Srinagar: On 10 June 2021, when two Dalit women from Malhar village of Jammu’s Udhampur district went to draw water from a nearby well, about 20 Brahmins allegedly abused them with castiest slurs.
The men called 60-year-old Chanchli Devi and 36-year-old Raj Kumari “mahsa”—a pejorative term that refers to darker skin colour—and forbade them from drawing water, according to a first information report (FIR) filed against seven of them. The men said that the well should be off limits to them, the women said in the FIR.
An argument ensued.
Later that evening, Brahmin men and women allegedly attacked the Dalit family with batons and sticks. “They beat us to pulp." 30-year-old Raj Kumar, who works at a local salon, told Article 14. "Four of my cousins, an aunt and uncle have been injured in the attack.”
Raj Kumar said the women went to the well half a km away from their home because upper-caste neighbours objected to a new water pipeline being laid through his house. “Not only did they stop the laying of the pipeline, they blocked a sewage drain that resulted in overflowing of filthy water into our compound,” he said. “But the neighbours went to the well and provoked everyone by saying that we were low-caste people and shouldn't be drawing water.”
Malhar, which is 12 km from Udhampur town, has more than 320 households, 20 of which are Dalit; 17 clustered together. The other three belong to the Kumar family and are located amidst homes of upper-caste families. Raj Kumar alleged that the incident was part of a larger pattern to force the three Dalit households to relocate.
The sarpanch of Malhar, Uttam Singh, said the charges of caste violence in his village were false. “I want to make it clear that casteism does not exist in our village,” said Singh, who is a Rajput himself. “We live and eat together.”
Local officials did not regard the attack as caste-based violence. But Dalit activists and leaders alleged that harassment has increased in recent years, in particular after the abrogation of the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) nearly two years ago.
The police maintained no data on caste-based violence since J&K law recognised no caste atrocities until 2019, and although it now does, none has been made public since.
Law Protecting Dalits Not Used
The Mahsa community lives in all 10 districts of Jammu division. Their leaders said they were disappointed that at Malhar the authorities failed to apply the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, (PoA) 1989, a law that protects economically and socially disadvantaged communities of India from hate crime.
Seven Brahmin men in Malhar have been charged with trespassing, causing hurt and criminal conspiracy.
“According to statements I have received, there are different views [on what happened] but I am not going into that,” said Indu Kanwal Chib, Udhampur’s deputy commissioner. “Instead, I am taking cognisance of the incident of the day, [violence against Kumar family] so that a message does not go out that some kind of understanding has been reached [between the two sides].”
She acknowledged that an FIR was not lodged under the PoA Act. “I am looking into the matter and appropriate action will be taken,” she said.
In August 2019, after the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked the special status of J&K, all the central laws were extended to the erstwhile state, including the PoA Act. Until then, J&K’s penal code did not include laws specific to caste-based violence.
Bringing the region under New Delhi’s direct control sparked anger in Kashmir, but it was welcomed in most parts of Jammu. Lower-caste communities in Jammu hoped to be protected by newly applicable laws, such as the PoA Act.
“When the PoA Act was extended to J&K after abrogation of Article 370, we assumed caste-based biases and violence would decrease,” said Satish Vidrohi, president of the Jammu-based Ambedkar Yuva Sangathan, an advocacy group. “The opposite happened.”
Authorities are either unaware of, or unwilling to use the provisions of the law, said Vidrohi. The first case under the PoA Act was registered in June 2020.
Other activists and lawyers said the government did not want to acknowledge caste-based violence in Jammu. “That is what filing of cases under the PoA Act will reveal: how deep the caste bias is in our society,” said Danish Bhagat, a Jammu-based Dalit advocate.
Bhagat said he noticed an increase in caste violence since 2014, when the BJP came to power in New Delhi. “It is not like caste-based violence did not occur before 2014 but we are clearly seeing a visible change,” he said.
“We were hoping that the PoA Act might deter such behaviour but it seems upper castes have only become more aggressive,” said Bhagat, pointing to the Malhar attack as a case in point.
A former police chief denied that the lack of the PoA hindered police before the removal of Article 370.
Even though the PoA Act was not applicable before the abrogation of Article 370, the J&K police was “never deterred from taking appropriate action” in cases of caste discrimination, S P Vaid, former J&K director general of police told Article 14.
“The question of not applying the PoA Act when required does not arise,” said Vaid. “Still, if some victims think that the police have not taken an action as per their wishes, they can approach the court. The court can pull up the police."
Before the abrogation of Article 370, caste-based crimes were filed under section 323 (voluntarily causing hurt) or in some cases section 307 (intent to commit murder) of J&K’s erstwhile Ranbir Penal Code.
A String Of Attacks Against Lower Castes
Vidrohi, the Ambedkar Yuva Sangathan president, listed caste-based violence that occurred after abrogation, when the PoA Act could have been used.
In June 2020, a family in the Majalta area of Udhampur was targeted by dominant-caste men over a land dispute. The same month, a female Dalit sarpanch in the Kishtwar district of eastern Jammu was forced to resign after alleging harassment. In July 2020, a 25-year-old Dalit man, Rahul Bhagat, was stabbed to death in western Jammu’s Udhampur district over a property dispute, which is how police treated it, even though activists said the brutality of the muder required application of the PoA Act.
The PoA Act was not used in any of these cases, even though caste appeared to be a factor in all of them.
In select cases charges were filed under the PoA Act. The case of Kamlesh Kumari, elected sarpanch in Pochhal area of Kishtwar district in October 2018, and mocked, she alleged, by Brahmin men, is a case in point.
“The police filed an FIR [under sections of the PoA Act] based on my complaint but nothing happened,” Kumari told Article 14. “Although I won the elections, I had to resign due to the mental torture I was put through.”
When Article 14 contacted Shafqat Bhat, the senior superintendent of police of Kishtwar, he refused to comment.
Meanwhile, after her constituents assured her support, Kumari fought the local body elections held November last year and won yet again. She has held the position since.
A Fight For Resources
Activists said that SC and ST communities in Jammu owned more land than counterparts in other parts of India thanks to the Jammu and Kashmir Agrarian Reforms Act, 1972, which abolished absentee landlords and made tillers the owners of land.
“There is a pattern to the violence, which is backed by a feeling that like the rest of India, SC and ST communities should not own land even here,” said Vidrohi.
According to new laws introduced in the region, all citizens of India are allowed to purchase land in J&K after the abrogation of Article 370. Vidrohi feared this will push Dalit communities further away from land ownership.
Raj Kumar, who was attacked in Malhar, said that the attack against his family has made them fearful enough to consider relocating. If they do, they would lose the ownership of their current homes. “The idea of such attacks is to instill fear and force people like us to give up our lands,” he said.
Devi, who was allegedly attacked for drawing water from the well, also fears dispossession.
“We also have no other place to go, but no one wants to see their family being beaten in the middle of night," said Devi. "Do we have an option but to leave our homes, our villages and our lands?”
(Azaan Javaid is an independent journalist based in Srinagar.)