The group’s monthly meetings are held at Sanwari Amma’s house since it is on the road and the bus from Chitrakoot district stops right in front of her house, which is in Kaimaha village in Manikpur block. The bus was delayed that day since the only other bus that comes to the ‘beehad’ met with an accident. It was lunch time so Sanwari amma quickly made some pearl millet rotis and mustard greens for the members. Twenty of them had already arrived and a few more were awaited. They decided to eat first and then start the meeting.
Manikpur block is one of the five blocks of Chitrakoot district which were carved out in 1997 from the adjoining Banda district. In 2006, the Ministry of Panchayati Raj declared it one of the most backward districts in India. It receives funds from the Backward Regions Grant Fund Programme and has a low sex ratio of 879 females per 1000 males. The Dalit population in the district is 27% of the total. Manikpur block, which is located on the border of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, is remote and comprises 123 villages. The female literacy rate is roughly 30%.
“Had we not organised ourselves, they would have sold and eaten us up,” says Urmila. Most members of the Samiti are Dalit agricultural labourers. Vanagana, an NGO in the area, helped them set up the group but it has been three years since they independently registered themselves. Once a month they hold a meeting where fellow members report from their geographical zones.
“Elections are around the corner and that is why more people are visiting the area. Else, who wants to listen to us,” Ram Kumari says with a smirk as everyone settles down on the durri in the front room of Sanwari Amma’s house.
“Let’s wait for some more members. They are at the kotedar’s place to collect ration,” says Dhaniya.
Sukhmani replies, “The government keeps making schemes online. They think they have done their bit of development. Who cares whether we get ration or not.”
Seema explains, “Last year, since the UP government decided to draw a fresh list of beneficiaries of the PDS system through online registration, most people have stopped getting ration.”
Under the National Food Security Act, the state earlier gave ration to three categories, Below Poverty Line (BPL), Above Poverty Line (APL) and Antyoday. The new system has merged the APL and BPL categories into a single ‘priority card holder category’ under which each person is entitled to 5kg of grain as monthly ration – 3.5 kg of wheat at Rs 2 per kg and 1.5 kg of rice at Rs 3 kg. In the earlier system, each family could avail 35 kg of ration. Now only the Antyoday category is entitled to that.
Ram Dulari says, “But we don’t even have the Antyoday cards. Only the Brahmins and Patels have it. Go and check. They have big houses and tractors and get ration on the Antyoday cards. In the last five years, I have paid the boy at Graduate ki dukaan Rs 500 till now. But the card hasn’t come. Checked with him today too.” Graduate ki dukaan is the name of the shop of the local computer operator.
“Also, for online registration you need so many things, Aadhaar card, voter card, bank account and what not. How do we get all the made?” Santoshi asks.
Mansha sitting in the extreme left corner informs, “Also surveys for basic schemes like ration card and Lohia Awaas are done in a way that Dalits are excluded. Rich and upper caste people have got ration cards in their family members name.” Lohia Awaas Yojana is one of the flagship programmes of the Samajwadi Party (SP) government, which was launched to provide hosing for the urban and rural poor.
“But that is what the government wants. To help the rich to show development. Not uplift the poor. When the zila poorti adhikari (district supply officer) came to launch the online registration of the PDS cards, he filled the first form of an upper caste lawyer. Now can’t he see that he has three cars and does not need one,” Munniya replies.
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Do any of the villages have Dalits pradhans? How do the other pradhans behave? I ask.
All the women seem to rush forward with answers like commandos, each attacker acting with the same objective.
“Sometimes, even Dalit pradhans are not allowed to assist Dalits in accessing ration cards because they ate threatened,” Putli answers.
Pushpa, a 40-year-old woman joins in. “I told the pradhan the other day. He said that all we do is complain instead of working in their fields. They want us to be their slaves for life. Stay dependent on landowning castes instead of getting help from the state.”
I ask if there is any mechanism to complain.
“Look. In the previous government, all officers were instructed to sit in their offices no matter what. Now, take a quick round and you will find locks in all government offices during office hours. The zila poorti adhikaris are responsible for ration cards, PDS and basic things but they are never present in their offices.”
“If Akhilesh comes I will pull out his eyes. Understand?” says Suhagi Amma, a 70-year-old participant. She is referring to UP chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav.
“Arey, Suhagi Amma, start slowly. Don’t get aggressive,” says Seema with a smile.
“Why not aggressive? Am I saying something wrong? Kill me if I am lying,” she turns around to speak.
“You go to hospital for delivery. You are asked to get syringe, soap, towels, medicines and money. If you don’t tip the hospital staff in advance they refuse to deliver the baby and send you back. You have to pay Rs 200 to each of the staff members. After delivery, they keep all the stuff – bedsheets, towels – and turn you away. What is the choice but to quietly give money? What if they do something to the mother or the child?”
Under the maternal health scheme, Janani Suraksha Yojana, all women are entitled to free healthcare and treatment.
Sona adds, “Three women died in the government hospital last week during delivery. Just in one week, mind you. No one took any action against the doctors.”
Purwa explains, “Till five years ago, we would send the children to the hospital by themselves to get basic medicine and treatment because the doctors would come to the hospitals. Now, we have to wait for weeks outside the primary health centre to catch hold of them.”
How about the government schools for children in the area, I ask. Do they function?
The meeting has turned the women into information machines. They have numbers and dates on their fingertips.
Shankari says, “First of all, I want to say that all children should go to government schools. It is only then they will function. Right now only poor and Dalit children go to government school in Bundelkhand.”
Pushpa explains with an example, “In 2015, a Dalit teacher was appointed in Murkata village of Manikpur block. He used to travel 50 km everyday from Chitrakoot in a local bus to come to the school. In the one year, he was there, the mid-day meal was restarted and the food was of good quality for the children to eat. He made a genuine effort to get children interested in school and education. Would often bring charts, toys, play games. Children finally started studying. This did not go down well with the local Patels and Yadavs. The local dacoit affiliated to the Patel community kidnapped him. The ransom demand was for Rs 3 lakhs. The teacher was obviously from a poor family and so they could not pay. Since the police again did nothing, the teachers collected money from their pockets and got him released. It is that day and today.The school never reopened. They don’t want Dalits to get educated. Their hegemony will be over, no?”
Sanwari Amma says, “Haan bhai. Why can’t the Dalit children become collector and SP? They are also humans.”
Pushpa says, “I want to ask why is a Brahmin teacher never abducted by dacoits? Because upper caste teachers never go to the government schools if they are in remote areas. They are spotted once in 15 days and don’t even teach. They do their personal work while children roam around. There is no sense of responsibility. In mid-day meals, if they are asked to get 1kg dal cooked, they only get made half. They don’t have any motivation to teach poor, untouchable children.”
Have other government programmes like MNREGA functioned in the neighbouring villages in the last five years, I ask.
Kuntibai replies, “The village pradhans are responsible for running the programme. The workers are never given job cards, neither is an attendance roll maintained. Now tell me, who are the people who have worked as daily wagers for centuries? The Dalits and the tribals, since they are landless, they work for months. But the money eventually goes to the accounts of the upper caste relatives and acquaintances of the pradhan in the village. We have no way to prove that we worked for so many days. I challenge collectors to check the names of the payees in the record in Manikpur block. All of them are upper caste.”
Were the pension schemes introduced by the SP government of any help?
Shanti refers to the previous BSP regime to explain the difference, “Earlier, under the Mahamaya pension scheme, the Dalits were given financial assistance. When the new SP government came in 2012, they scrapped it and started the Samajwadi pension scheme. See it is ok that you didn’t want to give pension only to Dalits. But look at the people who are receiving pension under the Samajwadi pension yojana – the upper caste Hindus and Muslims, the Brahmins and the Yadavs. All of them have land and means of livelihood. What about the poor? You don’t give them a thought or what?”
The Uttar Pradesh Mukhyamantri Mahamaya Garib Arthik Madad Yojana was started by Mayawati in 2010 to help all the poor people who are not being covered by any welfare or security schemes in the state. It provided a subsistence of Rs 300 per month. When Akhilesh Yadav took over as the chief minister in 2012, he launched the Samajwadi Pension Scheme, under which a financial assistance sum of Rs 500 per month will be granted for the socio-economic empowerment of the poor, and this amount will be increased to up to Rs 750 per month on the completion of certain education and health requirements.
“The only pension some people receive is the old age pension. Now for six months, the pension did come. And when it did, they announced notebandi (demonetisation). The amount for six months comes to Rs 1800 but since only Rs 2000 notes were available in the bank, we were turned away. Banks are still locked because the money gets over in no time. As if Akhilesh was less that this Modi also jumped as a ghost to torture us,” says Phulwa.
When asked about the source of livelihood for the women in the area, Rupwati, replied,“ That is what we are saying. Don’t give us ration card, pension or anything. But at least let us earn. They don’t even let us do that.”
“See, in this area, Dalit and tribal women collect wood from the forest. That is their source of livelihood. But in they are raped and molested every day in the forests… It is easy to subject them to that because the jungles are remote and distant,” Munni explains.
The women exude positivity, self-worth and dignity through their narratives.
Rupwati gets up to point out to various body parts, “Take off the pallu of their saree in any village and you will see for yourself its traces on their neck, chest, body. Yet they do not go to the police and complain because they know that the case will never go beyond the police station. It will never reach the court. What is the point of complaining since they will anyway have to go to the forest again the next day if they have to run their family.”
“Even the police does not spare us. When we carry wood in the local train to go from one tehsil to the other, the police takes us inside the train toilet to rape us. Even when we have a train ticket,” Shanti complains.
Silence becomes a coping mechanism in this scheme of systemic violence. But it would be an error to think that these women are passive victims of violence.
Suhagi Amma points out the larger socio-economic ramifications, “This is the reason hunger deaths are increasing in Bundelkhand. Women dread working in the agricultural fields or the forests now. In the last government, at least we could make an attempt to earn a livelihood because there was a fear of the police.”So what is the role of the police here, I ask.
Ram Kumari says, “Let me explain with an example. Last month, a 16-year -old girl was molested by a 50- year-old man in Bagdari village. She had gone out to defecate and the man followed her. When she protested and screamed, her mother came running to save her. The man turned around and said that the girl was trying to seduce him. He said, ‘She was the one who came to my fields.’ Now, the upper caste people own most fields. What is her fault? When the mother went to the police, the cop said that the village pradhan gets a salary of Rs 5,000 per month. It is his responsibility to resolve it. After a lot of pressure, the cop registered an NCR and not an FIR. That too because the pradhan spoke in the girl’s favour.”
An NCR (a non-cognisable report) as defined under the code of criminal procedure (CrPC) is a report for which the police cannot take cognisance or action. It is understood that the police are not bound to investigate an NCR.
“Even in cases of rape, even after the medical test, [they] only file an NCR,” Pushpa adds.
But what about the scene of the crime? Some people say the Akhilesh government’s Dial 100 scheme for police is working very well and police reach the spot within minutes of being called, I say.
“Don’t even talk about it. On January 9, when a woman was molested in the forests, she screamed and someone called up the 100 number. The police came within a few minutes but they don’t do the investigation. They took her to the local police station. That is where the cops told her to get hold of the accused and only then will they register an FIR. It is not about the police reaching in a few minutes. It is about what they do after they reach,” Ramkumari replies.
“Most of the time, they don’t even go to the scene of crime. New cars will get dirty on the mud paths in the interiors, no?” Shanti adds with a smile. And continues, “They take a round of the area on the surrounding metalled road and come back. Now imagine the kind of investigation they do.”
“Not just that. They even know who the culprits are. They are hand in glove with the local dacoits. I will tell you why. On January 25th, one of our members was threatened by a local goon. The police had to escort her to her house in Sarainya village. They dropped her on the main road and said don’t go through that village. Next day, an old woman was found killed in that village. All her goats were stolen. The police knows which areas the dacoits will be in and deliberately don’t go to that zone,” says Phulwa.
Munni Bai adds, “There was a time when, in the summer months, we could just keep our cots outside the house and sleep under the sky at night. We cannot even do that anymore because we fear for our lives. The dacoits are in complete control and there is no stopping them. In the last two months, eight dead bodies have been found in the villages nearby. They kill and loot and the police knows about it. It was just not like that in the previous government.”
“When you go to the police, they say get a written complain even when they know that we are illiterate,” says Savitri. “Don’t even get me started on that,” she says, her face flushing with blood.
Ramkumari says that assertions by Dalit women in the form of complaints are also seen as acts of contempt, “The land mafia has been all over the place in the last five years. Five beeghas of my land was usurped by the Thakurs last year. I went to both the Lekhpal and the SDM to complain. No one did anything. Meanwhile, the other day my daughter, who was going to college was slapped by the thakur. He said, ‘Why are you studying? Work in my fields because that is what you are born to do. College or no college. Now tell me if this was possible five years back?”
Most women in the room say in unison, ‘No. No. No.’
“They were scared of the SC/ST atrocity Act. Now there is no FIR only. Forget the Act,” says Shanti.
Munia explains, “See violence against Dalits has historically been very high in Bundelkhand always. Between 1994 and 1995, when there was a rising Dalit assertion in the state and Mayawati was sworn in as the first Dalit woman chief minister of the state, three Dalit pradhans were killed in one month – Harichand from Bhounri village, Phoolchand from Char and Ramprasad from Nihi by Patel leaders. But it had significantly reduced five years back.”
Rupwati adds, “Let me give you examples. In Bansipur village of Pahadi block, two Dalit brothers were killed because they sat on a chair in 2014.
Similarly, in 2015, two Dalit teachers were kidnapped. In Barah Mafi, a 96-year-old Dalit woman was brutally beaten up when she refused to sell her land to the Patels. Her son was charged with the Goonda Cct and was in jail for an entire year. In 2012, the dacoits from the Patel and Yadav community asked for a ransom from a Dalit family in Udki village. The police dismissed their complaint. On the fifth day, the entire family had to leave the village and go to Satna because they feared for their lives. Similarly, in June 2016, in Dadri Mafi village, when a Patel opened an alcohol shop in a Dalit basti, the Dalits objected. They beat them up and the police did nothing to help them because they give them weekly hafta.”
Suhagi Amma who had been silent for a long time said, “Tell me something. Manikpur has a railway police station. Each time some wire or pipe gets stolen, they catch hold of young men from a Dalit basti and jail them. We sometimes don’t even have money to pay their bail. I want to ask that when a member of a Dalit family is accused of stealing, you catch hold of the entire family and take them to the thana (police station). Why don’t you do that with the family of an upper caste molester? The same police does not act when a Dalit woman complains of torture. So tell me now, if the police is casteist or not?”
So do the cops register any FIRs at all which are related to crimes against women, I ask?
Shanti smiles and says, “Let me answer that. Even in cases of dowry and domestic violence, when women are forcibly made to eat poison and end up dying, the police only register an NCR instead of an FIR. That too when the post mortem is conducted. Violence against women is not an issue for the cops at all. The only issue is morality. They register FIRs at a lightning fast speed when an upper caste girl elopes with a guy. This has been happening for the last five years. Check at any police station.”
What is the solution to this? I asked my final question.
“If you look at the SP government, a record number of ministers and MLAs are from the Patel community. Most dacoits in Bundelkhand are also from the same community. The problem is all political parties give tickets to mostly this community from the region because they have money. As if no other community knows how to do politics. We want leadership positions,” says Pushpa, underlining the need for justice for the region’s Dalit women.
Rupwati says, “Akhilesh babua ke raj mein bas log computer wale ban gaye hain bas aur kuch nahin ban paaye. (Under Akhilesh government people only became computer owners, nothing else).”
So is the BJP-led Modi any better?
“Don’t even talk about the budhau (old man). He said open bank accounts and you will get Rs 15 lakh. We did not get even 15 paise even when we missed a day’s labour to get it opened. He is a liar.”
As the discussion comes to an end, I ask who they will vote for in this assembly election. Suhagi Amma replies, “Since we are Dalits, everyone will dismiss us and as BSP supporters, will not pay attention to what we literally mean. But the truth is that Akhilesh government gave nothing to us but humiliation. Mayawati did not give us pots of money or roti but at least she let us hold our heads high. Jo sach hai woh sach hai (The truth is truth).”