23 June 2019

The Caste System

Murder at an Indian wedding

Jitendra Das was beaten to death for sitting down to eat

By Amit Sengupta

The house of the late Jitendra Das sits on the corner of a zigzag road leading to the Yamunotri glacier in the Garwhal Himalaya. It’s a peaceful place, 6,000 feet up in cool hill country, mid-way between Delhi and Uttarkashi, a major town for Hindu pilgrimage.

On 26 April this year Jitendra left home, heading for the nearby town of Shrikot. It was a Friday and he was invited to a wedding.

Jitendra was a carpenter, living with his mother, sister and brother on a small piece of land on which they grew onions, garlic, wheat and beans. He was a Dalit, from the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system, but a hard worker known to take good care of his family. He’d saved up and recently bought a TV and a motorbike. He could afford to take the day off work.

Food on the verandah of Jitendra Das's house

Jitendra’s sister, Pooja, in her early twenties, was also invited to the wedding. There is no public transport to speak of in the remoter parts of Uttarakhand, so the two of them rode down the valley on the motorbike.

Neither could know that they were riding to a celebration that would be Jitendra’s last; nor that his death would reverberate through a country still struggling to reconcile the rights of the individual with social structures that often trample on them.

This account of Jitendra’s murder is based on multiple interviews with people who were present or have knowledge of the events that led to it, including family members, other witnesses and police.

The wedding was a community affair: guests came from upper and lower castes. But tradition dies hard in this part of northern India. Upper-caste villagers refuse to eat food cooked by the Dalits or other lower-caste people, so they take charge of occasional collective cooking – even at a Dalit wedding where they are invited as guests.

Such are the complexities of a caste system with too many nuances to count – a system that is under sustained attack from social reformers inspired by such thinkers as BR Ambedkar, and yet which still fundamentally shapes society in much of India.

Villagers say that after the ceremony Jitendra picked up some food, put it on his plate and sat down on a chair to eat. That started something. Upper caste men from nearby villages gathered around and started hurling abuse at him. They reprimanded him for daring to sit on a chair and eat the food they had prepared despite being a Dalit.

According to his family, Jitendra insisted on his right to eat his food sitting on a chair at his own relative’s marriage. The men then knocked his plate to the floor and beat him. After a scuffle, Jitendra left.

On his way home he stopped at a hand-pump to draw some water to clean himself. Looking round, he saw that the upper caste men were following him, still angry that he had had the nerve to question them. They beat him again, far more brutally this time. They were said to be drunk.

Geeta Devi, Das's mother, with her younger son Dharmedra. She has demanded life imprisonment or hanging for those guilty of her son's death

At 5am the following morning, Jitendra’s mother found him lying unconscious, his clothes torn, on their small verandah. She said it was still dark and she did not see if there was blood on his clothes or body. His motorcycle was lying flat on the ground and the key had been thrown nearby. It took a while to get a vehicle to take him to the hospital in Nainbagh. The doctors told the family that while Jitendra was out of danger they were not equipped to treat him, advising that he be taken immediately to a hospital in the state capital of Dehradun. On the journey there he was still breathing.

After many hours of unconsciousness, Jitendra opened his eyes, named one of his assailants and nodded his head when his sister said that he would get well and they would fight for justice. Then he breathed his last.

The peace and quiet of the village of Basan, where Jitendra lived, has been shattered by his murder. The crime was unusual by Uttarakhand’s standards, but it revealed much about the insidious atrocity of the caste system.

Police outside Jitendra Das's house, near the Basan milestone

Despite social reforms since the early 1970s, Dalits still own little land and are often treated as second-class citizens or worse. In Basan, with about 100 families and a population of 400, there are two main social groups: the Dalits and the upper-caste Thakurs. Local Dalits told me the caste system usually operates in subtle ways, not least because upper-caste families have little interaction with Dalits except on social occasions or when employing Dalits for manual labour or special skills, like that of a carpenter.

Skilled or not, Dalits are generally not allowed into upper-caste homes. They can approach only as close as an outside door, and are served water or tea – if at all – in separate cups.

“Despite the reforms, subtle forms of discrimination continue in the villages of Uttarakhand,” said Dr Harsh Dobhal, a professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Doon University in Dehradun. That said, “there is no overt sense of violence or brazen oppression as in many parts of north India”.

Tell that to Jitendra’s family. In Basan, one Thakur elder told me that Jitendra suffered from epilepsy. Others said he was drunk at the time of the beating by the water pump. His mother and family vehemently deny it. They also deny that he had epilepsy. “He was a quiet, solitary young man, dedicated to his work and family,” said his mother. “He did not even touch meat. They killed him in cold blood. They threatened us with dire consequences. They even sent emissaries to say that they would pay us a huge sum of money if Pooja withdrew the police complaint. We told them we don’t care for the money. Can the money bring him back?”

A half-finished outbuilding at Geeta Devi's house in Basan

The only witness, also a Dalit, initially said that he saw the assault near the hand-pump and that he and his son were also beaten up because they objected to the beating. But he has disappeared. Locals said that he is afraid of retaliation by upper-caste groups, and perhaps also of a police case if he chose to become a witness in the case. They said he was “absconding”.

Local police said that the post-mortem report, which would reveal the nature of his injuries and whether or not he was also drunk, is still awaited.

“First, he was not drunk,” a relative insisted. “And even if he was, is it a crime to sit on a chair in a family wedding and eat food? Second, how can they be allowed to get away with a murder?”

Seven men have been accused and jailed pending trial in connection with Jitendra’s murder. They have been identified as Gajendra Singh, Soban Singh, Kushal Singh, Gabbar Singh, Gambhir Singh, Harbir Singh and Hukum Singh. Gabbar is 25 and works in a hotel in Dehradun. All the rest are farmers aged over 40.

The family of one of the accused denied any wrongdoing. They claimed that Jitendra collapsed due to a fit of epilepsy and an overdose of medicine. They also alleged that the victim’s family was calling it a murder in order to access the government’s affirmative action quotas of government jobs for Dalits.

The state government, led by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won a landslide victory in parliament last month, has paid the family 400,000 rupees (approximately £4,500) in compensation. Other local leaders and voluntary organisations have contributed smaller sums.

Several appeals and letters have been filed to government authorities and the district administration seeking justice for the family.

Police stationed outside the village said investigations were ongoing and the situation was peaceful. The case was first registered at the Kempty police station near the tourist hill station of Mussoorie. There is no apparent caste tension or the possibility of violence or revenge, said the police, who were preparing to pitch a tent in the little courtyard at the house of Geeta Devi, Jitendra’s mother, for an overnight stay. The upper caste villagers clearly did not want the police in the village. They think it creates a climate of tension and social polarisation.

A wheat field at Basan. Agriculture is vital, though there is little or no rain

In Basan there is, if nothing else, a climate of need.

Most villagers survive on agriculture in a place with little or no rain, and with a severe groundwater shortage. The village has only sporadic electricity, hardly any mobile signal, no primary school and no healthcare centre. Children walk more than 3km to go to the nearest school in Shrikot, where there is no midday meal scheme, otherwise available in most schools in Indian villages. For medical emergencies, villagers have to pay 100 rupees (roughly £1.20, but a large sum for most) to hire a tempo truck, which is not easy to find, to reach the government hospital a two-hour drive away in Nainbagh. Dalits cook mostly on small make-shift kitchens. They fetch wood from the bare hills behind their homes. The few who own a gas cooker have to bring the fuel from Nainbagh.

Grinding poverty is more often a recipe for inertia than for social change, as India has found. Atrocities committed against Dalits have been rampant and brazen across the country since its independence in 1947. Dalits and tribal people constitute 22.5 per cent of the Indian population and still rank lowest by most social indicators, from health, education and housing to social and political status.

Thanks to affirmative action and political appeasement for votes, India has had a number of Dalit politicians in top positions, as ministers and senior bureaucrats, and as a powerful chief minister of a big state in north India – Uttar Pradesh. The country has had two Dalits as Presidents, including the current President, Ramnath Kovind, from the BJP.

Yet Dalits are not allowed to enter many Hindu temples. In tea-shops they are served water and tea in separate tumblers and cups. They are not allowed marriage processions through upper-caste areas, and bridegrooms are often beaten up if they dare to sit on a horse, as is customary in northern India.

Dalits are beaten at Una in Gujarat under the pretext of cow protection

Over the past five years the mob-lynching of Dalits – and Muslims – over accusations of cow slaughter and consumption of beef has become more frequent. Some Dalit families traditionally skin carcasses for a living, but mobs of self-declared cow protectors, mostly aligned to the ruling party and its various fronts, accuse them of killing cows despite their sacred status for Hindus.

Cases of brutality against Dalits are commonplace all over India, but one that outraged Dalits and civil society more broadly was the lynching of seven Dalits in the state of Gujarat, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi was chief minister for several years. All seven were publicly beaten with sticks and iron rods in the village of Mota Samadhiyala in July 2017. Some were tied to a car and beaten remorselessly. The assault was filmed and the footage uploaded, apparently to spread the politics of communal hate.

The incident led to mass protests by Dalits and university students in Gujarat and elsewhere. That in turn has fuelled the rise of a young Dalit leader, Jignesh Mevani, to the Gujarat state legislature. He is now organising Dalits in his constituency to build community halls on their own land and seek more land for farming. Most significantly, landless Dalits are demanding that farming land be provided to them so they can stop the degrading practice of skinning cows.

This symbolic protest can be seen as one small victory in the Dalits’ struggle for justice. The defiance of Jitendra Das in Shrikot was another. It was a sign that the dominant castes and classes, entrenched in a power structure favourable to them, are refusing to budge; but also that the Dalits, after centuries of humiliation, have had enough.

“We want life imprisonment for the killers of my son,” said Geeta Devi. “Or else, they should be hanged to death.”

Photographs for Tortoise by Abhishek Yadav

Further reading

Further reading

The best starting point for understanding the Dalits’ long struggle for justice is this book-length edition of The Annihilation of Caste, BR Ambedkar’s seminal 1936 speech, never delivered but presented here with an introduction by the novelist Arundhati Roy.

This op-ed by Ananya Vajpeyi describes the context and meaning of the 2016 suicide of Rohith Vomula, a Dalit PhD student and follower of Ambedkar.

For a sceptical look at Modi’s recent re-election and what it might mean for India’s “minorities” (among them 200 million Dalits), try this piece in The Hindu by Harsh Mander.