when I woke up on the morning of 24 May, I saw missed calls from Lambodar Takri. I called him back but could not get through. Lambodar was one of those who played a key role in the research for my 2014 film Mlechha Sanhaara: India’s Kalki Project, which mapped the organised violence against Dalits, especially in Khaprakhol block of western Odisha’s Balangir district, on the foothills of the majestic Gandhamardan range — and so I was keen to know why he had called.
Unable to speak with him, I called Mukesh Suna, another local Dalit activist who had helped in the research. He seemed to be in a hurry and this is what he said before disconnecting: “Lambodar has mailed you a few photographs and some documents. Please check. I am on my bike, heading to Sargipali village. A Dalit girl has been raped and murdered. I will call you later.”
I reached out to my laptop and opened the email from Lambodar. What I saw sent a shiver down my spine. We had seen scores of atrocities on Dalits in Khaprakhol and thought we were immune to further shock. But the sheer brutality of this singular act of extreme hatred surpassed all the horrors that had preceded it.
Snehalata, a 15-year-old schoolgoing child, had fallen victim to entrenched caste hatred, which, instead of withering away in the wake of globalisation as the champions of the neoliberal economic fix to India’s economic woes keep promisThe uprising Dalits find an outlet for their rage against a biased administration ing, is finding new and more terrifyingly violent expression across the country.
missing What the rape and murder put an end to was a story of hope. Snehalata had just passed her Class 10 exams and convinced her wage-labourer parents to let her continue her studies. The hurdle in her way to getting an education came not from her parents — the issue that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign claims to address — but by the defining role that caste continues to play in deciding the destiny of youngsters among India’s most oppressed.
Like she did every day, at 7 am on 22 May Snehalata picked up a steel bucket, kept in it the laundry, her toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste, a soap and a pouch of detergent and headed for the nearby jor (rivulet). She would normally return home in 40-45 minutes. When she didn’t come back by 8.15 am, her mother, Dalimba, 36, began to worry.
For Dalimba, it touched a raw nerve and triggered age-old fears. And why not? It was not ancient history, after all. Over the past three years, some of the locally dominant upper-caste men had been openly threatening that they would kill at least four Dalit women. “Had they chosen to target me, I would have fought them tooth and nail,” she says. “But my daughter was just a child. She was yet to see the horrors of the world. I couldn’t stop worrrying about what would happen if the demons attacked her.” Tears fill her eyes as she recalls how her fears came true.
Snehalata did not return and her mother walked towards the river in search of her. She did not find her daughter on the riverbank, not even her belongings. Upstream there are two more ghats (bathing points) — one for caste-Hindu men and another for caste-Hindu women. In almost each village in Balangir district, there are segregated bathing places for Dalits, whether it is a river, pond or canal.
Dalimba took another Dalit girl along and went to the nearby Tambi Padar village, hoping that her daughter might have gone there to visit some relatives. She also sent a message to her husband, Arta Chhatria, 40, who was 12 km away in another village where he works as a construction labourer.
In the afternoon, all the Dalits in the neighbourhood joined the search for Snehalata. They formed teams and spread out in all directions, looking for the missing girl in every village she could have gone.
At sunset, the teams returned one after another, defeated and drained. As they gathered in the open, darkness shrouded the neighbourhood while the pealing of bells at a Hindu temple in a nearby village mocked the silence, fear and pain forced upon the Dalits. “Not one soul in the Dalit neighbourhood could sleep that night,” says Gajamani Bag, a leading local Dalit activist.
The search was resumed the next morning in the gruelling heat even as Arta went to the Khaprakhol Police Station and lodged a missing person report.
Then, around 4 pm, a group of young Dalits stumbled upon a ruthlessly ravaged naked female body. Snehalata was dead. The spot had been checked a couple of hours earlier but at that time it was not there. All the Dalits in the neighbourhood gathered around the mutilated body that spoke of the unimaginable torture Snehalata must have gone through for more than a day at the hands of the perpetrators. Her eyes were gouged out, her throat had a deep cut, her tongue pulled out, her breasts chopped off, her upper belly and back stabbed several times and her vagina mutilated with sharp objects. They had also poured acid on her face.
Relatives and neighbours did not allow Dalimba to come near the body, fearing that the horrifying sight of her daughter’s corpse might be too much for her. Nevertheless, she fainted several times. Snehalata’s father, who had been looking for her in another village, arrived on the scene later amid heart-wrenching wailing and cursing, and collapsed the moment he saw the body.
CHRONICLE OF A MURDER FORETOLD
Sargipali had been simmering since 2012, when the Dalits of the village were slammed for allegedly not picking up their plates after a community feast to commemorate the end of the three-day Prahari or Naam Yagnya (non-stop chanting of god’s names along with Brahmanic fire rituals) organised by caste-Hindus. Arta says, “We didn’t leave behind a single plate but the villagers held a meeting and falsely accused us as a pretext to begin a cycle of harrassment. We were stunned and didn’t know what they had in mind.”
The growing atrocities on Dalits is the outcome of a sustained process of Hinduisation that takes various forms in these parts. Take, for instance, the Prahari Mandaps set up in the main square of most villages. A community centre of sorts, it is a site for religious programmes organised to induct Adivasis into the Hindu fold while the Dalits are kept out. The cost of building them are generally borne by the local mla or mp from their kitty meant for “local area development”, besides contibutions from traders and, in some cases, government officials.
“This means exploitation and oppression of the lower castes is finding legitimacy under State patronage,” says Abhiram Mallik, a Bhubaneswar-based Dalit activist. “This will intensify the organised victimisation of Dalits.”
The feast in Sargipali was followed by a social boycott of Dalits in the village by the caste-Hindus, mostly obcs (other backward castes). The Dalits were denied access to water sources, grocery shops and other basic services. Dalit students were made to sit separately in classrooms, served mid-day meals in a segregated corner and barred from accessing the borewell inside the school premises for drinking water.
The Dalits were outraged and they knocked on the doors of various government bodies to get some relief, but to no avail. It only got worse for the Dalits thereafter and they were forced to give written apologies for not having picked up their plates at the feast, something that they had not done.
The social boycott continued for a year until the police intervened and worked out a compromise. No one was booked even though such atrocities come under the purview of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
Even after the so-called compromise the social boycott did not stop. In 2013, the customary village committee was formed without any Dalits. The caste- Hindus refused to allow the Dalit wage labourers to work in the village. Labedi Bariha, a local Adivasi resident who went to the Dalit neighbourhood looking for labourers to hire, was later stabbed and severely injured by some drunken youth. This incident prompted a self-help group (shg) run by Dalit women in the village to launch a campaign to close a countryliquor vend run by caste-Hindus, leading to its eventual closure. The episode infuriated the caste-Hindus and they threateaned to kill four Dalit women who were at the forefront of the fight.
The greatest hatred was reserved for Dalimba, who heads the shg. The other three Dalit women facing the ire of caste- Hindu men were Bhanumati Chhatria, 45, Srimati Chhatria, 40, and Laxmi Chhatria, 32. All three were Snehalata’s kin. In fact, a couple of months earlier, Laxmi and Bhanumati had to run for their lives when they were stalked and abused by two caste-Hindu villagers on the riverside.
“When they could not get hold of any of the four women after months of waiting, the culprits perhaps found a soft target in Snehalata,” says local activist Gajamani Bag. “They kidnapped her and tortured her brutally for a day-and-a-half.”
The record of the State in dealing with anti-Dalit violence has been dismal and gives the impression that there is near total impunity for the perpetrators and abettors. For instance, in the case of the widely reported Lathor carnage that took place in the same district on 22 January 2012, when an upper-caste mob set on fire an entire Dalit neighbourhood in the village, the prime accused were not properly investigated by the police, despite being named in the testimonies of the survivors. Some of them got anticipatory bail even though the provision cannot be invoked in cases of caste atrocity.
The police, however, showed extreme alacrity when it came to arresting local youth for allegedly burning down a country-liquor distillery owned by an upper-caste trader, who is also active with a Hindutva outfit and believed to be the mastermind of the Lathor carnage. Local activists claim that all the youth picked up were Adivasis and Dalits, none of whom were responsible for the arson.
No wonder this obvious difference in the seriousness with which the police took up the burning down of a Dalit neighbourhood compared with the gutting of a liquor vend emboldened the upper castes in Khaprakhol block, who resorted to more attacks on the Dalits.
It was this sense of impunity that beefed up the extreme caste arrogance evident in the perpetrators returning to the spot where they had abducted Snehalata and placing her mutilated body barely a few metres from there in broad daylight. Just 10 km away is the Khaprakhol Police Station, which is almost a fortress with armed paramilitary personnel guarding it round the clock as it is a control room of sorts for anti-Maoist operations in the Gandhamardan region. “For whose security are the police deployed if they cannot protect us from the atrocities perpetrated by the upper castes?” asks Mukesh.
In this vicious environment, Snehalata’s parents have been going through hell. When Arta lodged the fir, the police nonchalantly asked him to keep looking for the girl on his own for one more day, and if he could not find her, they would then come to help him! The body was found around 4 pm but the police could reach the village only at 6.30 pm. Even the sight of the ravaged body did not shock the police into taking action. Instead, they demanded 3,000 from Arta to hire a vehicle for carrying the body to the police station. The distressed father had no option but to give in to the demand.
Next morning, the local government doctor and his assistant demanded 4,000 for conducting the post-mortem. They settled for nothing less than 2,500 and only then unwrapped the body. But they immediately wrapped it back again with another sheet of cloth, saying the girl had clearly been “raped and murdered” and so there was no need to use the scalpel. The upper-caste doctor and his assistant left soon after, leaving the body with the family members.
After being fleeced by the police and the doctor, the family had no money left to hire a vehicle for carrying Snehalata’s body back home for the funeral rituals. They had to put the body inside a jute sack and carry it on a moped — an old and rickety Luna — belonging to one of their relatives.
Local Dalit groups took out a rally in Khaprakhol town on 27 May asking the police to immediately arrest all the accused and reiterating their longstanding demand to get the area declared “atrocity-prone”.
Sensing an opportunity, politicians of all hues visited Sargipali village and made big promises. Officials of the district administration, including the district magistrate and members of the SC/ST welfare cell, went there to probe the crime. But, none of this translated into firm action against the accused.
The local activists, though, are not surprised by the lackadaisical attitude of the administration and the police. “It is not unusual that the police are going slow on this case,” says Gajamani. “This is a tried-and-tested ploy. Once the heat subsides, they always find a way to protect the culprits.”
The persistent delay and denial of justice impelled several Dalit groups to come together under the banner of the Coordination Committee against Caste and Gender Violence and organise a rally in front of the dm’s office in Balangir on 19 June.
“It was a historic rally in which more than 5,000 people participated. Balangir had not seen anything like that before,” says Gobardhan Chhattar, a Dalit cultural activist. “It provided a much-needed and long-awaited outlet for the Dalits to express their anger and frustration against a rabidly casteist administration and a repressive Brahminical State. The number of women participants in particular and their undaunted spirit to fight for justice must have jilted the administration and the police.”
The anger also had to do with the fact that the police often resorts to hounding the survivors of anti-Dalit atrocities. Take the case of Rabi Bag, who has been fighting for the past six years against caste- Hindu landlords, the forest department and the police. The landlords want to snatch the plot of land he tills while the forest department, in an attempt to make it easy for the landlords, keeps arresting Rabi at regular intervals by accusing him of encroaching upon forestland — an allegation that flies at the face of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
Rabi’s 13-year-old schoolgoing daughter was kidnapped and raped for days at the behest of the landlords in 2012. The police did not budge then, too. The local Dalityouth, though, eventually managed to nab the kidnapper, a poor Adivasi who told the police on record that the landlords had paid him to abduct and keep the girl in confinement. Yet, the police refuse to touch the landlords, and instead the forest department picked up Rabi once again.
In Aambahali village, stones were pelted at the Dalit colony for 15 hours, following which all the residents fled. They had to live in exile for months on end. Earlier in the same village, the Dalits had to run for their lives when a mob had chased them. During the melee, a pregnant Dalit woman fell in a pit and delivered female twins, both dead. No one was found guilty even then.
Kidnapping of girls to burning down and demolishing houses, poisoning the sources of drinking water, land grab, stone-pelting, social boycott, sexual exploitation and use of abusive language: Dalits in the villages of Khaprakhol block have been facing one or the other of these atrocities with alarming regularity.
Three years ago, while being interviewed for our film, well-known Dalit poet and novelist Akhil Nayak had minced no words when he said, “I don’t call it a State anymore. The State is a delusion for us Dalits.”
‘THE STATE IS A DELUSION FOR DALITS ’
Three days after the crime, a concocted news story appeared in an Odia daily. The report said that the Dalits of the village, wielding sharp weapons, were seen going towards the river the morning Snehalata went missing. The audacity of the reporter, who is allegedly loyal to the powersthat- be and the police, is hard to ignore, as he even quoted Snehalata’s aunt Rambha Chhatria as a witness. Rambha, however, reported this act of fabricating news to the police but no action was taken.
Then came another mindless attempt to obfuscate the truth when the police picked up Snehalata’s maternal cousin Guru Tandy, 25, from Daheta village, 35 km from Sargipali, and accused him of kidnapping and killing Snehalata to avenge unrequited love. But this bizarre tale could not pass muster as the official narrative and so Guru was released.
The 19 June rally forced the police to take some damage-control measures and two caste-Hindu men — Yagnya Saraf, 22, and Suphal Meher, 24 — were arrested from Sargipali village the next day.
As per the police version, one of the arrested men had “proposed” to Snehalata several times without success. The other man had “relations” with another Dalitgirl and Snehalata opposed it. So, the two men hatched a plan to “teach her a lesson”. On the day Snehalata went missing, the two were hiding near the ghat. They raped and killed her by 9.30 am the same day. “This is absolutely ridiculous,” says the slain girl’s grandmother Bhanumati Chhatria, who is also an anti-liquor activist. “If they killed her within an hour or so, why did they take a day-and-a-half to throw her body on the riverside? If they were scared after committing the crime and that’s why they took so much time, then how did they find the courage in the next day to bring the body to the same place where they had picked her up? The police are trying to conceal the larger scheme that was brewing for months and that too so openly.”
Taking the fight for justice forward, Dalit groups joined several other organisations to hold another rally in Bhubaneswar on 25 June and submitted a charter of demands to the chief secretary. The demands included handing over the case to the CBI and placing the DM and the SP of Balangir under immediate suspension. Dalimba tries in vain to understand what she calls “an unsolved riddle”. “Forget a crime like rape and murder. Had an upper-caste girl been molested, the whole district would be burning now. All of Odisha would be abuzz with voices of protest and what not,” she says. “Why is it that when the victim is a Dalit, no matter how horrific the crime, it causes hardly a ripple in the society? Are the society and the State not for us Dalits?”
BR Ambedkar had once said to MK Gandhi, “Gandhiji, I have no homeland!” Then the country was under British rule and what Ambedkar held responsible for depriving him and the entire Dalit population of a ‘homeland’ was “Brahminical imperialism” that had been dominating Indian society, politics and culture for centuries. Ambedkar went on to draft the Constitution of free India but the State that came into being failed to get rid of the Brahminical bias inherent in society. Over the decades since then, it has been unable to ensure a life of dignity for the Dalits.
Khaprakhol block is a blinding testimony to the fact that the Dalits are yet to have a homeland in the sense that Ambedkar used the word. The good news, however, is that Snehalata’s murder has sparked off an agitation that has galvanised sections of civil society to demand justice for Dalits.
While Snehalata peacefully rests, the rest do not, and should not!