‘Wasn't My Mother Your Ladli Behna?’

A brutal case of assault on a Dalit family and the alleged involvement of BJP members, brings focus on a simmering problem of both Dalit safety and the safety of women in Madhya Pradesh. The state will vote to choose a new government this month.

Sagar (Madhya Pradesh): The first thing one notices upon entering the Dalit settlement in Barodiya Nounagir village are two police constables standing guard outside Sapna’s house.

The police protection, provided by the district administration, is a constant reminder of the threats and insecurity faced by the Dalit family ever since a mob of men allegedly linked to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lynched her brother in August. The accused men also stripped her mother and assaulted her during the incident.

Constables on duty at Sapna’s house. Photo: Omar Rashid.

Her family was targeted, says Sapna, because she had refused to withdraw a sexual harassment complaint she lodged against the men in 2019.

Police later arrested 13 men for the brutal murder of her 18-year-old younger brother and also booked them under relevant sections of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

Sapna and her mother are still disturbed by the violence that transpired on August 24. They fear the worst if the BJP returns to power in the central Indian state.

“Hum bachenge nahi. [We won’t survive]. We will be compelled to leave our house and locality if the BJP returns to power,” said Sapna, seated on a cot outside her house that faces a barren, rocky patch of land. She believes that if the BJP forms the government again in MP, she will not get justice and might have to face backlash from the accused persons.

The family as well as the opposition Congress party have alleged that the main accused persons in the case were linked to Bhupendra Singh, a powerful minister in the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led BJP government and the MLA from the Khurai assembly seat, under which the village falls.

Madhya Pradesh, which will go to assembly polls next week, has the unflattering record of being the state with the worst crime rate against Dalits.

Data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows that the state recorded a crime rate (per lakh of the population) of 63.6 against members of the Scheduled Castes in 2021. The national average for the year was 25.3.

Also Read: Manoj Mitta on Why Caste-Based Violence Continues With Impunity in India

The state, which has been under the rule of the BJP for almost two decades, also recorded high crime rates against Dalits in 2019 and 2020 (46.7 and 60.8) against national averages of 22.8 and 25 respectively.

Dalits form roughly 16% of the state’s population, and though scattered, are an important voting segment in the backward regions of Bundelkhand and the Chambal-Gwalior belt.

While the Congress has regularly targeted the BJP whenever cases of atrocities against Dalits are reported in the state, the issue has not been a major part of its election campaign, which has mostly focused on welfare schemes and general issues such as unemployment, corruption and socio-economic guarantees.

In its election manifesto, the party promised to review the implementation of the SC/ST Act in the state and said that cases lodged under the law would be investigated by an officer of the rank of additional superintendent of police, if it was voted to power.

Other than that, atrocities against Dalits have hardly been a talking point for the two main parties.

The insecurity felt by the Dalit family in Barodiya Nounagir offers a snapshot of the isolation felt by the victims of alleged caste-based atrocities in the state.

Such is the dread of the ruling party’s MLA that even the Dalit neighbours of the family are unwilling to comment on the brutal murder and atrocity suffered by them, even though they are sympathetic in private.

In 2019, Sapna was allegedly molested by the accused persons.

She alleged that the accused persons linked to the ruling party minister were putting pressure on her to reach a compromise. And on the evening of August 24 this year, three persons named Komal Singh Thakur, Azad Thakur and Bikram Thakur barged into her family’s house and threatened Sapna and her mother, who were at home, with dire consequences if they did not withdraw the case.

Congress leader Arun Yadav had in August shared a letter on social media which showed that one of the accused men, Komal Singh Thakur, was a nominated representative of BJP minister Bhupendra Singh, who holds the urban development and housing portfolio in the outgoing government. Komal Singh was also the husband of the head of the Barodiya Nounagir gram panchayat.

“‘We will not allow you to live in the village. We will beat you and chase you away. Don’t you have love for your children?’, they told me,” said Munni Devi, Sapna’s mother.

Munni Devi still wears a white bandage on her right arm, which has long and dark stitch marks from her injury.

Photo: Omar Rashid.

After threatening Sapna and Munni Devi, the accused men intercepted Sapna’s brother, who was returning from the market, and allegedly thrashed him brutally.

“Two of their men, Golu Soni and Lalu Khan, grabbed him. They beat us up too when we intervened. We begged them to let him go and told them we were ready to compromise. But they kept hitting him and then even disrobed my mother,” said Sapna. “We kept screaming and pleading but they beat my brother to death in front of us.”

Sapna alleged that the accused men also threatened to rape her if she complained against them.

“‘What will you do in the morning?’ they asked me. ‘Book us under the SC/ST Act? We will do a 376 [IPC section for rape] with you. What can you do? Your FIR will also not be registered,’ they threatened me,” said Sapna.

A second-year BA student, Sapna said most of the demands made by her to the administration following the incident were not fulfilled.

“We didn’t get justice. Their homes were not demolished. The main accused, Ankit Singh, was not named in the FIR. We were not rehabilitated,” she said.

The mob had also vandalised the Dalit family’s house. “They didn’t even spare my daily utensils,” said Munni Devi, standing in front of the damaged portion of the brick house.

Photo: Omar Rashid.

Sapna said that the FIR lodged by the police did not include details such as her mother’s broken hand or the fact that she was disrobed by the mob and beaten up.

“They threatened me with rape and disrobed my mother. Shivraj Singh Chouhan says [women are] hamari ladli behna. I want to ask, wasn’t my mother his ladli behna?”

Ladli behna, which means beloved sister in Hindi, is a reference to the popular monetary assistance flagship scheme run by the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government under which adult women receive Rs 1,000 (now increased to Rs 1,200) each month from the state.

Chouhan has over the years earned the moniker ‘Mamaji’, or maternal uncle, for the welfare schemes he runs for women and girls in the state. In this election, the scheme forms a major part of his campaign to reach out to the women electorate.

MP has shown an increased trend in crimes against Dalits. In 2019, the state recorded 5,300 cases of atrocities against Dalits, which increased to 6,899 in 2020 and 7,214 in 2021.

In the months leading up to the election too, such incidents of atrocities have been regularly reported.

In April, upper-caste men attacked the wedding procession of a Dalit Border Security Force jawan in Mandsaur. In May, a Dalit groom was attacked with stones for riding a mare in a wedding procession in Dewas.

In June, stones were thrown at a Dalit groom’s procession in an attempt to stop him from riding a horse in Chhatarpur, resulting in an FIR against 50 persons. In July, a Dalit man in Chhatarpur alleged that a man from a dominant backward caste smeared his face and body with human excreta after he accidentally touched the aggressor.

When the Barodiya Nounagir incident happened in August, it led to much political outrage. Congress leader Kamal Nath had said that Sagar district had turned into a “laboratory for Dalit atrocities” under the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government.

The concerned minister had then said that the incident happened due to a personal dispute and should not be politicised.

That leads us to wonder, will the BJP pay an electoral cost for the atrocities against Dalits?

Names changed to protect identity.