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Gohana Atrocity: Caste Terror in Haryana

[A fact-finding team of the Forum for Democratic Initiatives* visited Gohana on 4th September 2005 to enquire into the gruesome torching of houses belonging to the Balmiki community on the day of 1st September 2005. The team met the victims and their relatives; local college lecturers and primary school teachers who were conducting a survey to assess the amount of loss; shopkeepers close to the site of the incident and other citizens of the town.]

Recalling Gujarat

While the Balmiki population in Gohana town is primarily concentrated in the Balmiki basti, which lies in the heart of the town, there are a few Balmiki households in mixed settlements too. Contrary to the callous statement of the local BJP MP Kishen Singh Sangwan that only a few hutments had been torched, we discovered that in fact over 60 pucca houses had been completely destroyed; houses that escaped arson had been ransacked and looted. As we walked through the Balmiki Basti, we saw house after house with their roofs caved in, large cracks in the walls, burnt motorcycles and scooters. Television sets had been smashed, cupboards and almirahs broken into, annual stores of grains reduced to cinder, tin trunks commonly used to store everything from steel utensils and jewellery to quilts had their lids propped up by bamboo poles in order to ensure that all valuables perished in the fire.

In the mixed settlement where Balmiki households co-exist with those of other castes, the systematic nature of this violence was even more apparent. Out of the 13 Balmiki houses, ten had been completely destroyed. These houses, burnt, razed and pillaged, were surrounded by those of the other castes, all of which had escaped the violent madness of last Wednesday. The selective targeting, the precision of the attack and the modus operandi of the arsonists, namely, the use of LPG cylinders to ensure maximum damage to property is clearly reminiscent of Gujarat , where riotous mobs had burst LPG cylinders for greater precision and 'efficiency'.

Police And Administration: Not Mere Silent Spectators But Active Participants

The town of Gohana had been agog with rumours of an impending violence against the Balmikis since the murder of one Baljit Sivatch, allegedly at the hands of some Balmiki youths on 27th August 2005 . The murder, which had apparently taken place after a minor altercation between a Jat youth, Baljit Sivatch, his cousin and business partner, and a Balmiki youth, Kaka, was sought to be given a caste colour from the first day. Two days after the murder, on 29th August, an upper caste panchayat had openly declared that unless the offenders were brought to book and unless the Chief Minister visited within 48 hours, they would unleash violence against the Balmikis. Many people reported that the son and brother of the BJP MP, Pradip and Ranbir Sangwan respectively were the principal mobilizers of this Panchayat. News channels have also carried footage of these two addressing the panchayat. The threat was public and even carried in the newspapers. As the deadline approached, instead of providing the Balmikis with any semblance of security, the police swooped down on the Balmiki basti on the night of the 30th August and forced the people to evacuate the basti.

On the one hand, it feigned inability to protect the Balmikis from the ire of upper castes ("flee to save your lives"), and on the other hand, it threatened, and in some cases according to victims, even dragged and beat them up in order to force them to leave.

Witnesses told us that another panchayat was held at the Gohana Sabzi Mandi, a few kilometers from the Balmiki Basti on the 1st of September. It was from here that hundreds proceeded to the Balmiki Basti to "teach the Balmikis a lesson". They arrived at the Samta Chowk around 11:30 a.m. where the Basti is located in tens of tractors and armed with barrels of fuel and crackers. The arson and looting went on for over five hours: the extent of damage to each house testifies to the leisurely pace at which the mob must have indulged in the violence. Such had been the intensity of the fire that even ceramic washbasins had been burnt away. It is inconceivable that the mob could have continued this rampant frenzy of violence without the active connivance and blessings of the police and district administration. Indeed several people reported that the police discouraged the fire fighters by saying that they risked being electrocuted if they attempted to douse the fire. It should be noted that at least four district headquarters lie within a radius of 40 kms from Gohana. Yet, no attempt was made by the local officials to call in extra police forces to ensure the maintenance of peace and order in the town.

Gohana

Gohana is less than a hundred kilometers from the country's capital. A sub-divisional headquarter, four district headquarters are within a radius of 40 kilometres from the town. The town has a huge sabzi mandi and a small industrial base. It is not, as some people might be wont to believe after hearing the news of the torching of a Dalit settlement, a far flung rural outpost in the Haryana hinterland. Even more striking is the Balmiki Basti, which shows clear signs of a newfound prosperity, or at least social mobility. The houses are all pucca, even occasionally double storied. The roads within the colony, though narrow, are cemented and well laid out. This is not a shanty town we are visiting; and its residents are not impoverished and starving. What was it that caused an irreconcilable rift between communities, culminating in the torching of houses?

Teachers and a leading doctor of the town we spoke to told us that though the precipitating factor seems to have been Baljit Sivatch's murder, in fact caste tensions have been festering for a period of time. A couple of years ago, there had been a dispute involving the land surrounding the Balmiki ashram. While the Jats were laying claim to the open area around the temple, the Balmikis were resisting this move. The attempt to capture this land by the Jats led to clashes between a group of Balmikis and Jats. Leading the Balmikis was Lara, against whom an FIR was filed. It appears that the DSP Sivatch was also beaten up by Lara and his jeep upturned. Lara has also been named as one of the accused in the Baljeet Murder Case and it seems impossible to talk to anyone in Gohana without the name of Lara cropping up. A leading surgeon in Gohana told us that for the past few years, the Indian National Lok Dal and especially, the previous CM Chautala had assiduously cultivated lumpen elements such as Lara from within the Balmiki community. It was under Chautala's patronage that Lara and his friends carried out ransom and extortion, and it was pressure from Chautala himself that ensured that Lara remained out of prison. It was also alleged that Lara had carried out a couple of murders within the past two years. The Caste Panchayat convened on the 29th portrayed Baljeet's murder as the veritable last straw and paved the way for the violence on the 1st.

Feudal Revenge And Retribution

How did the criminal activities of one or two Balmiki youth turn into a community's offence? Why did the caste panchayat feel the need to extract revenge from the entire community? Was there more to the violence and hatred at display on the 1st than revenge for a kinsman's murder? Indeed it appears so.

The visible social mobility of the Balmikis seems to have been a sore point with the upper castes. When we spoke to the residents of the Balmiki basti, we discovered that many of them have taken up new occupations: some have become teachers, the members of some families have migrated to Delhi for work, a couple of young men are now employed in GIC, an insurance company; one young man runs a gymnasium, another has a farm with pigs, while another deals in furniture. One or two were also employed as drivers in Haryana Roadways, and one Prem Sauda was a partner in a petrol pump business. However, links with the traditional occupation of 'mailakhori' or removing night soil have not been severed. At least one member of most families we spoke to was still employed with the municipality as a sweeper and also continued to work as a sweeper in the home of the upper caste. Many who had taken to other jobs such as rickshaw pulling or daily wage labour also continued to work part time as sweepers.

And yet the presence of consumer goods like television, fridge, gas stove, occasionally washing machines, furniture such as double beds, sofas sets etc., indicate an economic upward mobility. This and the gradual weakening of the feudal caste order have resulted in growing upper caste resentment. Neither carried away by the mob, nor left to burn, each and every television set was smashed to pieces, as though in an act of hatred and frustration. Care was taken to see that each and every piece of household item was destroyed. An old man standing at the gate of Prem Sauda's house lamented that the community had been pushed back economically by at least 25 years. In a single stroke, all that had been built through years of sweat and toil of the Balmikis has been shattered.

Ramesh, who runs the pig business showed us tiny scraps of papers that were once his bank documents and insurance papers. He had retrieved them from outside his gate. Dr. Sunita told us that many upper caste people commonly complain that "Dalit to hum ho gaye hai. In logon ke ghar to dekho. Inko reservation bhi milta hai." (We have been rendered Dalits. Look at the houses of these people. They even enjoy reservation). Even though the most common government job that these people hold is that of sweepers in the Nagar Palika.

The Façade Of Relief And Security

Four days after the violence, few residents have summoned the courage to return to their homes. A handful come during the day to grieve over the ruins of their houses but fearing another wave of reprisal leave before it's dark to safer towns and villages to stay with their relatives. They would not be able to stay back even if they wished to: there is no electricity and water supply to their homes now. No provisions for drinking water or food have been made by the district administration; no temporary shelters have been erected to house those wanting to return home. We found many residents squatting outside the gates of their homes. Many of the inhabitants of the Balmiki basti are still untraceable. Rather than organizing any relief and providing succour and reassurance, the residents and their relatives complained that the SDM had visited them to force them to clear and clean the rubble in their homes. Meanwhile the BJP MP has brazenly declared that he would not allow the police to arrest his son and brother who have been widely accused by the victims as the instigators and leaders of the mobs that attacked the Balmiki homes, but that he would follow the directions of his caste panchayat.

After Gurgaon and Rohtak, Gohana is the third gift of the Hooda Government to its people within the first six months of its tenure. While it may attempt to wash off its own guilt by passing it as a handiwork of the BJP MP and his cohorts, it cannot explain why its administration failed to act in the light of the open threat issued by the caste panchayat against the Balmikis. Can it justify the delay in responding to the arson and loot till the media turned its spotlight on Gohana? Will the Hooda government answer why the poor and the marginalized, workers and Dalits have to live under constant threat of violence, from feudal goons and from the state machinery? What and who is emboldening them?

Forum for Democratic Initiatives demands that

1) Criminal charges be framed immediately against senior police and district officials who were present at the site of the arson and loot, but did little to prevent it.

2) Perpetrators of the criminal act of 1st September be brought to book without delay.

3) The BJP MP shielding the accused should be immediately arrested along with the accused.

4) Immediate relief measures-food, medical aid, restoration of power and electricity supply-be undertaken by the district administration

5) A time-bound plan for the reconstruction of the destroyed homes be declared

* (The team comprised Dr. Anuradha Ghosh, Tanweer Fazal, Mona Das, Manisha Sethi, Ravindra Garia, Shaneer, Hansraj, Kapil and Sandeep Singh)

[Courtesy: CPI (ML) Liberation website, October 5, 2005]

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