Balichhai, a small village beside NH 59 in Aska block of Odisha’s Ganjam district, is just half a kilometre from Mamudiha, where Jambu Naik’s family lives in a rented house. Although they live away from it, for Ms. Jambu’s family, Balichhai is the ancestral home. Yet, neither she nor anyone else in her family has dared to visit it for 17 years now. Not even briefly.
During the year that the new millennium was born, Balichhai was in the grip of caste violence. In 2000, several Dalit families, including that of Ms. Jambu’s, had to flee the village to escape the wrath of upper castes.
Their homes were torched or smashed to rubble. They have not made bold to return for rehabilitation or to reclaim possession of their farm lands. The woman says blandly, “After losing almost everything, we had to spend our hard-earned income to get justice. But it looks like we have to accept that the battle is lost.”
Government records say 25 Dalit families deserted the village, but the unofficial count is double that.
These families are now scattered all over Ganjam district, in Balipadar, Kendupadar, Mamudiha, Jhagadei, Bhanjanagar, Jahada, Betarsing, Aska, Kodala and Rajapur.
Some of them have also settled in Rourkela in Sundargarh district. Till 2012, these victims fought for their rights through demonstrations and appeals.
Yet, nothing much happened, diminishing their zeal, said Bhala Chandra Sadangi, adviser to Ganjam Zilla Dalit Samanwaya Samity, an organisation fighting for the rights of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.
A visit to Balichhai shows lingering 17-year-old wounds. The place where houses of Dalit families existed has no signs of habitation except for a lone tubewell. Date palms have grown where SC families once lived. Agricultural land owned by Dalit families remains unused. But no one, including the elderly, is ready to speak about the violent caste animosity and its repercussions in 2000. Either they say they know nothing about it or that it is not something to be discussed with outsiders.
It all started with a quarrel at a village shop at Balichhai on February 20, 2000, said Ganapati Naik, a victim, who now lives at Balipadar with his family.
A Dalit youth, allegedly in an inebriated state, got into an argument with the upper caste shopkeeper, which subsequently turned violent. Animosity between the two sides aggravated, snowballing into violent clashes involving others. The house of a Dalit family was ransacked on April 4 that year. On August 12, another violent clash occurred, in which two Dalit youths were killed and five injured.
After this, the Dalits did not feel safe, and fled. It is alleged that the homes they left behind were razed by the upper castes. “At that time, our only thought was to save our lives, so we escaped, leaving behind all our belongings. Most of us did not even get time to pick up our clothes,” said Mr. Ganapati.
These homeless families were sheltered by friends and relatives elsewhere. Despite their being in dire straits, they collected funds to fight for their rights and rehabilitation. They approached the Odisha High Court, demanding legal action. In October 2003, the court directed the Ganjam Superintendent of Police to consider deployment of police to protect the families, their legal counsel, Sankar Prasad Pani said.
On June 25, 2007, MLA Laxman Munda’s question came up in the Odisha Assembly on the condition of 50 Dalit families who had become victims of caste violence at Balichhai. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who also held the Home portfolio and represents Ganjam district, said the State government had decided to provide ₹10,000 as compensation towards rehabilitation of each family. Six families had received the compensation, and others would be paid after identification.
The Chief Minister said some displaced families were staying in Rourkela, outside the district, and the Ganjam SP had been directed to provide security to families who wanted to go back to Balichhai.
The Bhanjanagar Sub-Collector, the Block Development Officer (BDO) and the Tahsildar of Aska were entrusted with the task of bringing peace and harmony to the village. In due course, a police outpost was opened. It still exists, but the victims have not yet returned.
Mr. Ganapati and seven others approached the Odisha Human Rights Commission (OHRC). Based on a news report, a lawyer, Radhakant Satpathy also filed a petition before the National Human Rights Commission, and the case was transferred to the OHRC. In its order on August 14, 2012, the OHRC cited different findings of authorities related to the Balichhai incident and action taken for rehabilitation.
The OHRC mentioned that the Ganjam SP, in a letter in 2009, had accepted that an intense tussle existed between upper and lower castes at Balichhai and that 25 lower caste families were driven out. With around 300 families, the village had an upper caste majority. Several peace committee meetings were held in the presence of the Collector, the SP, the Sub-Collector, the Tahsildar and the BDO. But no settlement was reached.
The SP indicated that the situation was not conducive for construction of houses for rehabilitation. The Ganjam district administration, however, sanctioned that 25 pucca houses be built on patta land of the Dalit victims under the ‘Mo Kudia’ or ‘Indira Awas Yojana’.
On May 5, 2012, at a meeting held on the premises of the Aska BDO to discuss rehabilitation, representatives of both communities were present. But the Balichhai residents demanded that the meeting must be held at their village in the presence of the Collector and the SP. The impasse continues. According to Mr. Ganapati, no major rehabilitative steps have since been taken.
The OHRC pointed out that residents could not dictate to the district administration on the venue of the meeting. The Commission closed the case, hoping that the displaced families could be rehabilitated.
Aska BDO Gayatridutta Nayak said he had taken charge about seven months ago and would look into the matter. But not much progress had been made, he acknowledged. Inspector in charge of Aska police station Baleswar Gidhi claimed that peace prevailed at Balichhai, while confirming that the displaced Dalits had not yet returned.
According to Mr. Pani, the displaced families of Balichhai could file a civil suit to claim their land property. “They can also be provided compensation under provisions of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act as well as special compensation on humanitarian grounds, which has not been done,” he added. He said it was the duty of the government to allay the fears among displaced Dalits, so that they could return.
According to Mr. Ganapati, most of those displaced earned their living from agriculture, which was lost when they left their ancestral land.
These families possessed around 50 acres in 43 plots, he said. Detached from their agrarian roots, these families had become labourers. Ms. Jambu’s husband, Panchu Naik, serves at village restaurants and she makes brooms for sale. Tuna Naik, who now resides at Mamudiha, became a migrant labourer, working in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. These families still hope that their land at Balichhai will be restored to them.
Mr. Ganapati and Ms. Jambu say several elders, who left Balichhai along with them, are dead and the victims, who were children in 2000, have now become youths looking forward to their future. These youths grew up detached from the village and have less interest in the property. But hopes of getting back what they lost in 2000 still remain fresh among the parents.