India: State Govt & upper-caste male-dominated panchayats complicit in Haryana's growing VAW Print E-mail

 Mumbai ~ Volume 29 - Issue 22 :: November 03-16, 2012

Hisar’s shame

By T.K. RAJALAKSHMI in Hisar and Rohtak

There is growing violence against women and children in Haryana, aided by the apparent collusion between the State government and the upper-caste-dominated khap panchayats.

OCTOBER 15, ROHTAK, HARYANA: Lathi charge on a women's rally that was organised to protest against the increasing violence against women in the State and the khap panchayats' infringement on the rights of young people and women (RAJEEV BHATT )

THE road leading to Dabra village in Haryana’s Hisar district is not very difficult to locate. It was at Dabra, a mere 15 kilometres from the district headquarters, that a heinous crime was committed on September 9. It would have gone unnoticed had it not been accompanied by another tragedy.

Sixteen-year-old Suman (name changed), daughter of a daily wage labourer, was on her way to her grandmother’s home in Patel Nagar, a residential colony in Hisar town, when she was accosted by some young men from her village near a semi-deserted canal. The young men, all from a dominant caste in the village, abducted her. They then took her to a field on Tosham Road and forced her to consume some intoxicant. She was then raped by seven people, while five stood guard. And this happened in broad daylight.

On September 18, nine days after the incident, she mustered enough courage to tell her mother, who had been wondering why the cheerful and intelligent girl was morose and unhappy. Her father sent his family away to a relative’s house and discussed the matter with some other residents of the village. But his attempts to file a police complaint failed because of fears within his own community and threats from the caste group to which the rapists belongs. After he was sent word that pictures of the incident would be made public if he reported the matter, he committed suicide by consuming a pesticide.

In Dabra, where caste polarisation is strong, there are around 800 households of Jats, 150 homes of Chamars (a Scheduled Caste to which Suman belongs), 150 homes of Dhanaks (another Scheduled Caste), and a few families from other castes and social groups. The S.C. community is dependent on the dominant caste groups as agriculture is the main occupation, like elsewhere in the State. “In Hisar in particular, the caste divide and hierarchy are very strong. At Dabra, Dalits cannot sit on chairs in the presence of Jats,” said one of Suman’s aunts.

It was no surprise, therefore, that until September 21, none of the accused was arrested despite being identified by the victim. There were other reasons too. State Industries Minister Randeep Singh Surjewala’s wife happens to hail from Dabra. “A lot of pressure was put on my father not to register a case. They tried to bury it by making us compromise, saying that I would have difficulty in getting married,” Suman told Frontline. Her two aunts, one of whom is a former Councillor, have stood by her. Suman’s mother hardly spoke a word during the interaction with Frontline. The loss of her husband, the violence her daughter suffered, and the public humiliation of it all had numbed her into silence. The mother, who had studied until Class 12 and taught in a school, sat there with her head held low, swallowing deeply from time to time.

CPI(M) POLIT BUREAU MEMBER Brinda Karat with the mother of a rape victim at the Rohtak rally. (RAJEEV BHATT )

Eight of the 12 accused were arrested almost a fortnight after the incident. The police security provided to the family­around 20 policepersons are posted in the village­has failed to instil confidence in the household. “We want the family to be relocated in the city. It is not safe for them here. If they stay here, they will be forced to withdraw the case and compromise. I wonder which Dalit girl will go to school at this rate,” asked another of Suman’s aunts.

Not an isolated case
The Dabra case is not a stand-alone one in Haryana. There has been a spate of attacks on women of all ages, including minor girls, in recent years. In May last year, Sweety, a Class 12 student, was kidnapped from a market in Kurukshetra district, gang-raped and murdered. For four continuous days, there were angry protests by students who blocked the roads.

Over the last one month, as many as 20 instances of rape, including gang rape, were reported. On October 11, the six-year-old daughter of a migrant labourer from West Bengal was kidnapped from her father’s rickshaw by some young men, raped, and then left to her fate. She survived, but doctors said she would not be able to conceive.

THE FAMILY OF THE GIRL from Dabra who was gang-raped in September. Her father committed suicide and the family faced pressure not to file a case (RAJEEV BHATT)

On September 28, a newly wed woman was lured, kidnapped and raped by four persons in Sonepat district. On the same day, a Class 11 student was lured into a godown and raped by four persons.

On February 28, a Class 9 girl from Barar village in Bhiwani district was kidnapped while on the way to the market, taken to the fields and raped by five men.

There is no denying that there is a broad pattern to the violence, but it cannot be seen purely in caste terms. While the majority of rape victims have been Dalits, crimes in the name of honour have taken place where girls from the dominant castes have been the victims. In some cases, the victim and the perpetrators were from the same community. In this context, the statements of Congress and opposition leaders and of self-styled khap panchayats have been far from responsible.

One Khap Mahapanchayat leader demanded that the age of marriage be lowered to 16 years as a response to increasing crimes against minors. The statement was later retracted on October 13 at a Jat Khap Mahapanchayat meeting at Sonepat following strong protests.

The meeting, which held the electronic and print media responsible for the rise in crimes against women, reiterated the demand for an amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act to prevent rapes.

Khaps had made a similar demand for an amendment in the Act declaring same-gotra marriages illegal after the award of the death sentence (later commuted to life) in a brutal honour-killing case.

In July, the stamp of approval for khaps came from none other than Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who urged them to deal with issues as serious as the implementation of the Pre-Conception Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act.

“On the one hand, the PCPNDT Act is not implemented properly. On the other, they want the khap panchayats to play an active role in curbing female foeticide,” said Jagmati Sangwan, vice-president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA).

Police lathi-charge protesters
In sharp contrast to the general laxity shown by the police and the administration in dealing with crimes against women was their swift and violent response to those protesting against these crimes. On October 15, the police violently lathi-charged a peaceful rally of 19 women’s organisations, with schoolchildren and young girls participating in it, at Rohtak, the home district of the Chief Minister, injuring at least three people.

Activists alleged that at the barricades put up to prevent women from marching to the Deputy Commissioner’s office, police hit them on their feet and legs, invisible to the cameras that were stationed at a height. But the frontal lathi charge was captured in photographs. “I did not expect them to attack women. We do not see such things in Delhi,” remarked a shocked cameraperson who had travelled from Delhi to cover the protest. As many as eight cases, including cases of assault on a public servant, inciting a mob, and assembling unlawfully were filed by the police against 18 persons.

The rally was organised by women’s organisations and civil liberty groups led by AIDWA. At the rally, families of rape victims spoke out boldly against administrative apathy. The participating groups buried their differences and castigated the State government and the Centre for their silence and inaction over a range of issues concerning women.

A delegation that met the Chief Minister on October 17 received non-committal answers to many of its queries and demands, including one for the withdrawal of cases against people like former Rajya Sabha member Brinda Karat and AIDWA state vice-president Jagmati Sangwan for having organised and led the October 15 rally. “The Chief Minister told us that the footage taken by the administration showed that we had invited the lathi charge by our aggressiveness,” Sudha Sundararaman, general secretary of AIDWA, told mediapersons in Delhi on October 18.

The Congress’ ambivalence
On October 9, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi visited a Dalit rape victim’s family in Jind district. The perpetrators were also reportedly Dalits. The victim had immolated herself, though there were rumours that the death was a case of honour killing following the exposure of her relationship with one of the accused. Significantly, she stayed away from Dabra where the accused were upper-caste men and where the victim’s family was clearly under pressure not to file a case.

In Mirchpur in April 2010, around 18 Dalit homes were torched after a petty fight between some upper-caste and Dalit young men. A disabled girl and her aged father died in the arson. The support extended by some khap panchayats to the Mirchpur accused caused further caste polarisation and resentment.

“When [Congress general secretary] Rahul Gandhi went to Mirchpur after the incident, the dominant community did not like it one bit. Perhaps the UPA chairperson refrained from going to Dabra because she did not want to alienate the party’s main vote bank. The girl is alive and struggling to pull herself together. Her family would have got a lot of moral support had the UPA chairperson decided to visit her,” remarked a political commentator. At a time when khap panchayats aggressively suppress the democratic rights of young people, women and the weaker sections, the laudatory note by the Chief Minister and the award of Rs.1 crore to a khap panchayat have left no one in doubt about the kind of caste politics being played in the State.

The delegation that met the Chief Minister on October 17 on behalf of 21 groups submitted a memorandum demanding that all complaints of rape and sexual harassment be investigated without delay and action be taken against police officers obstructing the delivery of justice. It also demanded the rehabilitation of victims, including counselling and other forms of assistance such as jobs. It also demanded that no constitutional sanction or government sanction be given to khap panchayats.

Indeed, the State government’s inability to rein in the khaps and its own partisan role have created an atmosphere of insecurity among some social groups. Caste polarisation has deepened as Dalits increasingly demand their rightful wages and work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and react sharply to caste-based insults. The All India Agricultural Workers Union has played a crucial role in this.

Politically, the Dalits still remain a minority with none in the Congress leadership, including Dalit leaders in the party, willing to speak up for them.

One Congress leader even said that 90 per cent of the rapes were consensual. A mild stricture followed, but neither the State Congress leadership nor any responsible Congress person at the Centre bothered even to condemn such shocking utterances. The Pradesh Congress president, Phoolchand Mullana, a Dalit himself, even commented that the outcry over rapes in the State was part of a political conspiracy.

“We have to see what they finally do. The Chief Minister told us that he would set up district-level committees to monitor crimes against women. The committees would include the District Commissioner and the Superintendent of Police, and would meet twice a month to expedite cases and supervise other aspects,” said Jyotsna Chatterji of the Joint Women’s Programme. She also expressed concern that the attitude of the Haryana administration was similar to the one seen in response to the recent spurt in crimes against women in West Bengal. “What is happening? I come from a State where the Chief Minister denies that incidents of rape are taking place,” she said.

The larger context
Haryana has one of the highest per capita incomes in the country. It is self-sufficient in food production and reputed as a major manufacturing hub and a leading producer of automobiles and automotive components. But it has an abysmal record in human development indicators. It is one of the States that have the lowest child sex ratio in the country. Many of the developing urban centres in the State are located in Hisar district. Haryana Agricultural University, a premier agricultural university in the country, is located here. It also has a well-known steel production unit owned by a Congress leader. Industrially, agriculturally and economically, Hisar is among the well-performing districts in the State. But it is also where the Mirchpur incident occurred.

“The reasons being given for such escalation of crimes are truly amazing. The influence of Western culture is said to be one of them. Some say it is attributable to a breakdown of law and order; others recommend lowering the age of marriage, and some others say it is because of the declining sex ratio. But there has to be a reason for the decline of the sex ratio also,” said Inderjit Singh, State secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist). D.R. Choudhary, former Chairperson of the Haryana State Public Service Commission and a keen social commentator, told Frontline that there appeared to be no fear of the law at any level.

It is important to view the social, political and economic context that has created the conditions for the spurt in crimes against women, children and other vulnerable sections. The current policies of the State and Central governments are responsible for the overall degeneration. Institutionally, too, there are drawbacks. There is no mechanism for the compensation or rehabilitation of victims of violence.

The State does not even have a Scheduled Caste Commission, nor does it have a fully constituted State Women’s Commission.

The crime graph is likely to keep rising as there is a refusal at all levels to look at the systemic reasons. The tragedy is that even the symptoms are not being taken seriously. To effectively look at the conditions behind the degeneration would require a vision that neither the Hooda government nor the Central government has at the moment.

And the crime against women goes on...