On the night of April 4th, Shoeb Khan a reporter with the Times of India tweeted about three minor Dalit boys being stripped naked and beaten by a mob in Bassi block of Chittorgarh district in Rajasthan along with a picture. The picture showed three scrawny boys, looking younger than their purported age of 16-7 years, completely naked on the ground surrounded by men in pants, one appearing to charge towards the boys. Irrespective of the context, the picture was disturbing because it captured the indignity and vulnerability of the boys because of the obvious disparity of power between the boys and men in that moment. I did not want to retweet that picture but got in touch with the reporter to find out more about the incident.
In the meanwhile, the tweet – perhaps because of the picture – was widely shared and provoked much reaction online largely along partisan lines. Soon it emerged that the boys (of Kanjar caste) were caught with an allegedly stolen bike and hence were being beaten up by irate villagers. Of those who were arrested by the police, some were themselves from SC (Khatik) and ST (Meenas) castes. A counter narrative was then launched that a case of theft and (legitimate?) reaction was spun into caste violence of upper versus lower castes to suit the partisan proclivities of those outraging. The counter narrative however omitted a few important points.
First, there are more than 60 sub-castes within the SC community in Rajasthan with much hierarchy and attendant prejudice and discrimination among these sub-castes. Meghwals, Bairwas and Khatiks dominate both politically and economically. Shri Jagannath Pahadia, former Chief Minister of Rajasthan and former Governor is a Khatik. At the lower end of the hierarchy, there are Valmikis who are somewhat politically empowered but face rampant discrimination not just by upper-castes but within SC themselves. At the far lower end, there are Kalbelia, Saperas, Sansis, Kanjars, Nats etc – nomadic castes – who have not been mainstreamed politically or economically in the society. They face rampant and overt discrimination from all sections of the society.
When I first read about the incident, I called a few local people to find our more about the incident. I was immediately accosted with stories of criminality of Kanjar caste. Another person who did not know about the incident initially called me back after some time to tell me dismissively, “madam, woh to kanjar caste ke ladke hain”. The unmistakable implication being that the mob beating was somehow justified because of their caste background. When the full facts of the case came out – it appeared that all three boys had prior FIRs registered against them and were also in possession of a stolen bike, there was a general air of vindication.
Given the above, it is difficult to understand how anyone can argue that stripping and beating these boys is not somehow a caste related incident. Furthermore, while it is true that of those arrested, some were SC/ST, the initial instigators of this incident were Chowdhury boys (Jats). The Rightwing and others often use the fact of a material dispute – land mostly, stolen bike in this instance – in caste related violence to argue that the violence is not about caste. However, the manner of settling the dispute – through often murderous violence – is itself an expression of caste hierarchy and unequal power. Have we heard of many cases of land disputes between upper-castes being settled through murders of entire families? In Dangawas, Nagaur last year, an upper-caste mob mowed down 17 Dalits under tractors over a land dispute. Just a month earlier in the same district, 3 Dalits were burned alive at night over another land dispute. It is not possible to imagine this in reverse – thus squarely making them incidents of caste oppression and violence. It is notable that the administration in the district is populated by upper-castes who despite previous intimation of possibility of attack were deliberately negligent.
Caste oppression is undeniable in this country so trying to prove online that some violence is not borne out of caste is meaningless. The real concern – even if partisan – should be whether rule of law is followed with perpetrators punished and victims getting justice. The larger concern being – perhaps subject to ideological differences – on what can be done to stop caste oppression. In Rajasthan, atrocities against Dalits have risen – not just anecdotally but in numbers. Anecdotally, there is a sense of impunity among the upper castes. Just last month, a mob in Pali district came charging in a Dalit neighborhood and beat up Dalit men and women inside their homes. There has been no satisfactory response by the Government and about 20,000 Dalits converged in the district a few days earlier to protest. It is also pertinent to ask how all of us sitting hundreds if not thousands of kilometres away use snippets of disembodied information to fight our ideological battles. Isn’t it important for us to find out more about each incident before we outrage or give clean chits? Can we lay claim to empathy or credibility if we don’t bother to go into the details?