mirchpur and move to Hisar where he hopes to train with a professional athletic coach.
Leaving Mirchpur behind is an option. Escaping the curse of caste is not.
This is Part 2 of Let’s Talk About Hate, an HT series that looks at the different complexions of hate crimes such as race, religion, identity. Follow us at @httweets for updates or send your suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.