Dalit shot by M.P. foresters, kin allege caste crime

Victim’s family claim he was killed after they drew water from a hand pump, official says he died in a scuffle over missing rifle cartridges

At Fatehpur village in Shivpuri district, access to water too appears riven by caste fault lines. Just as the village’s roads, shops, playgrounds and trees are all split along caste hierarchies, a mutual pact forbids a Dalit from drawing water from pumps and wells located in land controlled by the Thakurs, an upper caste that enjoys the rare luxury of piped connections.

On February 16, more than 50 members of a Mehtar family, which has had to face decades of untouchability, lost their only potable water source — a hand pump near a forest post — as forest guards shot dead Madan Balmik while his family drew water from there.

“They said we were polluting the water source as we were lowly,” alleged the 38-year-old victim’s aunt Mamata Balmik.“Where do we go to fetch water now?”

On the fateful day, Ms. Mamata along with Madan’s wife and two daughters had trudged to the pump located about 200 metres from their homes, carrying steel pots to fetch water for cooking and drinking in the afternoon. According to the family’s version of events, as Nandini, one of the daughters, rinsed a pot, some water splashed on a forester, who, enraged, hurled casteist slurs at them, and shot at Madan when he rushed to the spot in a bid to calm tensions.

The family alleges that after thrashing the women and hitting the victim’s brother Pankaj Balmik with rifle butts, the foresters, and even villagers, left Madan, who was writhing with pain from the multiple pellet wounds he had sustained, unattended on the road. “Thakurs, who have vehicles, refused to take him to hospital as they said touching him would pollute them,” asserts another aunt Babita Balmik. And by the time the family, which only owns two wheelers, could arrange for a vehicle to take the victim to a hospital in Karera, 25 km away, it was too late. The police have seized two rifles, registered a case against 14 officials under the Indian Penal Code and the The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and arrested six people so far.

From four brothers brought to the village in the early 20th century to serve upper castes — cleaning human excreta and skinning animal carcasses — to seeing their children complete primary school and taking up stable jobs in the cities, and having grandchildren even graduate from colleges, the Balmik family’s tale is one of resilience and constant struggle to overcome a repressive social predicament.

“Our father made sure we study,” said Ms. Babita, who does domestic work at an MLA’s residence in Uttar Pradesh. “Now, our assertion in the village has riled the upper castes, which are denying us even water. We refuse to serve them. Most accused foresters belong to the upper castes. They know us well,” she asserted.

Even though they left manual scavenging years ago, six members of the family still remain in the clutches of sanitation work, jobs they were able to secure more easily owing to their caste. But Madan’s 61-year-old father, Mahattam Balmik, the eldest sibling, became the first to land a government job — as a forest guard — 40 years ago, causing upheaval in the village. Despite this, the family still doesn’t have a toilet at home, and defecate in the open.

A fourth generation member, Ms. Nandini, 12, who studies in Class 7, said the teacher still made Dalit children spruce up the school. “She hands us brooms as soon as we reach saying we’re destined to do such work, while Thakur children study in classrooms. Also, we’ve been asked to carry separate utensils so that the mid-day meal isn’t polluted for other children who get utensils at the school,” she said, sheepishly, showing a steel glass and a tumbler she takes to school.

“After bhaisaheb (brother) was killed, we had to travel to Karera to get tonsured,” said Mr. Pankaj. “The barber here, who belongs to the nai caste, says if he cuts our hair, no other customer will ever seek his service,” claimed Mr. Pankaj.

Bimal, 16, the victim’s eldest son, now fears he would have to abandon his Class 10 board examinations starting March 3, to support the family. His father earned ₹3,000 a month by selling chicken and worked as an agricultural labourer for ₹250 a day. “Even in the past I went to the fields with my father. I may take that up again,” he said.

A forest official, speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed that Madan had encroached upon the Fatehpur forest post. Foresters, he contended, had come to serve an eviction notice on the family, when they were waylaid and a rifle was snatched from them. After securing the weapon back, the forest officials noticed that some cartridges were missing, and in an ensuing scuffle the victim had been shot, he asserted. “In the past, he even burnt a motorcycle when his father was employed at the Madhav National Park,” said the official, who claimed Mr. Mahattam had encroached upon another post in the past, and even sold it.

The former forest guard from the Mehtar family denied all the charges as ‘trumped up’.

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2020 9:28:24 PM |

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