CASTE-ING THE VOTE
CASTE-ING THE VOTE: DALITS IN SHAMLI DENIED POLITICAL RIGHTS
Report of a Preliminary Investigation into Election Violence
Newsletter Sept - Dec 2005
Karmu Khedi village flashed into the news on the evening of August 17th 2005 when Zee TV broadcast reports of clashes over panchayat elections in Karmu Khedi. Viewers witnessed the police resorting to lathi charge, and firing in the air, in their bid to suppress agitators who had blocked the Delhi-Muzzafarnagar highway. Over the next few days, local newspapers in and around Shamli carried reports of police violence. In an attempt to investigate the issue, a team toured the village on August 25th. The team comprised of: Rajni Tilak (National Conference of Dalit Organsiations [NACDOR]), Laxmi Murthy (Saheli) and Alka Arya (Independent Journalist). The team met the residents of Shamli, toured the Dalit bastis, met with residents, with women candidates of the panchayat elections, local Dalit and Jat leaders, and also police officials. The overwhelming feeling among the Dalits was one of fear and intimidation.
Karmu Khedi village is located in Shamli block of Muzzafarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh. The broad roads, state highways and ornate facades of the houses of the Jat community alongside the road belie the abject poverty that lies just behind. The Dalit bastis—of the Valmikis, Chamars and Dhimars—are characterised by small overcrowded lanes, unplastered brick structures and open drains. The Dalits are mostly daily wage labourers on farms owned by the dominant Jat community. Being a sugarcane growing area, it is relatively prosperous, but the daily wage is only about Rs 60, and even less (Rs 20-30) for women. In season, the Dalits also work in the brick kilns. Additionally, the Dalits work as domestic labour, scavengers and cleaners in the houses of the Jat community. Very few of the Dalits own land or cattle.
HARASSMENT OF DALIT WOMEN CANDIDATES
Karmu Khedi, with a total population of about 10,000, is a SC reserved constituency, with Dalits having 2300 of a total of 4800 votes. The Jat community has 1100 votes, the Muslims 1000 and 400 votes of other backward castes. This time, the constituency was reserved for women. Fourteen SC women filed their nominations for the panchayat elections. One of them, Sulakshna, also an SC candidate, had the support of the Jat community.
The threats and intimidation began several days before polling day. The Dalit women candidates were warned to let go of their aspirations of becoming panchayat members. Candidates told the team that casteist abuses, denigrating statements and sexist abuses were routinely used to scare them away from continuing to contest for elections and pressurising them to withdraw their nominations. Due to intimidation from the Jat community, only about 6-8 of the 14 candidates actively contested. Of these one was Kavita Dabra, wife of a Subhash Dabra, who was the Pradhan for two earlier terms.
Pappu Dabra, brother of Subhash Dabra, on 13th August at 1.42 pm, informed Ashish Goyal, the District Magistrate, Muzzafarnagar that there was trouble brewing in Shamli. He requested that some arrangements be made to prevent booth capturing and violence. Faxes were also sent the same afternoon to the State Election Commission and the District Election Commission, also informing them about the possibility of booth capturing, violence and unfair practices. However, no action was forthcoming, nor were additional precautions taken.
POLLING DAY VIOLENCE
On 17th August, the polling day, there was a lot of tension, with the Jats threatening the Dalits about voting for the Pradhan’s wife Kavita Dabra. Right from the morning, there were threats at the polling booths, and many Dalits were prevented from voting. The polling booths (in schools) are all located in the Jat areas, where Dalits felt intimidated about going. Many of the candidates informed the team that they were prevented from voting. They were told that their vote had already been cast. The agents of the independent Dalit candidates witnessed false votes being cast, with some Jats casting even up to 10 votes.
At about 2 pm, the Jats managed to push out all the Dalit candidates agents, using physical force, filthy abuses and severe threats. The Dalit agents all left the scene and came to the mohalla. There was a lot of anger generated, and the Pradhan gave the call of rasta roko (road block) to protest against the injustice. The Dalits all came out in large numbers and jammed the road, which is the highway to Delhi.
The police soon came, also called the commando forces. The police and Jats were lined on top of houses, showering bricks; on the ground, there was a lathi charge and the police severely beat up the Dalit women, men and children. Frustrated at the turn of events, some women tried to prevent the police from beating them up. However, S.O. Rahul Mithas in turn accused them of assaulting him! Around 3.30 pm, the DM arrived on the scene, and was invited into one of the Jat houses on the road, where he stayed for about one hour. Meanwhile, a Zee TV crew arrived and began live broadcasting the incident. The fracas continued the whole evening.
While the rasta roko was in progress, with the police mercilessly trying to dispel the crowd, the police barged into the Dalit mohallas, broke doors, barged into the houses and beat up the women, children and old people inside. They also destroyed property within the houses. The team saw broken doors, broken chulhas and a broken wall from where the police entered the Dalit mohalla. The team met people with bandages, and signs of physical injury even one week after the incident. The police was all male. There was not a single woman police present. During the entire ‘operation’, women told the team that the police spewed venomous casteist and sexist abuses and threats: “Shut up, Chamarin, we will shove this (lathi) up you!” to cite just one example.
Soon after the rasta roko was cleared, the police arrested several Dalit persons, despite the fact that the Dalits had been made victims of booth capturing and election-related violence. 25 Dalits and 250 ‘unknown’ have been accused of several cases. 23 were arrested for five weeks, two accused Dalit leaders applied for anticipatory bail but have been denied it. The sections of the IPC applied are: 147, 148: rioting armed with deadly weapon; 149: unlawful assembly; 307: attempt to murder; 332: causing hurt to deter public servant from his duty; 353: assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty; 341: wrongful restraint; 427: mischief causing damage. The 23 accused were in jail for five weeks and were granted bail only on September 24th.
Since as many as 250 ‘unknown’ persons are included in the FIR, it has become a weapon to further harass the Dalits. During the visit of the team on 25th August, most of the young men had fled, fearing that they would be arrested if they appeared. The women were not aware of where they were. The families were facing immense difficulties because the daily wage earners had no security to see them through this crisis. This situation continues till date. Two of the leaders have been imprisoned under the Arms Act and are repeatedly being denied bail. The high level of intimidation in the village has prevented the Dalits from even returning to their homes, leave aside struggle against this injustice and denial of democratic rights. Livelihoods are severely affected, and the end to the oppression seems nowhere in sight. The almost complete blackout in the media is further evidence of the complete indifference of mainstream society to Dalit issues.
POLICE-ADMINISTRATION-DOMINANT CASTE NEXUS
The inaction of the State and District Election Commission in responding to the fear of violence, received in writing four days before polling day clearly point to a dereliction of duty and ignoring warnings of possible violence against Dalits. The DM’s report on the polling, giving a clean chit and declaring that “polling passed off peacefully” makes the administration’s caste alliances amply clear.
The team also met Ravinder Singh, Additional SHO, who further demonstrated the nexus between the dominant castes and the police. Allegedly on a round of Karmu Khedi to investigate the incident, Ravinder Singh was sitting in a house belonging to a rich Jat, on the plea that he needed to watch a CD with the footage of the incident, and only ‘decent’ houses had TVs. His anti-Dalit attitudes were clear when he claimed that he was interviewing ‘respected’ persons about the incidents on August 17th, a day when he was personally not present. It is ironic that the only ‘respected’ persons Addl SHO Ravinder Singh could find to interview were Jats, and not a single Dalit. Similarly, the team witnessed an elaborate investigation of some marks on a solid iron gate on a house belonging to a Jat, while the broken wooden doors of the Dalit mohalla have not come under any official investigation so far.
The attitude of all the Jats the team met made it amply clear that they were confident that the police and district administration was on their side. The fact that not a single Jat has been arrested after the violence they inflicted on the Dalits, is evidence of this.
ANALYSIS: DENAIL OF DEMOCRATIC RIGHTS
When Dalits seek empowerment through participation in the political process even at the panchayat level, they face the powerful onslaught of dominant castes, often in collusion with the police and civil administration. The resistance to the emergent power of the Dalits at the panchayat level has been demonstrated in various ways all over the country. From deposing Dalit Sarpanchs on fabricated charges of corruption or non-performance, to cold-blooded murder, like the case of Murugesan, the elected Dalit panchayat leader of Melavalavu in Tamil Nadu in 1997, we have seen innumerable incidents of a refusal on the part of dominant castes to share political power. The resistance is all the more when it comes to Dalit women.
The violence in Shamli is one more example of the attempt of a dominant community—Jats—in collusion with the police and district administration, to suppress the political aspirations of the Dalits. The situation is all the more ironic, given that Karmu Khedi is a constituency reserved for the Scheduled Castes. The dominant castes’ attempt to control the Dalit vote in this case has been successful. After booth capturing, false votes and violence, Sulakshana, the candidate supported by the Jats has been declared the winner. The rhetoric of empowering Dalit women, of drawing them into the mainstream of the political process is empty when viewed in the light of the incidents at Karmu Khedi on 17th August. The complete disruption of the democratic process, and the lack of redressal mechanism makes the situation all the more grim. The likelihood of Dalit women in the area braving all odds to stand for election seems rather dim, when daring to exercise their right to vote and right to contest elections meets with such severe reprisals.
In the context of these circumstances, the following demands were made:
1. Cases under the SC/ST Atrocities Act be registered against S.O. Rahul Mithas, S.O. Prahlad Singh Yadav and SHO Ravinder Singh.
2. Cases be registered for booth capturing, and appropriate action be taken against members of the dominant caste responsible.
3. False cases against the accused Dalits be unconditionally dropped.
4. Compensation be awarded to those injured in the violence, and to those whose properties were damaged.
5. The panchayat election be counter-manded and re-election held.
6. The National Human Rights Commission take cognisance of the violation of human rights and conduct an investigation.
7. A CBI inquiry into the whole incident be undertaken and the guilty police officers be punished.
The affected Dalits of Shamli have submitted petitions to the SC Commission and the National Commission for Women and the National Human Rights Commission. However, no action has been taken till date. The apathy from the authorities has meant that the situation has not yet improved. Unless there is justice, there is no hope of normalcy.