There’s not much 13-year-old Manju remembers about the night of March 23. She knows she and three other girls were abducted from their village of Bhagana in Haryana’s Hisar district. She knows they were drugged and raped. She knows what her body remembers, the weight of one man after another on top of her. And the pain she woke up to the next morning.
“ Unka wazan yaad hai ,” says Manju. “ Thoda thoda hosh toh tha tab tak . (I remember their weight. I was conscious for a while.)”
Manju, Reema (17), Asha (17), Rajni (18), are Dalit girls of the Dhanuk sub-caste. On the evening of March 23, they had gone to a field near their homes to urinate. They were set upon by five men from the dominant Jat caste, drugged, gang raped in the fields and carried off in a car. They were found outside Bhatinda’s railway station across the border in Punjab the next morning. Though an FIR was filed under the Prevention of Atrocities (SC/ST) Act, the five men — Lalit, Sumit, Sandeep, Parimal, Dharamvir — were arrested on April 29, and the case is being fought in the Hisar District court by lawyer Ramniwas Sharma. Things are murkier than they appear to be, as is often the case in caste-ridden Haryana.
Hence, 90 Dalit families from Bhagana, including the girls’, have been protesting at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar since April 16, with 120 others protesting at Hisar’s Mini Secretariat. They refuse to go home. There is nothing left for them there, only fear and the looming spectre of revenge.
One of their demands is that village sarpanch Rakesh Kumar Pangal and his uncle Virender — related to the perpetrators through intricate ties of gotra — be named in the FIR. Rakesh, the families say, knew all along where the girls were and tried to cover up their rape.
Fanning herself in the stifling heat in a tent at Jantar Mantar, one of the first things Manju talks about is the car. “ Pata nahi woh safed gaadi kahan se ayi (I don’t know where that white car came from).” Reema recalls how the men overpowered them easily and stuffed handkerchiefs soaked in some drug in their mouths. The powerful sedative acted quickly and the girls started to lose consciousness. But they remember being raped in the field before they blacked out. Days later, when the police examined the field, the families say that they found broken crops, an earring torn from someone’s ear and a lone slipper, all signs of a struggle.
The rest of the night is lost to all four. Huddled together, little Manju the most forthcoming, and Asha the quietest, they support each other’s narration with interjections. Rajni’s mother and elder sister help fill in the gaps. When the girls did not return and the families failed to find them, they approached Rakesh for help. He sent them home with reassurances. Within five minutes, he called them back, saying that all four girls were with his relative in Bhatinda. They were to be fetched the next day.
“We woke up around 9.30 or 10 next morning in the bushes outside the railway station in Bhatinda,” says Rajni. Lost, befuddled and in pain, they tried asking for help. “But the Punjabis couldn’t understand us and we couldn’t understand them,” Manisha says, her thick Haryanvi accent testimony to the language barrier. They knew what had happened to them. “ Humare shareer se pata lag raha tha (We knew from signs on our body),” explains Reema.
At 2.30 p.m., their families, brought to Bhatinda by Rakesh and Virender, found them. The two put the four girls in the car and asked the relatives to go back by train due to lack of space. En-route, the girls allege that Rakesh abused them, beat them and tried to threaten them to stay silent. “He told us agar kisi koh bataya toh jaan se mar doonga (If you tell anyone I will kill you),” says Manju. When they reached Bhagana around nightfall, Rakesh tried to drive them to his place. “He wanted to marry us off to these men,” Reema explains “so that he could say we all ran away from home to get married.” That is when the Dalit boys surrounded the car and somehow extricated the girls.
The next few days were a nightmare. The sarpanch had made enough calls to the police by morning to hinder the FIR process. Jagdish Kalja, a Dalit social worker from the village, says that only when 200 people surrounded the thana , the FIR got filed. The medical exam at Hisar’s general hospital, on March 25, was inexplicably long, making the girls wait from morning till 1.30 at night. Asked about the two-finger test, girls said that they were subjected to it. Only when the medical report confirmed rape did the police at Sadar Hisar Police Station file a proper complaint. But Rakesh and Virender’s names were absent, despite the girls naming them in their testimonies.
There is little comfort in the fact that the perpetrators confessed. “How can we go back to the village?” ask the girls, their sisters, mothers and aunts. Dalits, mostly farm labourers and servants, are hopelessly outnumbered by the powerful land-owning Jats. They fear not only the loss of honour but the very credible threat of revenge. “The sarpanch’s mother has said that any returning Dalit will be killed,” says Rajni’s elder sister. It is common wisdom in Haryana that if harm befalls one Jat, the whole community rises up in arms. “The system belongs to Jats; they’ve given money to the police. They can confess without fear of anything happening to them,” adds Kalja. They confide about how Rakesh himself had raped the daughter of a water works employee a few months ago and hushed up the whole affair.
Bhagana is a microcosm of Haryana’s caste violence. As Kalja explains, the Jats, during Rakesh’s tenure, have socially boycotted the Dalits since 2011, grabbed 208 acres of their common land and not let any social welfare schemes be implemented. In 2011, 138 Dalit families left Bhagana, and have since been living at Hisar’s Mini Secretariat. About 150 Dhanuk families stayed back. The protest made no dent in the living conditions. Dalit girls are still teased, molested and chased by Jat boys on their way to school, Dalit boys are beaten up for standing up for them, Dalit labourers are physically exploited and abused. Asha, Reema and Rajni all left school after Std. VIII, unable to face daily harassment. Manju was only in Std. V. She had her exam the day she woke up in Bhatinda.
Just like the 2010 exodus of Dalits in Mirchpur, there is no going back. Kalja reckons that there are only 40 Dalit families left in Bhagana. Lawyers from the Human Rights Law Network have appealed in the Chandigarh High Court for their rehabilitation, education and for livelihood in cities, for the protection of the four girls and the constitution of an impartial SIT. “Jats are dominant in Haryana so this case might not be investigated properly,” says Varnika Singh, an HRLN lawyer.
On May 11, the Dalits protested outside the Delhi residence of Bhupender Singh Hooda, Haryana’s Jat CM.
Since setting up camp at Jantar Mantar, the families have met a host of politicians hoping for justice; they’ve met Ashok Kanwar, Congress MP from Sirsa and senior Congress leaders Motilal Vora and Oscar Fernandes. They’ve tried to and failed to meet Sonia Gandhi. They’re fighting to not fade away like countless other Dalits who have been relegated to yesterday’s newspaper columns.