JAIPUR: On the afternoon of 15 March 2022, as Jitendra Meghwal walked home from his job as a contractual health worker at a government hospital in Rajasthan’s Pali district, 300 km west of Jaipur, he was ambushed by two men on motorcycles.
The men stabbed the 28-year-old repeatedly, and by the time onlookers drove him to hospital, Meghwal was dead, succumbing to injuries to his jaw, shoulder, chest and stomach.
One of the two men police arrested was Suraj Singh, who had in June 2020 allegedly attacked Meghwal along with two other men. According to a first information report (FIR) filed at the Bali police station, Singh and his companions attacked Meghwal, a Dalit, and his mother because they had “dared to look up” at Suraj Singh, Kamlesh Singh and Chandan Singh, all belonging to the Rajpurohit caste, a sect of Brahmins at the top of Hindu caste hierarchy, who once served as caretakers and priests to royal families.
Following the fatal attack on Meghwal, of Barwa village in Pali, his family and activists said his assailants had been prompted by caste prejudice once again, this time because Meghwal was sporting a moustache.
According to the FIR filed at the Bali police station after Meghwal’s death, Suraj Singh and Ramesh Singh, the other accused in the youngster’s murder, used a string of casteist slurs during the attack. These included words such as neech, kameena (lowly, rascal ) and dedh, a common slur to refer to scheduled castes in Rajasthan. It is a word that invites an offence the Scheduled Castes And Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, also called the SC/ST Act.
The duo flung abuses at Meghwal, and threatened to kill his family if he did not “compromise” in the 2020 case, according to the FIR.
Suraj Singh and two other Rajpurohit men faced charges under sections 452 (house-trespass after preparation for hurt, assault or wrongful restraint), 341 (wrongful restraint), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt ) and 34 ( acts done in furtherance of common intention) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860. Three sections of the SC/ST Act were also invoked. If convicted, the men face seven years in prison.
The June 2020 FIR said the three men attacked Meghwal and his mother when they noticed that Meghwal had the audacity to "look up" in the presence of upper castes.
Suraj Singh and Ramesh Singh, both residents of Barwa village, were arrested in March 2022 under sections 302 (murder) and 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of the IPC, one section of the SC/ST Act, and one section of the Arms Act, 1959.
“They had attacked my brother two years ago just because he didn’t look down in their presence,” Jitendra Meghwal’s elder brother Omprakash Meghwal told Article 14. “Such people want Dalits to remain oppressed, with downcast eyes. They can’t tolerate Dalits sporting moustaches, uploading photos on social media or daring to look up.”
Atrocities Against Dalits In Rajasthan & India Rampant
Jitendra Meghwal’s murder was no isolated incident, despite police claims to the contrary.
Upper castes in Rajasthan, which ranks third by atrocities against Dalits according to 2020 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, the latest available, were involved in a rising number of attacks on the lowest of Hindu castes.
The data shows that atrocities against Dalits have increased steadily since 2018. In 2019, state capital Jaipur was the worst among 19 metropolitan cities nationwide, reporting the highest percentage share of crimes committed against Dalits, at 20%. In 2018, Jaipur’s percentage share was 13.4% and in 2017 it was 6%.
The latest available Rajasthan police data reveal a 7.23% increase in atrocities against Dalits in 2021 as compared to 2020. The monthly crime data indicated that in January and February 2022, crimes against Dalits increased by 23% and 3.44%, respectively, over the previous months.
Dalits, who make up 16.6 % of India’s population, face violence, intimidation and discrimination nationwide, with recent incidents prompted by lifestyle issues, made evident as their rising literacy rates and some prosperity are seen by upper castes as a challenge to the caste hierarchy.
Yet, Dalits and indigenous communities, also known as scheduled tribes, continue to have substantially lower wealth than others, their caste inequality accounting for a sizable portion of overall wealth inequality.
Moustaches are a particular symbol of Dalit assertion, said experts, as is riding a horse at a wedding, often regarded by upper castes as a sign of Dalit assertion and a challenge to the caste hierarchy.
In 2021 alone, a Dalit man in Uttar Pradesh was forced to shave his moustache in July, a month after another Dalit was attacked in Gujarat over his moustache. In December 2019, a 20-year-old Dalit boy was beaten in Gujarat for sporting a moustache.
The Rajasthan police recently revealed that over the past decade, 76 cases have been registered against upper castes who stopped Dalit men from riding a horse during wedding processions.
The Moustache As Metaphor
“Bhai ki muche upar rahegi!”
Our brother’s moustache will remain up, one of the mourners shouted, moments before Meghwal’s body was prepared for the last rites. In videos of the funeral circulated on social media, someone from the crowd was seen lifting the white shroud to twirl his moustache.
Meghwal’s funeral on 19 March 2022 witnessed an outpouring of emotions, with activists and family members insisting it was indeed his moustache that had infuriated the upper caste attackers.
“This is not just a struggle related to moustaches or appearances,” said Rajasthan-based Dalit rights activist Bhanwar Meghwanshi. “The reason behind this incident is the idea of one caste thinking of itself as superior.”
The fact that Meghwal did not buckle under pressure to "compromise" or come to a settlement over the previous case triggered their rage, he said. “I want to ask, when people make a complaint, where is the mechanism to ensure that they are given protection?”
Meghwanshi said the emergence of social media as a space for marginalised communities to express their opinions is viewed by upper castes as a challenge to existing caste structures.
“Earlier there was no space for Dalits to express themselves," said Meghwanshi. "But the new generation expresses their ideas on social media, or puts pictures of a moustache or their photos. That doesn’t go down well with other communities." He claimed that according to Rajpurohit men, the two accused of murdering Meghwal were members of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the parent organisation of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Meghwal’s brother Omprakash said that ever since the incident, the family feared for their safety.
Around 1,000 Rajpurohit families lived in their village, while Dalits were a minority. “We are living in fear of reprisals,” Omprakash said. “It is our request to the administration that at least a gun licence be provided to us.”
Shortly after the incident, a video emerged on social media showing Rajpurohits talking about engineering a "compromise" to support the accused.
Pushpendra Singh Ranawat, BJP member of the legislative assembly (MLA) from Bali, who demanded justice for Meghwal’s family and was at the forefront of protests against his killing, appeared to have invited the wrath of the Rajpurohits.
“A murder shouldn’t have happened because of a small reason. But now that the murder has happened, Pushpendra Singh ji shouldn’t act like this,” a man from the Rajpurohit community tells onlookers in the video. He asks for the community to send a letter to the ‘BJP president’ to protest Singh’s stand on Meghwal’s killing. “It is not about defeating him; he shouldn’t get a ticket. And I can say for sure that he will not get a ticket this time. I am a man of the RSS,” the man on the video said, adding that Ranawat should not be allowed to enter the village.
BJP MLA Ranawat told Article 14 that he was doing his duty as a member of the opposition to "ensure justice" for the family.
“If police find such videos inciting hatred, then they should accordingly take action,” said Ranawat. “My outlook says that the family should be given all the help.”
He also demanded monetary compensation and a government job for a relative of Meghwal.
Ranawat said Meghwal was “meritorious” and was a Covid relief worker on contract. “After two years he would have got a permanent job,” he said.
According to Chandan Singh, sarpanch of Barwa village and a Rajpurohit, the men in the videos were not from the village.
“People are unnecessarily trying to politicise the issue,” said the sarpanch, who belongs to Rajasthan's Congress party.
The police maintained that the murder was a result of "animosity" because of the 2020 case against Suraj Singh.
“Those directly involved are behind bars and those who are indirectly involved are being investigated,” said Pali additional superintendent of police Brijesh Soni. That there was a case lodged under the SC-ST Act against one of the parties was evidence of animosity, he said.
"The police filed a chargesheet against Suraj Singh and Kamlesh in the 2020 incident and the matter was in court,” Soni said. Both men were out on bail.
Officials said that they are not aware of videos that showed upper castes garnering support for the accused.
“A Dalit Groom Still Cannot Ride A Horse’
Dalit outfits said the increase in atrocities against scheduled castes under Rajasthan’s current Congress government was worrying.
On 2 April, civil society organisations, including the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), the Centre for Dalit Rights, Dalit Women Fight, Adhikar Sandharv Kendra and the Dalit Soshan Mukti Manch, released a fact-finding report on Meghwal's death, calling his killing the culmination of a two-year legal struggle.
Dalit residents of Barwa live in “social and economic slavery”, the report said. “Even today, Dalit women in this village can't go out wearing shoes… There are casteist thikana (place of a feudal lord) in the villages where feudal laws are in place.”
Many cases of atrocities have come up in Congress rule, said Anil Dhenwal, a member of the Azad Samaj Party, led by a Dalit, Chandra Shekhar Azad. “Even today, after 70 years of independence, Dalit grooms are not being allowed to ride horses,"
He said the Pali incident was not different from the Hathras case, where people from the caste of the accused held meetings in favour of them.
Back in 2020, after the alleged rape of a Dalit girl in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, where upper caste Thakurs held public meetings in support of the accused.
Azad visited Meghwal’s family after the incident.
“This is 21st century India. Jitendra Meghwal, engaged with the Rajasthan government, is killed for sporting a moustache, living a good lifestyle,” Azad had tweeted after the incident.
Back in Barwa, along with the family's safety, Meghwal's brother Omprakash was worried about the loss of income after his brother's death. Meghwal had four sisters and a brother.
“My father is paralysed, and it was largely from my brother's income that our family could sustain itself,” he said. “In his death, we face an uncertain future."
Meanwhile, the attacks and intimidation of Dalits continue in Rajasthan. On 22 March, a Dalit man was forced to rub his nose on a temple platform over a Facebook post he had made on The Kashmir Files, a movie.
In November 2021, the Rajasthan police arrested 10 people for allegedly throwing stones on a Dalit wedding procession in Jaipur district.
In June 2021, a 21-year-old Dalit man in Hanumangarh district died after being attacked by people who had earlier torn posters of B R Ambedkar, chief architect of the Indian Constitution, a man revered by Dalits but despised by upper castes because he was himself a Dalit.
(Tabeenah Anjum is a journalist based in Rajasthan, reporting on politics, gender, human rights, and issues impacting marginalised communities)