One summer day two years ago…

Amitava Chakraborty
One summer day two years ago...

The hand pump is now watched by a police chowki, CCTV. (Express Photo by Amitava Chakraborty)

AT A VILLAGE near Hansi town in Haryana’s Hisar district, a police chowki keeps an eye on a 30-year-old hand pump. Its staff and a CCTV camera watch it 24x7, more than two years after a brawl at the site became a caste conflict. On November 5, the Supreme Court called the matter “serious” and pulled up the Haryana government for failing to end a “social boycott” of Dalits in the village.

The village of around 9,600 is almost evenly divided between Scheduled Castes (42%) and Jats, Brahmins and other upper castes (around 39%). While the latter either deny there was ever a boycott, or say it lasted barely a couple of days, the Dalits insist the upper castes continue to keep them away from their fields. In October last year, about 300 Dalit families in the village converted to Buddhism.

Says Vikas Kumar, 37, one of the converts, “I had a small shop selling construction material. I had to close it. Now I travel 20 km to work in a field, which has been contracted by my cousin.”

Sitting at his two-storey home in Hansi, Ramkishan, 69, a former sarpanch of Bhatla, who is a Jat, says, “Both sides are to blame. But as of now, there is no problem... Mediation is the only answer.”

But, while there has been no violence since the June 15, 2017, clash, the rift that runs now in Bhatla virtually rules out mediation. Following the incident, eight people had been arrested. While the three minors were cleared by the juvenile justice board, the other five are out on bail.

Sitting near S D Mahila College in Hansi, Rajat Kalsan, a Dalit activist and the lawyer representing the SC side, says a compromise will benefit only the upper castes. “Soon after the assault, panchayats were held for a compromise. But then I explained that neither police nor a trial court could order a compromise in cases filed under the SC/ST Act... Only high courts have the power. The accused then urged the victims to file a supplementary statement denying the incident.”

With piped water supply available in parts of the village only once in two weeks, hand pumps such as the one where the clash happened are a source of drinking water.

On that hot June day, the brawl began over drawing of water from the pump, after which a few Dalit youths were allegedly assaulted by upper-caste youths. The following day, one of the Dalit youths, Rahul, filed a complaint under the SC/ST Act. A fortnight later, on July 2, the village chowkidar announced a social boycott of the SCs. On July 8, Ajay Kumar, a Dalit youth who was not part of the brawl, complained to the Hansi Sadar Police against the boycott.

A few months after the incident, Ajay approached the Punjab and Haryana High Court, requesting police protection and the transfer of investigation to the CBI. The court ordered the setting up of a police chowki near the hand pump.

On October 24 this year, the high court, in its final order, noted that Bhatla had been peaceful for past six months. “... normalcy is coming back, although slowly”. It also ruled out a CBI probe, saying that so much time having passed, “it would not be appropriate to transfer the investigation”.

The Dalits say the court reached that conclusion due to a “biased” police probe. In an interim order on September 12, 2017, the high court had frowned upon the conduct of then Station House Officer, Udaybhan Godara, noting that one of the complainants had been picked up by police a day before the Sessions Judge visited Bhatla on September 2, 2017, in an attempt to resolve the issue amicably.

The Dalits went to the Supreme Court against the high court order. Colin Gonsalves, who is representing the SC community in the Supreme Court, says a proper investigation is needed. “It is two years of the most brutal social boycott.”

On November 13, the Supreme Court asked the state to give names of “independent officers who are neither from this community nor from that community” to conduct the probe. The next hearing is due soon.

With heat building, the upper castes blame everyone from “two former ministers in the Manohar Lal Khattar government” to “greed for compensation” to “lawyer Kalsan” for the matter reaching the Supreme Court.

Says 38-year-old Bhupender, an upper-caste farmer, “Not everything they say is a lie, there was a boycott. But for two-three days.”

Sipping tea near the police chowki, 50-year-old Naresh Berwal asserts, “Since 2017, there has not been a single incident of violence. All the stories are fabricated.”

Samsher Devaran, 54, walks around with a photocopy of what he claims is a list of Dalits who received compensation — around Rs 22 lakh in total — from the District Welfare Officer of Hisar. “These cases have become a way to extort money from the government,” Devaran says.

Rahul, the original complainant, is not on the compensation list though, having reportedly returned the Rs 75,000 he received. He also recorded a statement claiming that he had been compelled by the others to sign the application for relief under the SC/ST Act.

Watching an ongoing game of cards on the temple premises, Baba Omnath, a sadhu, says, “On the day before amavasya, people of all biradri (communities) come here and we hold a feast... Bhatla was established back in 1504. Since then, there has not been a single incident of communal violence.”

On the Dalit side too, some such as Ajit, 52, a vegetable vendor, want the incident to be put in the past. Says Ajit, “The boycott did take place and continued for about a year. The situation is under control now.”

However, Narinder Singh, 32, another villager, says the calm is only on the surface. Preparing to feed his four buffaloes, he says he had to sell off a few of his buffaloes as upper castes refuse to give them work.

Narinder’s father says only courts are the answer. “The Supreme Court is God, the high court is God.”