For the Sarvaiya Family in Gujarat, There Is No End to Caste Violence

After Laljibhai Sarvaiya was burnt alive for falling in love with an 'upper'-caste girl four years ago, his family has spent all their time running from pillar to post in search for justice.

The Sarvaiya family protesting in Gandhinagar. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

The Sarvaiya family protesting in Gandhinagar. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

Gandhinagar: Seventy-two-year old Kalabhai Sarvaiya has been on a hunger strike since October 10 at ‘Pratirodh’ chavni (tent) at Gandhinagar. Pratirodh chavni, a platform created by activists to fight caste violence in the state bringing together Dalits from ten villages in the area, is Kalabhai’s last hope. Along with many Dalits who have been victims of caste violence, Kalabhai too hopes to get justice for himself, his family and, above all, his son who was burnt alive four years ago.

After a month of being on a hunger strike, when no government official came to meet him, Kalabhai wrote a letter to the chief minister seeking permission for euthanasia for him and his family. This wasn’t the first time that Kalabhai pleaded for a mercy killing. In 2015, Kalabhai and his son Piyush Sarvaiya wrote to the chief minister stating that the family will have to commit suicide unless they get justice. Following that, Kalabhai and Piyush were arrested under section 309 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises attempting to commit suicide. They were kept in Junagarh jail for 18 days.

For the last four years, Kalabhai and his three sons have spent most of their time in either running between government offices or protesting. The family of 12 was kept in the Veraval jail for 24 hours on April 7, 2015.

But life wasn’t like this for the Sarvaiyas. All changed the ill-fated night of September 13, 2012.

The Sarvaiyas were a family of 14 who lived in Ankolali, the only Dalit family in the village of close to 200 households. The rest of the village was made up of people from the Koli, Darbar and Patel (‘higher’) castes. While the Sarvaiyas did live in some fear, their conditions were better than many other Dalits in the state.

Kalabhai had four sons, all of whom earned well. They might not have been as rich as the Patels in their village, but they were higher on the economic ladder than most Dalits. They had their own house and 15 bigha of agricultural land that Kalabhai had received about 40 years ago.

“We were the only Dalit family and were considered the lowest in the social hierarchy, but our financial condition was better than some Kolis of the village. We had four motorcycles in the family. We also owned a bicycle repair shop. The 15 bigha land we had was not some piece of land in the forest; we had government water and electricity connection and a borewell. The earnings from cultivating would be about Rs 3-4 lakh a year. That was our main source of income,” Piyush told The Wire.

“We also owned cattle and even a horse. That night they burnt it all,” he said.

On the fateful day, Piyush and his elder brother Jheenabhai Sarvaiya left the village for some work, only to return to see their lives in shambles the next day.

Lalji Sarvaiya. Courtesy: Damayantee Dhar

Lalji Sarvaiya. Courtesy: Damayantee Dhar

“My brother Laljibhai worked as a contractor in a stone quarry. He earned Rs 30,000 a month. He had done well for himself, he maintained a good lifestyle. In a Dalit community, not many people are that successful,” Piyush said.

“Lalji was 27. Every day he would leave for work on a motorcycle with sunglasses on. Our father sometimes would scold him and ask him to keep a little low profile. We were only Dalit family in the village and our lifestyle did raise a few eyebrows,” he continued. “When my brother and I returned that evening, they had burnt Lalji alive in our own house. Nothing was left.”

Lalji had crossed a line, he did what was forbidden for a Dalit. He fell in love with a girl from the Koli community. Reportedly, the two had been in a relationship for a few months before the news reached the girl’s family.

“Rijiben was not just a Koli but also the niece of the sarpanch’s husband. She had gone missing two days ahead of the incident. The villagers called a bhua (tantric) who performed some ritual and declared that Rijiben was hiding in our house,” said Piyush.

A mob of about 500 villagers, all from Koli, Darbar and Patel castes, allegedly pelted stones at the house, locked the door from the outside, doused the house with kerosene and set it on fire. Jheenabhai said he called the emergency medical helpline when he returned to the village and an ambulance was sent, but he then reportedly saw a mob attack the ambulance en route and not let it reach its destination. Kalabhai was injured in the stone pelting, but narrowly escaped the fire while he watched his son being burnt alive. Jhayaben Sarvaiya, Jheenabhai’s wife, was witness to the incident and went into shock, the family said. She never recovered from the trauma. Ten days later she died in Una civil hospital, leaving behind a two-month-old daughter.

The Sarvaiyas fled from Ankolali and have been living in rented house in Una ever since. Before the incident occurred, Kalabhai had taken a loan of Rs 1 lakh from the State Bank of India in Una for agricultural investments, primarily to buy seeds. The family received the loan money just the day before the incident, but they haven’t seen their fields ever since. Kalabhai later requested SBI to write off the loan, but the bank refused.

Piyush and his two brothers now work as contract labourers. The only relief came when the Sarvaiyas met advocates Manoj Trimali, Bhanubhai Sukhat and Govindbhai through a local civil society group. Govindbhai fought their case in Una district court, resulting in the arrest of 11 accused from Ankolali in 2012. They have been imprisoned ever since. The arrest order was challenged in the Gujarat high court and stayed by the court.

For four years, Kalabhai and his family have been running between government offices in Una, Junagarh and Gandhinagar, but in vain. The family is yet to be rehabilitated.

A team from the National Human Rights Commission visiting the burnt house in Ankokali. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

A team from the National Human Rights Commission visiting the burnt house in Ankokali. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

“After the incident we were too scared to return to Ankolali. We surrendered the piece of land on which our house was built and our farmland to the revenue department. The revenue department officially declared us refugees in 2013,” said Piyush.

“The problem was that every time the government surveyed a piece of land for them, there was opposition from upper caste people in each village. Seeing the problem, we tried to settle them back in Ankolali in 2013,” Govindbhai told The Wire.

“Talks were initiated by the families of the accused. They wanted the case against them to be dropped,” added Govindbhai.

The Sarvaiyas were offered a Rs 1.3-crore settlement in 2015. But they refused to drop the case and never returned to Ankolali.

Maaro dikro mari gayo (My son died),” Kalabhai said, looking into the distance.

Land allotment has not been the only problem the Sarvaiyas have been facing. “We lost all kinds of document in the fire. It has been a Herculean task convincing officials at the government offices to re-issue documents like Aadhar cards or the birth certificate of our kids,” said Piyush.

“There are six children in the family. We tried getting them into schools in Una but could not. Schools ask for documents, which we do not have,” he added.

Repeated instances

While the family was putting their lives back together, another incident took place in July 2016. Three of Kalabhai’s nephews were flogged by cow vigilantes in Una, in an incident that triggered large-scale Dalit protests in various places. The incident did not just have an impact on the family but also on the case that was under trial in the Gujarat high court.

“One of the main witnesses, Rijiben, turned hostile,” Govindbhai said.

Two days after Lalji was burnt alive, Rijiben came to know of the incident and feared for her own life. She managed to flee to Bhavnagar and take shelter in a government-sponsored women’s home. In 2012, she told the in-charge of the women’s home in writing that she feared for her life. The letter was submitted as evidence.

“Rijiben, in a changed statement to the court, stated that she was home with her parents the night Lalji was killed. On being cross-questioned about the letter, she claimed she was uneducated and could not read or write. Hence the letter was not written by her,” shared Govindbhai.

Kalabhai Sarvaiya. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

Kalabhai Sarvaiya. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

“The trial is over. We were waiting for the judgment, but they sought a stay order,” Govindbhai added.

Between the case, protests and trips to government offices, the Sarvaiyas had agreed to accept a piece of land in Delwara village in 2014.

“It is in a bad location. It gets flooded every year. But we agreed to accept it as the farm land was fertile and near the housing plot,” said Piyush.

However, even in Delwara, ‘upper-caste’ villagers belonging to both the BJP and Congress parties came together to oppose the land being given to a Dalit family. The revenue department stood by the Sarvaiyas this time. However, the farm land that was allotted during the regime of former chief minister Anandiben Patel never got her final approval for possession.

“We never got possession of the farm land, even after it was allotted. So we decided to write to the chief minister, asking him to allow for the mercy killing for our family,” Piyush said. “Our lives will never be normal again.”

“Our father rarely speaks these days,” he added.

“We never knew about the relationship, you know. They say Lalji was to meet the girl at Bhavnagar. But I guess we will never know now,” Piyush said, almost in a whisper.