You can, if you wish to, trace an almost direct line from the dispute over a playground in Bhagana village of Hisar district, Haryana, to the circumstances that have led to hundreds of Dalit families living in the open, outside a government building, for years. And an almost direct line from the playground to the circumstances that led to four young girls and their parents living for the last four months on the streets in central Delhi.
On the night of 23 March, 2014, Janvi*, Sushma, Leela and Meena were abducted from Bhagana and raped. Since 16 April they and their families have been at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. While the whole country continues to obsess about sexual assault, the public eye has passed uncaring over the four girls sitting right in the center of the capital. The seasons have changed – they came in blazing summer – but they have stayed, hoping that in Delhi they will find what their village never gave them their whole lives.
In 2011, the gram sabha of the Bhagana village panchayat headed by Kitab Singh, a Dalit sarpanch, decided to distribute 280 acres of village land, including common land, amongst its residents. As Frontline reported, this move came in response to the Haryana government's announcement that it would distribute 100 square yards of land to every family living below the poverty line (BPL). The plan was scuttled by the new Jat sarpanch who came in, and land was instead distributed in proportion to the land that the village residents already owned. This meant that the landless Dalit families ended up with no land, or with less than 100 sq yards each. The Dalits protested. The Jats retaliated. As The Hindu reported, “Ponds which the Dalits used for drinking water and other purposes were dried up. A playground used predominantly by Dalit children was dug up. Access to roads for several Chamar households was blocked by erecting six-foot-high walls.” Things didn’t stop there.
In February 2012, the Jats claimed the playground altogether (even though as Virendra Singh Bagoriya, a Dalit activist from the village and the leader of the Bhagana Kand Sangharsh Samiti, says, the Jats had their own ground, which was much bigger). Next, a brick wall was built around the disputed land blocking the Dalit families’ access to their own homes. They could not take their buffalos to the common village pond anymore. The shopkeepers stopped giving them rations. The barbers stopped cutting their hair and the village flour-mills stopped grinding their wheat. The drinking water pipeline of the Dalit tola was blocked. Moreover, this boycott meant that the Dalits lost their livelihood, as the Jats would no longer employ them for any work.
In the summer of 2012, 138 Dalit families (mostly from the Chamar and Khanti communities) left for Hisar in protest. Since that day, for over two years, they have been sitting – men, women and children – in front of the Hisar mini-secretariat on an indefinite dharna. Around 150 Dalit families (all from the Dhanuk community) stayed put in Bhagana. And it’s from among those families that four girls were abducted this summer.
In July in Bhagana when I was talking to Reetika, Janvi’s older sister, a few other women from the neighborhood gathered around us. Sixty-year-old Angoori Devi broke in and said, “The Jats did this to our girls because they are angry that Dalits in this village were fighting for their rights on the village common land and playground. They hate us because we were raising our voices against them.”
I asked if Dalit girls from the village had ever played on the playground. Fifty-year-old Teeja Devi laughed and the others’ grim faces broke into grins. A few minutes later Teeja recovered and said, “I am laughing because your question is like asking a child who has never seen a ball in his whole life to kick a ball properly! Dalit girls don’t step out of their doors. They’ve never stepped on this playground, forget about playing there! Arrey, when our girls stay inside their homes, even then these Jats kidnap them and rape them. Even small girls are teased and assaulted when they go to school. You can’t imagine what will happen if our girls stepped on the playground! They will be abused and tortured to give a strong message so that no other girl can dare to step out in future. So no Dalit girl of this village has ever been on a playground. We are too scared to even think about this.”
She adds, “Yes, old women like me, we used to go to the common village land to make dry gobar. But all our movements stopped after the Dalits were boycotted in 2012. These girls have paid the price of Dalit resistance while many others among us have been routinely paying the price of being born as a Dalit woman in this village for ages now. If we get our playground back, only Dalit boys will be able to play, exercise and keep fit for getting work in the army or police or anywhere. Anyways, these girls will never play on it. Because Dalit girls play inside homes, not on playgrounds.” After a moment of frozen silence, she added, “Ham to sirf maidan aur khel ki keemat chukayein hain, khelein kabhi na payein [We only seem to pay the price for wanting the ground and to play, but cannot play ever].”
Her Sister, Their Mothers
That afternoon when I arrive, 20-year-old Reetika is sitting on the mud verandah of her two-room house. Reetika and Janvi grew up with their two brothers in this small house situated in the Dhanuk (a Dalit sub-caste) basti. I’d walked through the Dalit tola of Bhagana to reach Reetika’s house. Most of the houses stand locked and empty. Only 40 Dhanuk families still live in Bhagana.
That afternoon, Reetika is wearing a mustard yellow salwar kameez and a magenta dupatta. Her round face is stoic and she smiles. The small neem saplings her mother had planted have withered. Inside, the second room is still locked and the room she’s been living in these last two days, since she came from her in-laws home, is dusty. The open chulha on which the family used to cook, on which Reetika used to cook before she got married, is now covered by thick dust, leftover ash, a few utensils and a broken bicycle.
“Our home and neighborhood is now destroyed,” she tells me. “Nothing is left. First, the Jats captured the common land of our village and boycotted all those Dalits who dared to resist. Then all the Chamars and Khantisleft the village while the Dhanuks stayed back. We could not gather the courage to leave our houses back then. Now, after this attack [on Janvi and the others girls], staying back was not an option. We knew that our lives were in danger in this village. My parents thought that we’d get justice, or at least be able to raise our voices against this crime only if we protested at Hisar or Jantar Mantar. So in mid-April they left the village along with 90 other Dhanuk families from our neighborhood. Our tola has been deserted since then.”
Reetika’s younger sister, 13-year-old Janvi, is the youngest of all the four survivors of the Bhagana gang-rape. She was kidnapped barely 500m away from her home along with Sushma (17), Leela (17) and Meena (18).
Reetika points her finger towards the now-deserted verandah and says, “We grew up here. Since she was the youngest child of the family, she was always a bit pampered, but never more than my brothers. We would play together here, talk, laugh, cook and sometimes even fight. She had a few dolls and sometimes we ran around playing juggo in this veranda. When we grew up, we would cook, talk and occasionally watch TV serials together.”
Later she says, “When I think about her now, all I feel is that she was too small, too fragile to go through such a brutal attack. My mother told me that she was in a bad condition when she returned home after that night. She was partially conscious, her body was still bleeding and she was in severe pain. I know men routinely attack and abuse girls here, but still, I feel that she is too small to go through all this.”
Her despair is so deep it’s as if Reetika doesn’t believe that Janvi’s fate was wholly avoidable, only that it could have been delayed till she was older. The only reason that Reetika is back here in this village is to represent her family at a wedding in the extended clan. Life, she knows, goes on elsewhere. Even if her own family is frozen in time in front of an 18th century astronomy-loving prince’s toy.
Earlier that month, at Jantar Mantar, I’d spoken to the young mothers of the survivors. There’s no accounting for the greater and lesser violence that these women have faced over their lifetimes.
Of Bhagana village’s 3,800 voters, 2,000 are Jats. Most Dalits in this village are landless and earn their bread by working on Jat-owned farms. They either work under the bataidari system,under which they grow crops on the Jat land and are allowed to keep only a small fixed percentage of the produce, or they follow the siri system,under which a Dalit enters work on a Jat farm for a fixed period of time, and also does domestic tasks for the Jat household during that period.
“In a way, the Dalit becomes a bonded laborer under the Jat during this period. He has to do whatever work the Jat says. And Jats make them do all kinds of menial jobs besides making them work on fields. Of course the Jat owner thinks that he has every right over the wives and daughters of his Dalit bonded laborers. There have been many cases in which Jats enter the homes of Dalits on any given night and ask the man to step out, giving him some task such as watering the fields. Then they sleep with their women. The Dalit man who goes to water the fields knows about what is going on with his wife, but he can’t do anything about this,” says Bagoriya.
One evening, Sushma’s mother Reshma tells me about what happened to her – the reason she thinks the girls were raped. Her husband Vishnu used to be a bonded laborer for the village sarpanch Rakesh Panghal. In January this year, she said, her husband was working on the sarpanch’s fields. It was a cold night and Vishnu fell asleep while watering the fields. A lot of water from the sarpanch’s pump was wasted, and Reshma says the Sarpanch beat up her husband twice and molested her as well. “When my husband went to the government hospital in Hisar with blood flowing from his head, the doctors bandaged his wounds but refused to give him a written prescription or anything that we could have used for a police report.” He went to the Hisar Superintendent of Police to file a complaint, but the SP advised her husband to arrive at a compromise with the sarpanch. Reshma says the enraged sarpanch threatened her husband and told him to be ready to pay. Reshma thinks the rape of her daughter and the other four girls was their payment.
It’s been raining at the protest camp at Jantar Mantar, but the rainfall has now stopped and the sky is a clear orange. The humidity soars again and the camp is muddy. At 4.30pm, Janvi wants chai but her mother Bhagmati says that she will have to wait for an hour. Bhagmati and I talk about the day Janvi was born. While shifting bags of rations from the wet corners of the tent under which they’re camped to the shrinking dry patch in the center, she says, “Hamaare gaon mein mahaul itna ganda hai ki ladki ke paida hone par sirf dar lagta hai. Ek to Dhanuk, upar se ladki; jaan kaise bacha paungi iski, yahi dar satata rehta tha. (The environment of our village is so disgusting that we only feel scared whenever a girl is born [in our community]. First a Dhanuk, above that a girl! All my life I have been troubled by one question, how am I going to save the lives of my daughters?”
Bhagmati and I are painfully conscious that Janvi is listening as her mother says of her youngest child, “Everyone in my family (including me) was very sad when Janvi was born. We were terrorized by the thought that we had to look after one more daughter. I gave birth to three boys and two girls.” Bhagmati’s panic about daughters is not related to the reasons that lead south Delhi to have the lowest sex ratio. “When we are scared about own lives, how are we are going to protect our daughters and ensure that they stay safe and alive? In a way, the birth of a daughter shows us how helpless and vulnerable we are.”
I first met 13-year-old Janvi on April 19 this year. Just three days earlier, she had left their two-room house in Bhagana, left Haryana and come to New Delhi for the first time in her life. Her parents, siblings and 90 other Dhanuk families traveled with her to Delhi. Sushma, Leela and Meena, her three friends who were also assaulted the same night she was, travelled with her to Delhi. On April 16, they pitched a tent at Jantar Mantar and sat down to protest.
The night of 19 April was fiercely hot. Janvi and the clan came to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) that night because students had organized an awareness and solidarity meeting to support the cause of the Dalits of Bhagana. Sushma, Leela, Meena and Janvi entered the mess of Satluj hostel at 10pm. All four girls had covered their faces with cotton dupattas.
Of the four, Janvi was physically the smallest. She looked fragile and sleepy. She curled her legs up on a bench and sat quietly during the whole meeting. I tried to start a conversation. She responded with silence.
I met Janvi again ten days later. At Jantar Mantar, the Bhagana Dalits were to organize their first candlelight protest march that evening. This time too, Janvi met my overtures with silence. For most of the day, she didn’t speak to anyone. At any given time, the shamiana at the camp only covered a fraction of the 90 families who had migrated with her from Bhagana. Janvi slept through the afternoon to deal with the heat. She woke up in the early evening and washed her face. For a moment it was as if she was getting ready like children all over the city were setting out to play in the cooler evening. But soon enough she covered her face again with her dupatta and prepared herself for the candle light protest march. All around us were Dalit rights activists, members of OBC student forums and politicians from Haryana such as Vedpal Tanwar. That evening, I saw her, a thin little girl with a candle in her hands, walking from her tent on Jantar Mantar Road towards the Parliament Street police station. The police barricades stopped the march barely 800m away from where it started.
In June, I went to Jantar Mantar thrice to see her. Most of the time she was surrounded by her mother and other women from her community. She largely stayed silent when I spoke to the adults. On one occasion in June, during a fleeting conversation, she gave me a very brief account of the events of the night of the crime in an indifferent tone. An account she was now, three months later, habituated to repeating to journalists.
In mid-July Janvi and I had our first long conversation, almost four months after we first met. Clouds covered the Delhi sky but there was no trace of rain. Now the crowd comprised of NGOs, numerous Delhi-based organizations that had espoused the ‘Dalit cause’ in April, social activists and media crews had disappeared. The politicians who had been around till June, like Tanwar, were absent. The camp, which had bustled with activity and force, now only had 20 people. Most of the 90 families were back at the Hisar protest camp. The numerous protest posters that had been pinned on the tent were replaced by one big ‘Bhagana Kand Sangharsh Samiti’ banner. Bagoriya and Jagdeesh Kajala were now leading the fight under the new banner. Bagoriya and Kajala had also led the 2012 protest migration of Dalits from Bhagana village. They were among the first in Bhagana village to protest against the unjust land distribution practices and everyday exploitation of Dalits by land-owning Jats. Bagoriya, in his fifties, is a Kumbhar by caste. He’s faced discrimination all his life in Bhagana and grew up to become a rebel. He lives in a cheap rented house on the outskirts of Hisar and works full-time for the Bhagana Dalit cause. Kajala is young, just 25. A Chamar by caste, he and his family faced severe humiliation after the Jats boycotted them. A wall came up in front of Kajala’s house, cutting them off from the rest of the village. He says they were all so scared of being attacked at night that they chose to sleep indoors under the thin protection of quilts even in unbearable summer heat. Kajala once played and practiced on the disputed playground, keen to build a physique that would get him a job in the police or the army. Now he too is a full-time activist of the Bhagana Kand Sangharsh Samiti and wants to “fight till the end”.
Kajala says, “This was our first protest in Delhi and the capital’s media and NGO circle have taught us a lesson that we will never forget. We have been protesting at the Haryana mini-secretariat for two years now but never faced such politics. People came here to get their pictures clicked with the Haryana rape victims, to hijack the issue, for money and for publicity. We came here with the hope that our sisters would get justice like Nirbhaya got. But now we understand that village Dalits are only meant to be used and then left.”
As we are talking I spot Janvi, dressed in a pink salwar and a yellow kurta, running around the camp, chasing little children from her clan. She smiles mildly at me.
Soon after the families began their protest at Jantar Mantar, the Haryana Department of Social Justice and Empowerment announced that each of the four families would be givenRs 1.2 lakh compensation. The money has not made a dent in the determination of the families who know they are fighting for a life of dignity, a life without fear, in which they know their neighbors cannot treat their daughters like animals.
Bagoriya is despairing, “The case is slipping away from our hands every day. One of the accused is now out on bail and we’ve failed to convince the court and police to record fresh statements of all four girls under Section 164 of the CrPC in a fearless environment and to add supplementary charges against Bhagana village sarpanch Rakesh Panghal and his aides in the FIR. Forget everything; we still have an FIR documenting the complaint of only the eldest girl Meena!”
The tent is, for all purposes, sex-segregated. In the women’s section, a poster of BR Ambedkar is propped up on a plastic chair. Children are playing as if they are not far from home, living on a sidewalk. Two women are washing utensils near the road. I spot Janvi again, walking at a fast pace clutching a new pack of soap and a few clothes. I asked Janvi’s mother Bhagmati if her daughter would talk to me for a few minutes. She agreed.
While Bhagmati was preparing evening chai for the family, Sushma and Leela were cutting vegetables for dinner. Janvi arrived and sat down in front of me on the plastic sheet on the ground. She still looked fragile, but not exhausted. Under the green dupatta that covered her head I saw large streaks of white hair. When I asked Bhagmati – who was pouring tea into steel tumblers – about it, she said, “I don’t know why but a lot of her hair has always been white. Deficiency or disease, we don’t know.” Janvi, who has been playing with the cake of soap in her hands, is restless. She smiles and asks politely, “Didi, can you come tomorrow? I have to wash my clothes now.”
When I arrive at Jantar Mantar the next day it’s raining. With only 12-15 family members sitting around, the protest camp seems even more deserted. The rain has ended the sex segregation. The men and women have converged into a small dry patch below the cloth tent. All the bedding, clothes, rations and grains are in a heap in this patch. Janvi, Sushma, Leela and their mothers are sleeping on the pile of bedding. Meena has gone back to Hisar to attend her cousin’s wedding -- the same one Reetika had returned to the village for. All around the protest tent, rainwater collects in pools.
In a little while, Janvi and the others wake up. She adjusts her green dupatta and smiles in greeting. They make space for me and we sit watching the rain. And that evening for the first time, Janvi goes into a detailed description of events of the night of March 23 as Sushma and Leela look on.
What Janvi Said
“My exams were going on and that evening I was trying to study. Then around 8pm, I stepped out of my house to pee. Meena, Sushma and Leela used to live in my neighborhood and we often used to go pee together. That night also, all four of us stepped out and just a little distance from their houses, a big white vehicle stopped in front of us. There were five Jat boys in that car. I immediately recognized three of them. They were from our village. They called out to Meena. She refused to go and they started pulling her inside. When we tried to stop them, they pulled all of us inside the car. They put a cloth in front of our mouths. It had a strange cold smell. I began losing my consciousness slowly soon after. I was carried away to fields by the boys. I remember someone touching my body; I felt the hurt and the changing weight of bodies over me. But I was not in a position to resist, to shout or to even open my eyes properly. It was hazy and then I completely blacked out.”
“When I woke up the next morning, Meena, Sushma and Leela were lying next to me. I remember when I first tried to get up, my arms and stomach started aching a lot. I felt a very heavy and piercing pain below my stomach as if somebody was hammering a nail on a wall. I also felt hurt on my cheeks, jaw-line, scalp, shoulders and legs. I was at a railway station (later I realized we were at Bhatinda station), I was so baffled and scared by what might have happened to me that I started crying.”
As Janvi and the girls speak we realize a handful of men passing by in the rain have stopped and are trying to overhear our conversation. I ask the men to leave. Seventeen-year-old Sushma says, “By now, we knew that we were raped. We could just feel it in our bodies. We were in pain and were still feeling dizzy. Even the Punjabi people standing around us realized that something terrible had happened to us. We understood that we were far away from our village, in Punjab now. We tried to ask them how we could reach home, but we did not understand each other’s language. They spoke Punjabi and we talked in Haryanvi.”
A detail they barely registered at the time was this. Meena had woken up to find a phone tucked into the neckline of her kurta. “We didn’t know what to do. But a few hours later, we saw our fathers with the sarpanch coming towards us.”
How did their fathers know where the girls were? This has been one of the strangest, most terrifying aspects of the case.
On the night of March 23, the fathers of all four girls went to the sarpanch's house, as they do in all emergencies, and told him that their daughters were missing. As Janvi's father Lakshman told me later, "He asked us to drop the idea of going to the police and told us to wait till morning. He said that our daughters would return the next morning, and going to the police would bring us a bad name. We were restless, but we went back home. All of us went to him again the next morning. This time he told us that he knew the exact location of our girls. After that, he hired a big car and took all of us to Bhatinda. He took us to our girls who were sitting at Bhatinda Railway Station." Sarpanch Rakesh Panghal later told me that the Sumit Panghal, the prime accused, had told him the exact location of girls over the phone.
They travelled back together – the girls, their fathers, the sarpanch and his uncle Virendra. In the car, the girls cried quietly. They were still in pain, dizzy and sleepy. They reached Hisar around 10pm on March 24. In Hisar, the girls say, the sarpanch stopped the car at a restaurant. He made the four girls eat on the first floor of the restaurant. At this point, Leela in a tight angry voice describes the first of the incidents that indicated to the girls that their troubles were not over. “While our fathers were eating downstairs, he came up and threatened us. He said that if we took his or any of his family’s or Jat community member’s names in this incident or dared to complaint about what had happened to us, he would kill us immediately. He also said that he would kill our parents and that he could very easily destroy our families at any time.”
For the rest of the week, the girls and I talk. On one of those days, we turn to what happened when they reached home. Sushma says, “At home, our fathers were very worried because they wanted to file a complaint with the police and at the same time they also feared a brutal backlash from angry Jats. Had this happened to just one of us, they would have never gone to the police. But since we were four girls from different families, all the Dhanuk men from our village collectively decided that we would file an FIR. The sarpanch and his men tried their best to stop us from filing a case. On the morning of March 25 somehow we reached Hisar’s Sadar police station with our fathers,” says Sushma. The Hisar police sent all four girls to a local government hospital for medical examination.
Janvi remembers that day as one of the most painful days of her life, no less than the crime she survived on the night of March 23. “That day, we reached the hospital at 10am in the morning and were asked to sit on a bench before the tests began. The whole morning passed, then afternoon passed and then evening passed and nothing happened. We kept on sitting there hungry, sleepy and silently crying in pain. But no doctor came.” Meena was the first to be examined – at 11.30 that night. “I was examined post midnight. I was already sleepy and in tears when I went to the doctor.”
After delaying the girls’ medical examination for a whole day, the police then did a shocking thing. They insisted on taking the girls’ statements in front of a magistrate right then in the middle of the night – a procedure usually followed only if a victim is on her deathbed.
Janvi says, “Our statements were recorded between 1.30am and 3am. I don’t clearly remember what I said in my statement because I was very tired, too hungry and sleepy to understand anything. My whole body was aching with pain. Around 3.30am, the cops left us outside the magistrate’s home and went away. It was raining heavily and I was crying. I don’t know how our fathers brought us to the protest camp situated in front of Hisar’s mini-secretariat where our people were. I reached the camp and immediately fell asleep on the ground.”
An FIR was filed on March 25 at the Sadar police station of Hisar against Sumit Panghal, Lalit Panghal, Sandeep Panghal and two unknown persons. By April 1, police arrested the three named and accused along with two more – a man named Parmal and a juvenile who was later released on bail. The five Jat boys from Bhagana were booked under Sections 363, 366, 366A, 376, 120B and 328 of Indian Penal Code. Besides, charges were also leveled under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 and the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The FIR counts 18-year-old Meena as the only victim of the Bhagana gang-rape. Along with the FIR, the statements recorded under Section 164 of the CrPC also say that all the girls apart from Meena were not conscious, and do not know what happened to them on the night of March 23. The medical examinations of all four girls confirmed rape.
This is why for months the Bhagana Kand Sangharsh Samiti has been demanding that the statements of all four girls should be recorded afresh in a fearless, healthy environment. And that the complaints of the other three girls should be added to the FIR.
On July 21, the parents of three of the four girls were sitting inside Room No 434 of the lawyers’ area situated in the Hisar mini-secretariat. They had woken up at 3am at their Jantar Mantar camp. Then they walked to Kashmiri Gate and got on the cheapest bus available to reach Hisar. The girls’ case was listed for hearing that day in the Haryana trial court.
When I arrive in the morning, the families are sitting in the protest camp outside the mini-secretariat. Over the last two years some of the families have made do at the camp. Others have started living in small rented rooms in Hisar. The families from the Chamar and Khanti communities who have been in Hisar for two years helped the Dhanuk families find daily wage work and cheap places to live. All of them take turns to sit at the Hisar protest site.
Later in the lawyer’s chamber, the girls’ lawyer Jitendra Khush told the parents about recent developments in the case. None of it was good news.
On July 8, Jitendra Khush and his senior Ram Niwas had filed an application in the Hisar court for a re-investigation, arguing that the Haryana police had been biased and negligent. They also argued that the magistrate had violated the provisions of Section 164 (CrPC) by not giving the girls the mandatory warning that they only had to make the statement if they felt unafraid and comfortable, that there was no compulsion for them to make it right then in the middle of the night. Despite the victims mentioning that they knew three of the assailants, the magistrate did not ask the girls to identity them, nor did he mention any names in the recorded statement.
The lawyers’ application further argues that there was a caste bias on the part of the authorities towards the Dalit girls. Despite corroborating the statements of the victims and their families who accuse sarpanch Rakesh Panghal and his uncle Virendra of conspiring in the abduction and gang-rape of the victims, the police have not filed any charges against them. Moreover, the application questions the Haryana police for trying to discredit the allegations of the survivors by dropping Section 328 of the IPC from the charge-sheet.
In a written reply that had arrived the morning of July 21, the Haryana police categorically denied all charges and asserted that the investigation was done properly. And brought in a shocking new red herring. In their response, the police said they had looked at the “call details of the victims”. To sum up, they found a phone which they say belonged to the one of the girls. They say that the GPS data indicated that before Bhatinda Railway Station, the phone was last located at a place called Sathrod. The police argued that the girls would have had to change two trains to reach Bhatinda, and this could not have been possible if they were unconscious. The police also say that the girls’ medical reports do not prove the presence of any sedatives (considering the medical examination was done almost two full days after their abduction, this is unsurprising).
I have been here before with police massaging the evidence of difficult sexual violence cases into a story of romance, youthful high spirits or honor killings – shifting the blame to the victim or the victim’s family. As I was following the story of the girls of Bhagana, another gang-rape case I had reported on, one that had ended in murder, was taking that direction in Uttar Pradesh.
I asked Khush how the mobile phone location of one girl confirmed the presence of other three with her. And at a more fundamental level, where had the police found this phone and how had they established that it belonged to the girls?
Khush was firm. “But the police are right. The eldest girl had a phone! Don’t you see the call records? 99.9 percent rape cases here are like that only. They are all consensual,” he added. The parents were puzzled and quiet. Part of it was that they had trouble following non-Haryanvi Hindi.
I asked why he didn’t believe his own client, and how he could say that most rapes in Haryana were consensual. “So what do you think about those numerous cases in which women file a complaint after one or two years of being raped? And sometimes they say that they were being raped continuously for months? How is it possible? I think first they form relations with consent and then file charges of rape later if they feel cheated or neglected. And in this case, call records show that the girls went on their own.”
Back in Delhi, a team of lawyers from the non-profit group Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) has been fighting a separate case in the Supreme Court for the compensation and proper rehabilitation of the Bhagana Dalits. They believe that the gang-rape is a new extension in crimes against Dalits in that region.
I went to see the Hisar SP Vikas Dhankar, who also has an office in the mini-secretariat. He emphasized that they have been diligent in their investigations. And unbiased, of course. With a distressed expression, he said, “Lower caste? You should know that these lower caste people are now coming out and filing complaints against the atrocities happening to them. The situation is not like how it used to be years ago. And I tell you, wait for the next ten years. This whole caste system will get finished itself. You see, with all these inter-caste marriages happening around, how can caste survive?”
The Phone and the Sarpanch
In Jat-dominated part of Bhagana village I meet sarpanch Rakesh Panghal. A clean cement road that runs past many big houses of influential Jats leads to Panghal’s double-storeyed home in the best part of the village. I am made to sit in a small outer room of the house, where the sarpanch is sitting with an elderly family member who is reading a newspaper and smoking a hookah. Panghal himself is in his late thirties, and when I meet him, he is wearing a golden and cream kurta and white pajamas, constantly answering calls and checking his smartphone.
As I enter his house, he says he’s already heard information that a journalist had entered the Dalit tola. He instructs me to switch off my tape recorder and refuses to be photographed. “If you still want a picture, I will send you a good one on WhatsApp. I am not looking nice right now.” Categorically denying all allegations about his involvement in the gang-rape of the four Dalit girls, he says, “They are absolutely lying because they want to frame us so that they can get money from the government for free. Don’t you know that the girls got compensation of Rs 1.2 lakh each from the government? Now, I will tell you tell what actually happened. On that night, these girls fed their parents sedatives and then came out of their homes at around 11pm. The eldest one, Meena, was having an affair with Sumit. So she called him and told him that all four of them have come out and that he should come to pick them up. Sumit, being a sanskari boy, said no. They again called and kept on pleading with him. He was concerned about the girls as it was around midnight by now. So he took out his motorcycle and walked with it for a kilometer so that he didn’t wake his family. He went to the girls, made them sit on his motorbike and took them to nearby fields. Then he kept on trying to convince the girls to go back home. But they wouldn’t listen. Then two of his friends who were returning from a wedding joined them. Sumit asked them to drop the girls to the railway station and he came back home quietly. After that, the whole night he kept on calling the girls and asking them to come back home. But they had boarded the train to Bhatinda on their own. And they are doing all this drama. But I am sure that we will win in the court, you just see. We have already got [one of the accused] out on bail since he is a juvenile. All the other boys will also come out very soon, you just see.”
In Bhagana’s Dalit tola, I meet Sheela, Meena’s mother. She has just returned from the wedding in her family and is soon leaving again to join the other survivors and their families at Jantar Mantar. Her daughter is, according to the authorities, the only victim, but just barely, given that the police are now pushing the consensual theory.
I mention the call details present in the chargesheet to Sheela and ask her if her daughter had a phone. She says, “No, none of them ever had any phone. In fact, the girls told us that the accused had left a phone in Meena’s clothes. She found that phone with her when she woke up on the Bhatinda railway station. Later that night, Rakesh Panghal and Virendra threatened the girls on their way back to Bhagana. The sarpanch said that if they dared to complain and take the name of any Jat, then he would kill them and destroy all of us. He knew about the phone and immediately snatched it away from the girls. Now, the phone is all a drama to distract the case and an attempt to malign my daughters. They all want to save the accused. Because they are Jats and the police and lawyers and judges...all are upper-caste people. Sometimes I feel so hopeless and I feel that we will never get justice.”
Janvi as Dhanuk, Janvi as Jat
It’s a humid mid-July afternoon and the day-off bell has just rung at the primary government school of Bhagana where Janvi and all other girls of the village study. Small girls dressed in green cotton salwars and checked green kurtas are running toward their homes. Inside the building of the Government Primary and Middle School, Bhagana, Hisar, I meet senior teacher Anita Banda who travels from Hisar town everyday to teach in this school of 250 children. She remembers Janvi, Sushma, Leela and Meena. She says, “They were all decent in studies but it would be an overstatement to say that if given a chance to study further, they could bring revolutionary changes in their own lives. The reason is that they are already groomed and conditioned in a way to accept subjugation and violence as a part of their lives.”
I think of the four girls and their clan sitting on the street in Delhi, and I feel that Anita is wrong. The girls and their families are not the ones conditioned to accept violence. It’s the ‘upper’-caste families that believe that Dalit families will accept violence forever.
Banda continues, “The lives of lower-caste girls follow a pattern here which is very difficult to break. Men are usually drunk and useless. Mothers work on the field and these young girls have to cook and do all household work from a very young age. And as soon as they reach Class 5, their parents start pulling them out of schools to marry them off. I personally beg many mothers to let their daughters at least study until Class 10, but lower-caste women rarely agree. They are too scared to let their daughters come to school every day. And I can completely understand their fear. I myself face harassment on my way back to home, what assurance can I give these mothers?”
Sushma’s mother Reshma told me another day, “Jat boys tease our girls day and night. We can’t let them step out of our homes. We can’t send them to school once they start growing up. Schoolteachers say that they are responsible for the safety of girls only inside the school building and if something happens to our girls on their way home, they can’t help it. Jat boys hover around the school gates, chase and molest Dalit girls on their way back from school. So nobody in our families wants girls to go to school. Daughters of Dalits are the easiest targets for Jat boys. And since the courts, police, government and administration…everything is on their side, we prefer to keep our girls inside our homes. You say that we should keep our fight going, but you tell me, who helped us? We are sitting at Jantar Mantar, just one more forgotten story. I don’t have any hope for justice now.”
At Jantar Mantar on one of my visits I meet Janvi, Bagoriya’s 18-year-old daughter. She is the first Dalit girl in the village to go to a Delhi college. She is wearing a purple salwar kameez made of cotton, and her oiled hair is woven into tight, long braids. But strikingly, unlike all other girls in the camp, her head is not covered with her dupptta, which lies on her shoulders. She remembers what it was like to study at the government school in Bhagana. “How will you study if your classmates and most teachers call you by shouting out your caste name and then your father’s name? The environment at schools in Bhagana is exceptionally hostile for lower-caste girls. For example, when I started getting good marks, teachers started humiliating me and students started abusing me verbally. One teacher always gave me less marks to ensure that a lower-caste girl did not end up coming first in a class full of Jat children.”
What are Jat girls like, I ask Janvi. Janvi says, “Jat girls can do anything. They can go to school without fear; they can play on the playground and roam around the village freely. Most of them study in the village’s private school because Jats are rich. This private school also had a special sports teacher for girls! At times, I have also seen a few Jat girls wearing shirt-pant in our village while I have to ensure that the dupatta never falls off my head. They also put dupattas on their heads, but they can wear other outfits too. Jat girls even go out for studies. Most of them go to college in Hisar and even in Delhi while I have to struggle even to continue my Class 5 education. And the biggest difference is that Jat girls are respected in the village. The same Jat boys who molest us every day cannot dare to tease or molest Jat girls. My mother always says this disparity is because Jat men believe that Dalit girls are born to service them and they have every right to molest and rape us.”
Back in Jantar Mantar, Janvi is somehow still Janvi. The sun has dipped below the horizon and by now Janvi is very hungry. She grabs a fistful of raw rice from a bag. Besides raw rice, Janvi loves eating gulab jamuns.And watching the Hindi television serial Choti Bahu. When I tell her that raw rice might give her a stomach ache, she smiles and says, “I have been eating raw rice for years now. I eat raw rice when I feel hungry and there is no cooked food. I don’t like to cook that much. Though, I have to cook when mother tells me to. But I prefer raw rice more than cooked rice.”
Her mother cried a little when she was born. Her teacher doesn’t think she can make it. But Janvi giggles, squashing any doubts, and says, “I will study for my Class 5 exams again. I will study further. Sushma will become a policewoman, Leela will become a doctor and I will become a lawyer. Then no one would dare to trouble us and we would be able to help each other”. But she isn’t done yet. “I want to become a lawyer so that I can help girls get quick justice. But I don’t know if I will get a chance to study or not.”
Janvi’s moment of great happiness and inspiration came about in an unexpected way. In 2012, 16-year-old Nazia – a Dalit girl who lived in Dabra, a village 15km from Bhagana – was on her way to her uncle’s house. She was kidnapped by a group of 12 Jat men. She was sedated and gang-raped. Days later, when she told her parents what happened, her father tried to raise the issue in the village. The accused is said to have responded with the threat that Nazia’s rape had been recorded on his phone and circulated the clip in the village. Nazia’s father committed suicide that week.
Dalit and women activists agitated until the accused were arrested. Though many Dalit parents in Dabra were terrified and stopped sending their girls to school and college, Nazia did not give up. Since her father’s death, Nazia has been bravely fighting a court case against her rapists. In May 2014, two weeks after the Bhagana families came to Jantar Mantar, the Hisar trial court delivered its verdict in the Dabra gang-rape case and sentenced four of the accused to life imprisonment.
As happy as the verdict had made her, Janvi was even more impressed by the way Nazia has been conducting her life for the last two years. “Do you know, Nazia came to Jantar Mantar to meet us and to show her support in a candlelight march! She was very happy. She will be going to college soon. She had also learned computers. And she also goes to a dance class! She said she’ll ensure that all her rapists are punished. I was so inspired by her. I just can’t forget meeting her. I want to become strong and happy like Nazia. I also want to study, learn computers and go to a dance class.”
This month the Bhagana case is being heard in the Hisar trial court. The girls are giving their statements. Janvi is squashing any thought that the case will get dismissed. “I want my rapists to be punished and then I want to settle with my family in some other village and study. I will never go back to Bhagana. I don’t want to remember anything about Bhagana now because it only gives me more pain. I think even in this rain and mud, I am better under this open tent in Jantar Mantar than in those humiliating and torturous lanes of Bhagana, where boys mock me when I try to go to school.”
*Names of all rape survivors and their relatives have been changed.