I live in Chennai. There is enough happening in that city by way of political happenings to keep a Chennai-vasi preoccupied.
So why should Dangawas, a village in the Medhta block of Nagaur District in Rajasthan figure in my thoughts? For the reason that what happened in that village in the middle of May this year staggers belief, shakes one’s faith in the very existence of such a thing as ‘the law of the land’ and forms part of the world’s lore of barbarisms.
It is said Saddam Hussein liked to ‘execute’ people by running armoured tanks slowly over their bodies. He has able students in Dangawas. Only, they are not The President, the All-Powerful. They are simply The Dominant Caste, the village’s equivalent of the All Powerful. If I called them by their caste name, I would be unfair to the great majority of Jats who do not pour excoriating acids into the eyes of Dalit men, tear out their penises, run farm tractors over their bodies. Those who did this happened to be Jat but they could have belonged to any Dominant Caste or majority community that turns brutal towards their victims, invariably members of any oppressed caste or numerically weaker community.
If Saddam has been rightly called barbaric and medieval, India in Dangawas has shown itself to be no less so.
How right Dr Ambedkar was when he said if our Constitution’s guarantees fail it would not be because our Constitution is flawed but because “man is vile”.
Meet that vile man.
He personifies the Dominant Caste, in fact, the Dominant Everything including, of course, and especially, the dominating male landholder. But do not think for a moment he is just a pea-brained he-gorilla. He is very smart. As easily as he can have men crushed under his tractor and women burnt alive, mutilated, he knows how laws can be subverted.
The mid-1950s saw egalitarian land laws passed in several States in India. Rajasthan passed, in 1955, path-breaking tenancy legislation to give land rights to Dalits. It gave government land to landless Dalits. Land to Dalits? Unimaginable. What did the DC – Dominant Caste – do ? It sought to buy up the land Dalits got at absurd prices, advance loans to them against that land and, in many cases, just moved into those lands.
Governmental foresight stepped in to add a provision to the law to say no Dalit land can be alienated to non-Dalits. Did the DC take this lying down? It did not. It stayed put, causing thousands of cases to pile up in courts, whenever a Dalit land allottee had the guts and could find the money to seek a legal remedy.
The courts ruled in favour of the Dalits in several cases but there is such a thing as ‘ground reality’. It is one thing to get a judicial order, another to get the order implemented on ground.
A 15 acre plot in Dangawas was the subject of a dispute between a Dalit family and a family that happened to be, unsurprisingly, Jat. The former claimed title, the latter mortgage rights going back several years. As the Dalit family started to build a house on the land, the Jat family mobilized a crowd of 200 and advanced towards the plot with tractors and motor-cycles to raze the structure.
In FIRs it has been alleged that the Dalit brothers fired at the crowd, killing one man who happened to be a non-Jat. The Dalits deny this, saying it is one of the attacker’s own guns that killed the unfortunate bystander. They say they don’t even have lathis, what to speak of firearms and they ask: “Where is the gun we are supposed to have used?” I do not want to comment on the ‘merits’ of the case. But the fact is that three men of the Dalit family had tractors driven over them, Saddam-style with many ingenious additions to that high art. And a fourth succumbed to injuries shortly thereafter. Dalit women from the household were warned they will have wooden rods thrust into their private parts if they did not keep quiet.
The four dead bodies and over a dozen Dalits injured and in hospital tell their own tale.
Will the courts deliver justice?
I want to believe they will.
But what of the administration?
Irrespective of the legalities of this 15 acre plot and the sequence of events on May 14, the stark fact of the victims having been crushed under the iron jaws of tractors stares us in the face. Earlier in the same district a Dalit woman was burnt alive and a Dalit girl had her hands burnt over the silencer of a tractor because she had the ‘temerity’ to ask the DC tractor owner to tone down the volume of the music blaring from his chariot.
Is the administration not hearing, seeing this? Is it there at all?
Rajasthan has a Governor, a Chief Minister, a Minister for Rural Development. It has, I am sure, a body for the welfare of the state’s Scheduled Castes and Tribes. Why have we not seen them visit the village? “They can’t go each and every time something like this happens!” is the stock response I can anticipate. But death by tractor is no “each and every time” matter. It smells of barbarism, reeks of medieval tortures. Besides that district is now a confirmed Dominant caste versus Dalit area, which requires the administration to act.
Many years ago, Mahadevi Verma wrote in her matchless Hindi lines that I can only translate into weak English: “Our age lives in two yugas. One, the modern one which sees an Aryabhatta cruising the skies. The other, the medieval one in which the poor and the miserable are condemned to live and die on the very alley in which they have been so unfortunate as to be born…”
We have a Mangalyaan cruising the skies, are said to be planning a manned moon-landing. We are told that 33 coal mines have been auctioned fetching the country revenue worth 2 lakh crores of rupees. We have opened bank accounts for 14 crore families in “just one year” with an accident insurance cover of two lakh rupees for an annual premium of “only 12 rupees” and a life insurance cover of two lakh rupees for an annual premium of “only 300 rupees”.
But what is the romance with the skies about and how “safe’ is the “safety net for the poor” if death by tractor goes unpunished by the powers that be?
Let me state here categorically that my rage is not about the BJP. The kind of Dominant Caste control seen in Dangawas this May could have been seen in Congress-ruled Rajasthan as well. Both parties have a fear of antagonizing the Dominant Caste or Dominant Community. Such are the compulsions of electoral politics. But I do think there would have been some response from the Congress leadership or, for that matter, from a government headed by Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the old-style BJP leader, had Dangawas occurred in their time.
A new brazenness is abroad now, when it comes to intimidating the weak, the vulnerable and the smaller in number.
The weak and the vulnerable, Dalits and Tribals foremost among them, are being impaled on the great war-map for control over our land and natural resources. Barbaric medievalism and modern commercial giantism are on the same side of the board, with the egalitarianism of the 1950s in bruised, broken retreat on the other. Being in Chennai, therefore, is to be far from Dangawas. But it is not far from being in the same danger.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a former Governor of West Bengal and a former high commissioner to Sri Lanka, is now Distinguished Professor in History and Politics, Ashoka University.
Thanks to the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and PUCL for the basic facts contained in the piece.