• How a peaceful dalit demonstration led to charges of sedition

    Anushka Singh

    July 28, 2018

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    Bhagana is a village in the Hisar district of Haryana, located about 15 kilometres away from the district headquarter. Jats comprise around 60 per cent of the population in the village and the Scheduled Castes comprise around 30.9 per cent of the population.1 In May 2012 the Dalits in Bhagana experienced a social boycott by the members of the dominant community. Those active in the area around the issues of caste oppression and injustice had an analogous understanding of the situation in Haryana. Caste violence had consistently witnessed a rise in the last decade and it was linked to the new Dalit consciousness. The Dalits had started asserting their identity and had learnt to defy the caste norms of subjugation and inequality.2 The Bhagana incident also needs to be understood in the context of growing Dalit consciousness and the refusal of the age old caste domination to bow down.

    In 2012 in Bhagana, the bone of contention between the communities became the issue of ownership over common village lands known as ‘shamilat lands’. These are common lands available for use by all communities under the supervision of gram panchayat and cannot be acquired privately. In 2008, however, the Haryana government launched the Mahatma Gandhi Gramin Basti Yojna under which the shamilat lands were to be acquired by the government and redistributed to fulfil certain ends. According to the government, the scheme was aimed at benefiting the poorer sections of the society by allotting free residential plots.3 This scheme all over Haryana was being used by the panchayats to claim the village common land and redistribute to Jats to ensure their legal occupation of common land. Bhagana’s case was no different.4 In Bhagana, the panchayat initiated the process of distributing these lands in 2011 under a Dalit sarpanch however, once the sarpanch changed, the entire process was hindered. A committee comprising the elders in the village was set up to oversee the distribution of the land once the Dalit sarpanch was removed. This committee had overwhelming presence of members of the Jat community and it collected Rupees One Thousand each from all Dalit families to oversee the distribution. In addition to land allotment to Dalits, now lands were also set aside for Jat households despite the fact that the scheme was only meant for the marginalized section. After the collection of funds from Dalits, however, the process was completely stalled after 2011.5

    The Dalits in Bhagana protested against this farce and approached the administration and court over the issue. This made the dominant community hostile to the Dalit villagers and they disallowed the presence of Dalits in many parts of the village common lands that were being used by all communities so far. The indifference of the administration on the matter and the growing aggression of the Jats in the village led the Dalits to assert their presence as well. A dispute arose over a small triangular piece of land that conjoined three Dalit families known as the ‘Chamar chowk’ for ages. The Dalits decided to rename this place as the ‘Ambedkar chowk’ in April 2012. This renaming of the chowk was interpreted by the Jats as Dalit assertion over that common area and they responded in form of a tangible boycott by constructing a six feet wall blocking any entry into the Dalit area.

    The construction restricted the movement of those residing there and also devoid them of basic necessities. Following this, the Dalits approached the police. The administration responded in the matter; however, it did not treat it as a case of caste boycott but ‘illegal assertion’ of land by Dalits. Many Dalit villagers were taken into custody. The Jat community boycotted those who were left behind by disallowing them to work on their lands as landless labourers, barring access to water pumps, and other community spaces of basic services.

    The boycott compelled the Dalits to leave the village in May 2012 and over 75 Dalit families marched to the district secretariat in Hisar and sat on a dharna to demand justice. When the field visit was made in 2014, the dharna had completed two years three months and two days.6 Living on the portico of the District Court had become part of their routine lives with sacks of potatoes and onions kept along with a few charpais and a few rags, to survive on. The villagers said, around 85 families fled from Bhagana, some moved to Hisar finding some daily wage labour, others shifted around the area to relatives and associates in search of shelter. Initially, there were about 125 families that were boycotted but some families went back, apologized to the Jats for ‘daring’ to assert their identity and were taken back. Some from the protesting castes also stayed back in the village after the boycott, living in the conditions of ostracism, managing food and other amenities from outside the village.

    The villagers also informed that in 2012, when they sat on the dharna at the Secretariat, the administration had tried to create hurdles. The water tankers were taken away, and public toilets in the Secretariat were locked. The area was declared under Section 144 of the IPC and the protesters were arrested.7 During their recent visit to the district collector, who is a Brahmin, the villagers said that the chief minister was with the Jats, so the situation could not be helped.8 The villagers were aptly conscious of the fact that the laws worked differently for Dalits and Jats.

    The official position differed from what the villagers had to say. The authorities believed that when the Dalits in Bhagana fled and reached the administration, the administration did try to mollify them. The inspector general in Hisar said that the administration had agreed to give lands to the villagers. According to him, the Dalits in Bhagana refused holdings in Bhagana and demanded land in Hisar. He said, ‘this was neither possible nor appropriate to make caste-based villages with Bhagana for Jats and some other area in Hisar for only Dalits’.9 When the district commissioner’s office was contacted, the same response was given.

    Even if the version of the administration was true, it did remain a fact that a social boycott was on, that many cases were slapped on the Dalits in the course of their protest, that no legal action had been taken against the Jats in relation to the social boycott imposed on the Dalits. Amidst all this, where the basic struggles of life involved tussle over food and water, one would assume that sedition would have no specificity and would be one among the many legal sections imposed on villagers. The reality, however, was not so. Section 124A was not identified as sedition in Haryana. It was a charge of ‘deshdroh’, although the legal translation of sedition is referred to as ‘rajdroh’. As the local understanding of sedition prevailed, the offence of deshdroh persisted in people’s imagery.

    The basis of the charge of sedition was an incident of burning the effigy of the chief minister in May 2012. The protesters at the secretariat narrated that the burning was part of the protest against the administration’s inaction on the mass exodus from Bhagana. Six people, namely, Sanjay Chauhan, Sanjay Verma, Sanjay Mahanch, Balraj, Bajrang, and Sitaram Daboria were picked up after the incident and charged under 124A. Those charged had photo records of the incident which showed that it was a peaceful demonstration with placards of demands to end atrocities against the Dalits. They were protesting at the Nagori Gate which is a chowk in Hisar with a small roundabout. The protesters were carrying an effigy of the chief minister with a shoe garland around its neck. The pictures revealed that the protesters went inside the roundabout to burn the effigy in order to not disrupt the streets. The police intervened and threw the burning effigy on the road as the pictures showed. Following this, three people were immediately arrested under Section 124A and three others were arrested in a day.

    The villagers had a clear understating of what deshdroh was. One of the landless labourers, who fled from Bhagana with family and now earned his living as a rag picker in the complex of the Secretariat, said, ‘when Jats organize rail roko rallies and attack police stations, it is called a movement (andolan) but when Dalits protest peacefully, it becomes deshdroh.’ The villagers frequently posed questions like, ‘did we burn the flag of India, did we attack an Officer, did we plant a bomb in parliament, what did we do against the country to be charged with deshdroh’?10 In these narratives, sedition was emerging as a caste-ridden idea that was being used against them as a tool of caste domination.

     

    1. Total village population: 5198, SC Population: 1610, Based on Census Report 2011, available at http://www.censusindia.gov.in/2011census/population_enumeration.html, accessed 6 September 2015.
    2. Based on personal observation and conversations with Dalit activists in Hisar and interaction with them between 20 and 23 August 2014.
    3. From the offi cial website of
    Development and Panchayat Department, Government of Haryana, available at http://haryanapanchayat.com/ShowSubPage.aspx?Isvalid=true&get=87, accessed: 10 August 2014.
    4. A group of Dalit activists working under the banner of SC-BC
    Adhikar Manch have studied the process of shamilat land distribution in Haryana and have come to this conclusion. Conversation with Rajesh Kapru who is involved with this study, in Kutubpur village, Kaithal, on 26 August 2014.
    5. For the background of the boycott in Bhagana, see joint fact-finding report by Peoples’ Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) and Association for Democratic Right (AFDR),
    This Village Is Mine Too, Dalit assertion, Land Rights and, Social Boycott in Bhagana, September 2012, available at http://pudr.org/sites/default/fi les/fi nal%20bhagana%20pdf.pdf, accessed: 23 March 2016.
    6. Conversation with Dariya Singh, Rameshwar, Sandhu, Jaivik Singh, at the Hisar Secretariat on 22 August 2014, morning 10 a.m., Hisar, Haryana.
    7. Incidentally, the peaceful dharna at the Secretariat was also considered a high security issue which had to be covered under strict surveillance. On my visits, I was questioned by the Central Investigating Department (CID) team who also kept a photocopy of my identity card. Nonetheless, that encounter was also constructive, after some deliberations one found out that one of the CID inspectors was sympathetic to the protesters. On the condition of not revealing his name, he agreed to talk and was quick to add on the issues, ‘mukaddme to jo sarkar chahti hai wahi lag jate hain, iske liye IPC dekhne ki zarurat nahi padti’ (the legal charges are but a fancy of the government, you don’t have to see IPC Sections to slap cases), conversation with the CID offi cer at the Secretariat on 22 August 2014.
    8. Conversation with villagers at Hisar Secretariat on 22 August 2014, morning 10 a.m., Hisar, Haryana.
    9. Interview with IGP Hasif Qureshi in Hisar at his office on 25 August 2014 at 1 p.m.
    10. Conversation with villagers at Hisar Secretariat on 22 August 2014, morning 10 a.m., Hisar, Haryana.


     

    Anushka Singh is assistant professor at the School of Law, Governance and Citizenship, Ambedkar University Delhi, India.

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