By Pramodini Pradhan*
The PUCL is deeply concerned at the growing caste atrocities on dalits by the upper caste communities in the state, particularly in the rural areas. Of more concern is the deliberate inaction by the government machinery in providing protection to the dalit communities and making a mockery of the Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989). The recent incident in Kamagarh is an example of this.
On 3rd June, 2016, eleven dalit houses were burnt down allegedly by the upper caste (Sabarna) of the village Kamagarh of the eponymous Panchayat in the Aska Block of Ganjam District. Upon the request of local social activists, the PUCL team in association with Shri Shankar Pani, Advocate, visited Kamagarh on 18th June. The team met victim families, the incumbent Sarpanch, the IIC of Aska police station, local reporters of Aska and political and social activists of Ganjam.
There are 19 families belonging to Hadi caste (one of the Scheduled Castes located at the bottom of the caste hierchy) living in the periphery of the village for the last three generations. All of them are landless. Only five families have managed to have homestead land on which they had constructed pucca houses under Indira Awas Yojna. Other families have been living on a small patch of unused land by building small thatched houses. Wage labour is their main source of livelihood. Women make brooms out of date fronds and chip stones to supplement the family income.
On 23rd February, 2016, a cultural troupe was performing Duari Nata (a traditional folk art form) in the village. Hadi and Hadiani characters are a permanent feature of this performance. While playing these characters, the artists took individual names of the people belonging to Hadi community of the village and made obscene, ugly and humiliating remarks having double meanings. One of the youths of Hadi community objected to this, and asked the troupe manager to desist from making such remarks.
But some of the upper caste youths, mostly emigrants to Surat, who had come back to the village on vacation, tried to shout them down and threatened to beat them up. Out of fear, they left the place. Since this incident, tension between the upper castes and the dalit community was simmering. The upper caste men kept on abusing and threatening the dalit community. Even a ‘compromise’ was reached between both the parties in the Aska police station. A written statement was signed by both the parties to the effect that they would maintain peace.
But, on 7th April, another Duari Natak was performed in the village, and the same obscene, casteist remarks were made while playing the role of Hadi and Hadiani in violation of the compromise that was reached in presence of the police. This was followed by more threats and social boycott of the dalit community. They were denied access to village shops and pond. Chemicals were thrown into the well to make its water non-potable, and a lump of human excreta was fixed on the community hand pump-set.
Fearing physical attacks, most of the men went to hiding. However, not being satisfied with this, the upper caste people held a meeting on 22nd of May, and decided to attack the Hadi hamlet on the 3rd of June with the goal of destroying the entire hamlet. It was even decided in this meeting that each family of the village will provide one member for the attacking team failing which a fine of Rs.1051 would be levied on the household for non-participation.
Apprehending the looming danger, male members of the victim families, who had already left the village, knocked on every door available for their safety. They, including women, went to meet the M.L.A of their constituency. They also met the Collector and the SP to apprise them of the situation of the village and sought protection of life and property. On 31st May, they sent messages by Fax to the Collector, SP, and the Chief Minister.
Around nine O’clock in the morning of the 3rd of June, nearly 2000 people including 30-40 women (standing in for absent male members) came in a group with lathis, crowbars, axes and gainti in hand shouting “mara, hana” (beat and slay) and attacked the dalit houses. Out of fear, people fled to a nearby hillock, with a few women offering feeble protest. But they were dragged by their hair and were thrown around, and had to watch their houses being burnt and decimated. The male members, who were staying outside the village, contacted the IIC and the Fire Brigade. The first group of fire fighters was not allowed to enter the village by the attackers. The second group came around 11 O’clock and managed to douse the fire. By then 11 houses had burnt to ashes.
On 3rd of June, the victims lodged complaints against 19 miscreants. An FIR has been registered under various sections of the IPC and the PoA Act of 1989. However, no action has been taken against any one of accused till date. The joint investigation to be undertaken by the police (not below the ramk of DSP) and Tahsildar is yet to be initiated. People have been living under open sky with black polythene sheets provided by the administration – the only barrier between them and the impending monsoon rains. No steps have been undertaken by the district administration for the rehabilitation of these people except providing cooked meals for two and a half days.
It is a clear case of the failure of the police and the administration to respond to a situation where a vulnerable community, under threat from dominant upper caste people, was seeking help from the state for protection of its life and property. Even after the incident, the police are yet to take action against the accused. This clearly shows an utter disregard for the concerned law but also an indifference to the sufferings of the people.
Victims are perpetually living in fear and in apprehension that rest of the dalit houses would be destroyed by the upper caste people.
Caste prejudice against the dalit community, including untouchability, is a serious issue in the area. However, neither the district administration nor the local political leadership has shown any concern to address it.
PUCL demands that both the police and the district administration immediately take measures to provide security to the victims’ families in the village so that they can live without fear and with dignity. The police need to act upon the FIR immediately. An RDC level inquiry into the failure of the local police and the role of other concerned officials in responding to the situation would help in restoring the confidence of victims in the police and district administration.
In addition to immediate relief of providing food and shelter to the victims’ families the administration must take steps for their long term economic rehabilitation.
The District administration must keep a close watch in the entire Kamagarh Gram Panchayat to monitor the caste tension and prevent escalation of further violence.
*Convener, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Odisha