Caste Off

by Palagummi Sainath

Palagummi Sainath is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai (Bombay), India.  He took a MA in History from Jawaharlal Nehru University and joined the United News of India in 1980.  In 1993 he won a Times of India Fellowship to study and write on rural poverty in India.  His work has won him thirteen awards and fellowships.  His most recent book, Everybody Loves A Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts, was published in 1996 in India by Penguin Books and in the U.K. by Headline Book publishing, 338 Euston Road, London NW1 3BH.

Used by permission of the author.


What happens when a dalit attempts to seek justice from the courts? Especially in a feudal, conservative state like Rajasthan, where he or she runs many challenges before a case is even registered?  In most cases, the struggle may be just getting to the courts, never mind what happens once they do. And the process is calculated to discourage all but the most determined. Both the data and a ground level investigation suggest that even the most high profile of cases may end with a whimper. In some instances, even charges are not framed years after going to court.


A  Dalit  Goes  to  Court

When Bhanwari Devi’s 13 year-old daughter was raped in the bajra fields by an upper caste youth, she picked up a lathi and went after the rapist herself. She had no faith in police and courts.  Either way, she was prevented from seeking any redress by the upper castes of  Ahiron ka Rampura. “The village caste panchayat promised me justice,” she says. “Instead, they threw me and my family out of Rampura.”  Nearly a decade after the rape, no one in this village in Ajmer district has been punished.

It doesn’t mean much, though, in Rajasthan. On average in this state, one dalit woman is raped every sixty hours.

Data from reports of the National Commission for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes show that nearly 900 cases of rape of SC women were registered with police between 1991 and 1996. That’s around 150 cases a year or one every sixty hours. (Barring a few months of President’s rule, the state was entirely in BJP control through this period.)  The numbers don’t measure the reality. In this state, the extent of under reporting of such crimes is perhaps worst in the country.

In Naksoda of Dholpur district, the victim of one of the most dramatic  atrocities has fled the village. In April 1998,  Rameshwar Jatav, a dalit, sought the return of Rs. 150 that he had loaned an upper casteGujjar. That was asking for trouble. Enraged by his arrogance, a band of Gujjars pierced his nose and put a ring of two threads of jute,  a metre long and 2 mm thick, through his nostrils. Then they paraded him around the village, leading him by the ring.

The incident hit the headlines and caused national outrage. It was widely reported overseas as well, both in print and on television. All that publicity however, had no impact in ensuring justice. Terror within the village and a hostile bureaucracy at the ground level saw to that. And with the sensational and spectacular out of the way, the press lost interest in the case. So, apparently, did the human rights groups. The victims faced the post-media music on their own. Rameshwar completely changed his line in court. Yes, the atrocity had happened. However, it was not the six people named in his complaint who had done it. He could not identify the guilty.

The senior medical officer, who had recorded the injuries in detail, now pleaded forgetfulness. Yes, Rameshwar had approached him with those wounds. He could not remember, though,  if the victim had told him how he had come by those unusual injuries.


Rameshwar’s father, Mangi Lal, has himself turned hostile as a witness. “What do you expect us to do?” he asked me in Naksoda. “We live here in terror. The authorities were totally against us. The Gujjars can finish us any time. Various powerful people, and some in the police, forced this on us.”  Rameshwar has left  the village.  Mangi Lal has sold one of the only three bighas of land the family owns to meet the costs of the case thus far.

For the world, it was a barbaric act. In Rajasthan, it just falls into one of thousands of  “Other IPC”  cases. Which means cases other than murder, rape, arson or grievous  hurt.

Between 1991-96, there was one such case registered every four hours.

In Sainthri in Bharatpur district, residents say there have been no marriages for seven years. Not of  the men, at least. That’s how its been since June 1992, when Sainthri was stormed by a rampaging upper caste mob. Six people were murdered and many houses destroyed. Some of those killed were burned alive when the  bittora (store of dung and fuelwood) they were hiding in was deliberately set alight.

“The women of Sainthri are able to get married because they leave the village when they do so,” says Bhagwan Devi. “But not the men. Some men have left this village to get married. People don’t want to send their daughters here. They know that if we are attacked again, no one, neither police nor courts, will help us.”

Her cynicism is grounded in reality. Seven years after the murders, charges are yet to be framed in the matter.

That too, doesn’t mean much. One dalit is murdered in this state a little over every nine days.

In the same village lives Tan Singh, a survivor of the bittora fire. The medical record shows he suffered 35 per cent burns in that event. His ears have been more or less destroyed. The little compensation he got  --  because his brother was one of those killed  --  has long ago disappeared in medical expenses. “I had to sell my tiny plot of land to meet the costs,” says the devastated young man. That includes several hundreds of rupees each time on repeated trips to Jaipur  --  on just travel alone.

Tan Singh is just a statistic.  Some dalit is the victim of grievous hurt every 65 hours in this state.

In Raholi in Tonk district,  an attack on dalits incited by local school teachers saw several cases of arson. “The losses were very bad,” says  Anju Phulwaria. She was the elected  --  dalit  -- sarpanch but “I was suspended from the post on false charges.”  She’s not surprised that no one’s been punished for the act.

On average, one dalit house or property suffers an arson attack every five days in Rajasthan.

In every category,  the chances of the guilty being punished are very few.

Arun Kumar, the soft-spoken chief secretary, government of Rajasthan, disagrees with the idea of a structured bias against dalits. He believes that the alarming numbers  reflect the commitment of the state in registering such cases.  “This is one of the few states where there is hardly any complaint about non-registration. Because we are diligent about it, there are more cases and thus high crime statistics.” He also believes the conviction rate in Rajasthan is better than in the rest of the country.

What do the figures say? Former Janata Dal MP  Than Singh was a member of a committee investigating crimes against dalits in the early nineties. “The conviction rate was around three per cent,” he told me at his Jaipur residence.

In Dholpur district, where I visited the courts, I found it to be even less. In all, 359 such cases were committed to Sessions between 1996 and 1998. Some had been transferred to other courts or were pending. But the conviction rate here was under 2.5 per cent.

A senior police officer in Dholpur told me: “My only regret is that the courts are burdened with so many false issues. Well over 50 per cent of SC /ST complaints are false. People are put to needless harassment by such cases.”

His is a widely held view among the largely upper caste police officers of Rajasthan.  (A senior government official refers to the force as the CRP  --  “The Charang-Rajput Police.”  These two powerful castes dominated the force right up to the nineties.)

The idea that ordinary people, particularly the poor and weak, are liars is deep rooted in the police. Take rape cases across all communities. The national average of  such cases found to be false after investigation is around five per cent of  the total. In Rajasthan, rape cases declared “false” average  around 27 per cent.

This is like saying that women in the state tend to lie five times more than women in the rest of the country. The more likely explanation?  A huge bias against women is deeply embedded in the system. The ‘false rape’  data covers all communities. But a detailed survey would likely establish that dalits and tribals are the worst victims of that bias. Simply: the level of atrocities they suffer is far higher than other communities.

I had been assured everywhere I went in Rajasthan that dalits were grossly misusing the the law in general and the provisions of the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, in particular. Above all, the much feared Section 3 of the Act under which those guilty of casteist offences against dalits and adivasis can be imprisoned for up to five years with fine.

In reality, I could not find a single case where such serious punishment had been meted out to offenders.

In Dholpur itself, the few punishments handed out in cases generally involving offences against dalits seemed unlikely to deter the guilty. They ranged from fines of Rs.100  or Rs. 250 or Rs. 500 to one month’s simple imprisonment. The most severe punishment I came across was six months simple imprisonment. In one case, the guilty had been put on “probation”  with bail. The concept of probation is one this reporter had never run into in such cases anywhere else.

Dholpur’s is not an isolated instance. At the SC / ST Special Court in Tonk district headquarters, we learned that the conviction rate was just under two per cent.

So much for the numbers. What are the steps and the barriers, the process and the perils facing a dalit going to court?

The High Court in Jaipur has a pleasant campus. There’s just one element in its garden that many in Rajasthan find jarring. This is perhaps the only Court complex in the country that boasts  a statue of  “Manu, the Law Giver”.

There being no evidence that an individual named Manu ever existed, the statue was shaped by the artist’s imagination.  It proved a limited imagination. Manu here fits celluloid stereotypes of  a “rishi”.

In legend, a person of this name authored the ‘Manusmriti’. The smritis are really about norms that brahmins sought to impose on society centuries ago. Norms that are fiercely casteist. There were many smritis, composed mostly between 200 BC and 1000 AD. They were compiled over a long period of time by several authors. The best known of these is the Manusmriti, extraordinary for the differing standards it applies to different castes  -- for the same crimes.

In this smriti, lower caste lives were worth little. Take the “penance for the murder of a Sudra.” It is  the same as what a person killing “a frog, a dog, an owl or a crow” would have to perform.  At best, the penance for the murder of  “a virtuous Sudra” is  one-sixteenth that to be made for the slaying of a brahmin.

Hardly what a system based on equality  before law needs to emulate. The presence in the court of  this symbol of their oppression angers dalits in Rajasthan. Even more galling, the architect of the Indian Constitution finds no place inside the complex. An Ambedkar statue stands at the street corner facing the traffic. Manu in his majesty faces all comers to the court.

Rajasthan has lived up to Manu’s ideals. On average in this state, a dalit woman is raped every sixty hours. One dalit is murdered a little over every nine days. Some dalit is the victim of grievous hurt every 65 hours.A dalit house or property suffers an arson attack every five days. And each four hours sees the registration of  a complaint falling into “Other IPC”  cases. Which means cases other than murder, rape, arson or grievous  hurt.

The guilty are rarely punished. Conviction rates range between two and three per cent. And many offences committed against dalits never even reach the courtroom stage.

Countless complaints end up closed and buried with “FRs” ( Final Reports). Genuine and serious cases are often scuttled.

“The problem begins right in the village itself,” says Bhanwari Devi, whose daughter was raped in a village in Ajmer district. “The villagers hold a caste panchayat. They pressurise the victims to patch up with their attackers. They say: ‘why go to the police? We’ll solve the problem ourselves’.”

The solution usually means the victim gives in to the oppressor. Bhanwari was held back from going to the police.

In any case, the very act of a dalit or adivasi  entering a police station brings its own risks. What happens when they do go? In Kumher village in Bharatpur district twenty voices answered at the same time: “Two hundred and twenty rupees entry fee,” they said.  “And many times that sum that if you want them to move on your complaint.”

Where an upper caste person has attacked a dalit, the police try to dissuade the victim from filing a complaint. “They’ll ask us,” said Hari Ram, “ ‘kya? Baap bete ko nahin marte hain, kya? Bhai bhai ko nahin marte hain kya? (Doesn’t a father strike his son? Doesn’t a brother hit his brother now and then?). So why not forget it and drop the charge’?”

“There’s another problem,” says Ram Khiladi, laughing. “The police take money from the other side as well. If they pay more, that’s the end for us. Our people are poorer and can’t afford it.”  So you can actually pay Rs. 2,000 to Rs. 5,000 and lose it.

Next, the policeman coming down to investigate can end up arresting the complainant. This is more likely to happen if the latter is a dalit complaining against  an upper caste person. Often the constable belongs to the dominant caste group.

“Once when the upper castes attacked me, the DIG posted a policeman outside my door,” says Bhanwari in Ajmer. “That havaldar spent all his time boozing and eating in the Yadav houses. He even advised them on ways of dealing with me. Another time, my husband was beaten up badly. I went to the station alone. They wouldn’t file an FIR and abused me: ‘How dare you come here on your own, you a woman (and a dalit at that)?’  They were outraged.”


Back in Kumher, Chunni Lal Jatav sums it up.  “All the judges of the Supreme Court do not have the power of a single police constable.”

That constable, he says,  “makes or breaks us. The judges can’t re-write the laws and have to listen to arguments from learned lawyers of both sides.  A constable here simply makes his own laws. He can do almost anything.”

If, after much effort, an FIR is actually lodged, fresh problems arise. That’s apart from the “entry fee” and other moneys paid. The police delay recording witnesses’ statements. And, says Bhanwari. “They also deliberately fail to arrest some of the accused.” These are just declared ‘absconders’. The police then plead inability to proceed without their capture.

In many villages, we came across instances of  “absconders”  actually moving about quite freely. This and the inertia in getting witnesses’ statements leads to fatal delays.

It also leaves the dalits at the mercy of their attackers in the village, often forcing them to compromise their own case. In Naksoda in Dholpur district, the upper castes inflicted a unique torture on Rameshwar Jatav. They pierced his nose and  put a ring of two threads of jute,  a metre long and 2 mm thick, through his nostrils. Then they paraded him around the village, leading him by the ring.

Despite the media attention the case got, all witnesses  --  including Rameshwar’s father, Mangi Ram  --  have turned hostile. And yes, the victim himself has absolved those charged with the crime.

The reason?  “We have to live in this village,” says Mangi Ram. “Who will protect us? We are dying of fear.”

“Any atrocity case,”  senior advocate Banwar Bagri, himself a dalit, told me at the Court in Jaipur, “has to be processed very quickly. If delayed beyond six months, there is hardly any chance of conviction. The witnesses can be terrorised in the village. They turn hostile.” 

There is no witness protection programme. Besides, delays mean that already biased evidence gets further rigged as the upper caste group in the village strikes a deal with local police.

If the case does get off the ground, there’s the problem of  lawyers. “All vakils are dangerous,” says Chunni Lal Jatav. “You could end up with someone who bargains with your enemy. If he gets paid off, you’re finished.”

And costs are a real problem. “There is a Legal Aid scheme, but it’s too complex,” says advocate Chetan Bairwa, among the few dalits at the high court in Jaipur. “The forms need details like your yearly income. For many  dalits on daily and seasonal wages, this is confusing. Also, awareness of their rights being low, many don’t even know about the aid fund.”

That dalits are poorly represented in the legal fraternity does not help. At the High Court in Jaipur, there are about 1, 200 advocates, of whom about eight are dalits. In Udaipur, that’s nine out of some 450. And in Ganganagar, six out of 435. At higher levels, under-representation is worse. There are no SC judges at the High Court.

There are dalit judicial officers or munsiffs in Rajasthan, but these, says Chunni Lal in Kumher, don’t matter. “They are too few and they don’t even want to be noticed, let alone draw attention to themselves.”

When a case reaches the court, there is the Peshkar to take care of. “If he isn’t paid off, you can have hell with your dates,”  I was told in several places. And anyway, “the whole system is so feudal,” says Chunni Lal. “That’s why the Peshkar, too, has to have his cut.  In several magistrates’ offices, all the judicial officers sit and have lunch that is paid for by the Peshkar. I recently exposed this to journalists who wrote about it.”

And lastly, there’s the abysmally low conviction rate itself. But that isn’t all.

“You can have a good judgement,” says Prem Krishna, senior advocate at the High Court in Jaipur. “And then find that the attitude of the implementing authorities is terrible.” Prem Krishna is also President of the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties, Rajasthan. “In the case of the scheduled castes there is both economic inability plus a lack of political organisation. Even dalit sarpanchas are trapped in a legal system they can’t fathom.”

In Raholi, Tonk district, suspended sarpanch Anju Phulwaria, having spent tens of thousands of rupees fighting her case, faces financial ruin. “We’ve taken our girls out of a good private school and put them in the government school.”  The very school where teachers were responsible for instigating students to deface dalit properties.

In Naksoda, Mangi Lal has spent over Rs. 30, 000 fighting the nose-piercing case  --  one on which he and his son, the victim, have thrown in the towel. The family has sold a third of its meagre land to meet the costs.

Rajasthan’s new Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot appears  keen to change some of this. He says his government  is willing to consider a random survey  of “FRs”  --  closed cases. If  deliberate cover-ups are found, “then those guilty of undermining the investigation will be punished,” he told me in Jaipur.  Gehlot intends to bring in “amendments to the panchayat laws to ensure that weaker sections are not wrongfully deposed”  from posts like sarpanch. 

Quite a few sarpanchas like Anju Phulwaria were, in fact, victimised during the BJP regime. By reversing that process, Gehlot can only gain politically. But he has a huge, hard task ahead. The system’s credibility has never been lower.

“We have not the slightest faith in the legal or judicial process,”  says Ram Khiladi. “We know the law is for the big people.”

This is, after all, Rajasthan, where Manu casts a long shadow inside the court. And where Ambedkar is an outsider.