A Portrait of the Indian as a Young Dalit Girl: Part 2 – Sister, Mothers
By Priyanka Dubey
That afternoon when I arrive, 20-year-old Reetika is sitting on the mud verandah of her two-room house. Reetika and Janvi grew up with their two brothers in this small house situated in the Dhanuk (a Dalit sub-caste) basti. I’d walked through the Dalit tola of Bhagana to reach Reetika’s house. Most of the houses stand locked and empty. Only 40 Dhanuk families still live in Bhagana.
That afternoon, Reetika is wearing a mustard yellow salwar kameez and a magenta dupatta. Her round face is stoic and she smiles. The small neem saplings her mother had planted have withered. Inside, the second room is still locked and the room she’s been living in these last two days, since she came from her in-laws home, is dusty. The open chulha on which the family used to cook, on which Reetika used to cook before she got married, is now covered by thick dust, leftover ash, a few utensils and a broken bicycle.
“Our home and neighborhood is now destroyed,” she tells me. “Nothing is left. First, the Jats captured the common land of our village and boycotted all those Dalits who dared to resist. Then, all the Chamars and Khantis left the village while the Dhanuks stayed back. We could not gather the courage to leave our houses back then. Now, after this attack (on Janvi and the others girls), staying back was not an option. We knew that our lives were in danger in this village. My parents thought that we’d get justice, or at least be able to raise our voices against this crime only if we protested at Hisar or Jantar Mantar. So in mid-April, they left the village along with 90 other Dhanuk families from our neighborhood. Our tola has been deserted since then.”
Reetika’s younger sister, 13-year-old Janvi, is the youngest of all the four survivors of the Bhagana gang-rape. She was kidnapped barely 500 m away from her home along with Sushma, 17, Leela, 17 and Meena, 18.
Reetika points her finger towards the now-deserted verandah and says, “We grew up here. Since she was the youngest child of the family, she was always a bit pampered, but never more than my brothers. We would play together here, talk, laugh, cook and sometimes even fight. She had a few dolls and sometimes we ran around playing juggo in this veranda. When we grew up, we would cook, talk and occasionally watch TV serials together.”
Later she says, “When I think about her now, all I feel is that she was too small, too fragile to go through such a brutal attack. My mother told me that she was in a bad condition when she returned home after that night. She was partially conscious, her body was still bleeding and she was in severe pain. I know men routinely attack and abuse girls here, but still, I feel that she is too small to go through all this.”
Her despair is so deep it’s as if Reetika doesn’t believe that Janvi’s fate was wholly avoidable, only that it could have been delayed till she was older. The only reason that Reetika is back here in this village is to represent her family at a wedding in the extended clan. Life, she knows, goes on elsewhere. Even if her own family is frozen in time in front of an 18th century astronomy-loving prince’s toy.
Earlier that month, at Jantar Mantar, I’d spoken to the young mothers of the survivors. There’s no accounting for the greater and lesser violence that these women have faced over their lifetimes.
Of Bhagana village’s 3,800 voters, 2,000 are Jats. Most Dalits in this village are landless and earn their bread by working on Jat-owned farms. They either work under the bataidari system, under which they grow crops on the Jat land and are allowed to keep only a small fixed percentage of the produce, or they follow the siri system, under which a Dalit enters work on a Jat farm for a fixed period of time, and also does domestic tasks for the Jat household during that period.
“In a way, the Dalit becomes a bonded laborer under the Jat during this period. He has to do whatever work the Jat says. And Jats make them do all kinds of menial jobs besides making them work on fields. Of course, the Jat owner thinks that he has every right over the wives and daughters of his Dalit bonded laborers. There have been many cases in which Jats enter the homes of Dalits on any given night and ask the man to step out, giving him some task such as watering the fields. Then they sleep with their women. The Dalit man who goes to water the fields knows about what is going on with his wife, but he can’t do anything about this,” says Bagoriya.
One evening, Sushma’s mother Reshma tells me about what happened to her – the reason she thinks the girls were raped. Her husband Vishnu used to be a bonded laborer for the village sarpanch Rakesh Panghal. In January this year, she said, her husband was working on the sarpanch’s fields. It was a cold night and Vishnu fell asleep while watering the fields. A lot of water from the sarpanch’s pump was wasted, and Reshma says the Sarpanch beat up her husband twice and molested her as well. “When my husband went to the government hospital in Hisar with blood flowing from his head, the doctors bandaged his wounds but refused to give him a written prescription or anything that we could have used for a police report.” He went to the Hisar Superintendent of Police to file a complaint, but the SP advised her husband to arrive at a compromise with the sarpanch.
Reshma says the enraged sarpanch threatened her husband and told him to be ready to pay. Reshma thinks the rape of her daughter and the other four girls was their payment.
It’s been raining at the protest camp at Jantar Mantar, but the rainfall has now stopped and the sky is a clear orange. The humidity soars again and the camp is muddy. At 4.30 pm, Janvi wants chai but her mother Bhagmati says that she will have to wait for an hour. Bhagmati and I talk about the day Janvi was born. While shifting bags of rations from the wet corners of the tent under which they’re camped to the shrinking dry patch in the centre, she says, “Hamaare gaon mein mahaul itna ganda hai ki ladki ke paida hone par sirf dar lagta hai. Ek to Dhanuk, upar se ladki; jaan kaise bacha paungi iski, yahi dar satata rehta tha. (The environment of our village is so disgusting that we only feel scared whenever a girl is born (in our community). First a Dhanuk, above that a girl! All my life I have been troubled by one question, how am I going to save the lives of my daughters?”
Bhagmati and I are painfully conscious that Janvi is listening as her mother says of her youngest child, “Everyone in my family (including me) was very sad when Janvi was born. We were terrorized by the thought that we had to look after one more daughter. I gave birth to three boys and two girls.” Bhagmati’s panic about daughters is not related to the reasons that lead south Delhi to have the lowest sex ratio. “When we are scared about own lives, how are we are going to protect our daughters and ensure that they stay safe and alive? In a way, the birth of a daughter shows us how helpless and vulnerable we are.”