On a scorching midsummer Sunday afternoon in the national capital, people usually seek some respite from the soul-sapping heat by taking a nap. But rest is the last thing on the minds of nearly 300 Dalits, including children and the elderly, who have been living on the streets of New Delhi since they fled their homes in Bhagana village of Hisar district in Haryana on 20 April. In a makeshift shelter — a 12×20 feet tent — near Jantar Mantar, children scamper around barefoot while the elders huddle up in small groups to discuss their future course of action.
Four rape survivors — Kamla* (18), Astha* (17), Neelam* (16) and Pushpa* (13) — sit in a corner among a group of women, their faces covered with a dupatta. While some make preparations for the night’s meal, others try hard to distract themselves. “Yaahan mann nahi lagta humaara, lekin gaon jaaye toh bhi kaise? (We don’t like it here, but how can we return to our village?),” laments Kamla.
Around 8pm on 23 March, the four girls had gone to a wasteland near their homes to attend to nature’s call, when a white car stopped by. There were five men in the car, three of whom they recognised. The men asked Kamla to get into the car. She refused and then all four were dragged into the car. “They covered our mouths with a cloth and then I passed out,” says Astha. Neelam and Pushpa, too, don’t recollect what happened after that, but Kamla remembers a part of it. She is reluctant to speak about it in front of the other women and walks to a corner of the tent.
As she recalls that fateful night, there is a palpable rage in her voice. The girls were driven along a lonely stretch leading to a field. While the other three girls were pushed into a shack built in the middle of the field, Kamla was raped outside it. “I fell unconscious soon after,” she says. The next thing she remembers is waking up at Bhatinda railway station along with her friends on the morning of 24 March.
The night the girls went missing, their fathers went to the sarpanch Rakesh Pangad’s house and sought his help. Pangad assured them that they will return in the morning. “How did he know that?” asks Bijendra, Astha’s father. When the girls didn’t return in the morning, their fathers went back to the sarpanch. This time he said he didn’t know where the girls were.
While Bijendra and the others were on their way back, they got a call from Pangad. “He told us the girls were found at Bhatinda railway station,” recounts Bijendra, who immediately started for Bhatinda along with the fathers of the other girls. They were accompanied by Pangad, his uncle Virendra and another villager. While returning after picking up the girls, the sarpanch asked everyone to stop at a roadside hotel. The girls were asked to wait in a room upstairs, while the men had tea at the restaurant.
“The sarpanch insisted that he and Virendra will go upstairs to give some snacks to the girls,” says Bijendra. But all four girls allege that they were threatened and slapped by the two men. Pushpa remembers that they were told, “We will kill your families if you tell anything to anyone.”
The girls kept quiet until the morning of 25 March. There were no visible marks on their bodies but they complained of body ache and pain “down there”, recounts Shakuntala, Astha’s aunt. That’s when the girls’ parents decided to take them to the police station, from where they were taken to a local government hospital for a medical examination. They say they reached the hospital at 1.30 pm, but were made to wait till the evening for the tests. In the medico-legal report, the time of arrival is noted as 6.30 pm.
A closer look at the report reveals that the girls were subjected to the two-finger test, even though the Justice Verma Committee, formed after the Nirbhaya gangrape in New Delhi, had recommended that it be discontinued. Moreover, the Union health ministry, in its guidelines issued on 19 March, had instructed doctors across the country to immediately stop using the demeaning procedure.
The girls were sent for further tests at the state Forensic Science Laboratory in Karnal. According to Investigating Officer Manisha Choudhary, the preliminary forensic report reveals that two of the four girls were raped. But all four girls told TEHELKA that when they woke up on the morning of 25 March, their vaginas hurt.
All five accused have been arrested under Sections 366 (kidnapping), 376 (rape) and 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code and their DNA samples collected. Two of them — Sumit and Lalit — are Pangad’s relatives. The villagers allege that he knows the other three as well and are demanding that he and Virendra should also be named as accused in the case.
While the case is in its initial stages, a petition has been filed in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, seeking compensation and rehabilitation for the four survivors and the families that had to leave the village in the aftermath of the incident and because of the ongoing caste-based discrimination.
Rohit Bedka, 22, who is related to one of the rape survivors, says that the rapes are a result of the caste conflict in their village. The father of one of the rape survivors, Krishna, a daily-wage labourer, was beaten up in January by the sarpanch and his uncle Virendra after a quarrel broke out over the payment of wages. An FIR was lodged but no action has been taken against the accused. Instead, the sarpanch and his men threatened to “teach him a lesson”, says Krishna. The following month, Bedka had to get four stitches after Sumit and Lalit hit him on the head with a brick after he asked them to stop harassing Dalit women.
Atrocities against Dalits and violence against women are not new to Haryana. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, Haryana has one of the worst records of crimes against women among all Indian states at 50.31 incidents per 1 lakh population. And violence against Dalits, who form almost 20 percent of the state’s population, is as endemic. “The 227 cases of violence against Dalits reported in 2007-08 from Haryana do not reflect the reality on the ground. The actual numbers are far higher,” says Beena Pallical of the National Centre for Dalit Human Rights.
And this is not the first time Dalits have been forced to leave Bhagana village. Two years ago, 137 Dalit families had left their homes in the village (A wall adds to Haryana’s caste divide by Prakhar Jain, 16 June 2012). They have been sitting in protest outside the mini-secretariat in Hisar since 21 May 2012.
To seek relief, the Dalits from Bhagana have knocked on the doors of Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda and the National Commission for Women (NCW), but all in vain. NCW Deputy Secretary Raj Singh said they are waiting for the action-taken report from the police to decide their course of action. Geeta Bhukkal, Haryana’s minister for women and child development, social justice and empowerment, did not respond to repeated attempts by TEHELKA to contact her.
It has been almost two months since the four girls from Bhagana were raped, but the case has failed to catch the attention of the political parties that are gearing up for the Assembly election later this year. Only the Aam Aadmi Party has submitted a memorandum to the Haryana governor on 15 May, demanding justice for the survivors.
According to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and Section 19 of the Protection of Children against Sexual Offences Act, survivors of sexual violence and caste-based atrocities must be given immediate compensation and rehabilitated. “So, why are these girls still on the streets?” asks New Delhi-based lawyer Khadija Farooqui, who works with the 181 women’s helpline.
For the Dalit women of Bhagana, rape and molestation are part of the oppressive environment they live in. There is a pervasive fear of ‘eve-teasing’ or sexual assault, because of which most girls do not go to school. Of the four rape survivors, Pushpa was the only one who went to school because her elder brother also studied there. The rest had dropped out after being harassed by Jat boys in the village. “It is clear that rape is now being used to shame us further,” says Jagdish Kajla, a Dalit farmer from the village, who is among those who left their homes in 2012.
As the sun goes down, the four survivors fill buckets of water and set out to wash their clothes on a nearby pavement. Although the girls are unsure of what the future holds for them, they say they would like to study. “Until the night of 23 March, I didn’t know what being raped meant. I didn’t know what they do to women, but now I do,” says Kamla in a quivering voice. She says she wants to become a lawyer and fight against the prevailing injustice.
If only somebody heard her.
*Names of the four rape survivors have been changed to protect their identities