February 19, 2012
Fact-finding Report on Caste-Violence in Balangir, Odisha
A nine member team of students from JNU, Jamia Milia Islamia and Delhi University reached Harishankar Road, Lathor on the 31st January. We were taken straight to the Durgeshwari High School, which was providing temporary shelter to 193 people of 45 families. All of them are Dalits belonging to the Ganda caste. The entire Gandapara of Lathore village was gutted down to ashes on the 22nd January by a mob of more than 500 people, most of whom belonged to the Meher caste. Since then, all of them are staying in the school building. We stayed with the affected families, spoke to them at length, visited their burnt locality and also spoke to people in the neighbourhood and in the Meherpara. What emerged from the variant conversations is that it was not a spontaneous incident, nor was it an incident of inter-caste feud. It was rather a planned attack on Gandapara, where the Dalits were economically, politically and educationally becoming assertive. It was a well thought out attempt to demolish their growing prosperity and dignity. It was also clear that the people from the Meher castes were used by the Marwari baniyas and the RSS/BJP to unleash the violence on Gandapara.
The incident: On 22nd January, a young Dalit boy Ganesh Suna had gone to the market to buy a new shirt. While coming out of the shop the shopkeeper Bharat Meher alleged him for stealing a shirt and beat him up. When Ganesh’s grandfather, an aged person came to confront Bharat, he was beaten up too. They reported the incident to the members of ‘Sri Krishna Club’ of Gandapara and a few men came and confronted Bharat. The people of Gandapara then went to lodge an FIR in Khaprakhol, police station which is 20 km from Lathor. The rest of the men of Gandapara were also in Khaprakhol attending a shradh ceremony. Back in Lathor a baseless rumour was spread that Bharat has been killed by the people of Gandapara. By 2 pm a crowd, of around 500 people gathered near a temple. The belligerent crowd was provided with ample alcohol, petrol and kerosene. This crowd then was unleashed on the entire Gandapara where they targeted each and every household. Within the same locality there were houses of people belonging to other castes which were spared. The houses were completely looted first and then broken and finally set on fire. The carnage started at around 2 pm and the fire continued to burn till around midnight. The fire-brigade vehicle that arrived at the spot around 8 pm was stopped on the road by the same mob and one of its engines were set ablaze too. The people of Gandapara desperately tried to call the SP, collector and other officials only to find their cell phones switched off. One reporter of electronic media, Bhojraj Meher, was present in the spot. He was not only shooting the carnage but also tried to intervene and stop the attackers. He was also beaten up and threatened of dire consequences and was stopped from taking photos of the perpetrators. When the attack happened it was mainly women, children and old people who were left behind within the locality as the men were in Khaprakhol. The women were atrociously abused, intimidated and even harassed while they were running for their lives. The entire population of Gandapara took shelter in adjacent forests that night. Next day they were shifted to the school building where they are staying till now. Although the public belonging to the Meher caste were used to perpetrate the atrocity, everyone said in one voice that the real culprit and the mastermind of the incident was Ghasiram Agarwal the dominant baniya, whose allegiance lies openly with RSS/BJP and some more of his ilk, like Jagannath Agarwal. Ghasiram Agarwal and Jagannath Agarwal hold the monopoly over both liquor and petrol in the region. One can simply guess from where these two things were provided in abundance on the day Gandapara was gutted to ashes.
The history of conflict and assertion: There is a distinct history of conflict as well assertion of Gandapara which finally led into them being targeted with such a planned attack. The people in Gandapara are educationally, economically and politically assertive. Some of them are land-holding families, some work as school teachers, bank officials, lecturer and so on. Most of the families are well educated. They were organizing under the banner of “Sri Krishna Club” since 1995. The Sri Krishna Club has done many developmental works and worked to raise the social consciousness of the people within the Gandapara. The opposed the alcohol business of Ghasiram Agarwal. They opposed the Dhanuyatra that is an annual religious festival organized by the Banik Sangha, consisting mostly of Marwari and Meher traders. This festival involved gambling, drinking and obscene dances, against which the Sri Krishna Club raised its voice. In 2007, the Sarvajanin Durga Puja was no longer called Sarvajanin or Public. The reason behind the change of nomenclature was because the festival indeed turned exclusive and the Dalits of the region were not sent invitation, nor were they asked for contribution. Ghasiram Agarwal was the president of the Puja committee. The Dalits too in protest declared they will not play the traditional music, because that too is a caste discriminatory ritual. After this the Dalits complained to the authority that they are not allowed to take part in the durga puja and are not allowed to enter the temple. Some people of the Meher Para were also arrested in the matter. But finally a compromise was arrived at, between the Dalits and the other community owing to administrative mediation, that no one will be allowed to go near the deity in the durga temple, and an iron pipe as a barrier was raised. The Sri Krishna Club also had started to celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti since 2006, which was also not liked by the dominant castes. They were raising money to build a statue of Babasaheb Ambedkar which too was looted in the carnage on 22nd January. The Sri Krishna Club also protested against excessive illegal hooking of electricity by the people in the Meher para which resulted in transformer blast. Their vigilance finally led to a raid in the Meher para by the electricity department and seizing of excessive electrical appliances of many families took place. Kapil Suna, a young journalist of Oriya daily Samay, from Gandapara, who had written an explosive article on the 17th of January, right before the carnage, on the ‘Kaalabazar in Lathor’. There he exposed the corruption nexus and even took Ghasiram Agarwal’s name.
The plot behind the carnage: The entire incident of atrocity in Lathor was clearly planned. The incident of conflict between Bharat Meher and Ganesh Suna took place around ten in the morning. Both the parties were busy filing FIR till noon. But miraculously by 2pm a mob of more than 500 people were mobilized armed with weapons, petrol and the mob was drunk and were immediately unleashed to perpetrate the attack. Such a mobilization is not possible unless it was pre-planned and the incident with Ganesh was merely played up as a flimsy pretext. As we were interviewing the people around the villages, one person approached us in the railway station and told us, that it was indeed planned. The plan was hatched on the 17th of January, in the presence of Ghasiram Agarwal, Jagannath Agarwal and some people from the Meher para. Jagannath Agarwal is a known RSS member. We also came to know that Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS Supremo himself was present in Lathor, a night before the carnage on the 20th January. So it is clear that this was a planned attack at the behest of the RSS. The dominant Agarwals, who have open allegiance to the RSS were the prime force behind the attack. The people from the Meher caste were merely used as a tool by the RSS to execute their heinous plan. The people from the Meher caste are also poor and oppressed. They belong to the OBC category and are mainly small traders. Being small traders they are part of the Banik Sangha, which is dominated by the Banik Sangha of the Marwaris. They are also economically dependent on the Marwaris who are economically affluent and have monopolized most of the business. The administrative action, however limited (42 arrests have been done so far), was entirely directed towards the Meher community. Neither Ghasiram Agarwal nor Jagannath Agarwal or the likes were touched in the entire affair, despite all the affected people naming them as the prime culprit. The people of Meher para indeed took part in the carnage, but we also understood how they were forced into the situation, owing to their sheer material condition. This is a quintessential case of the ruling classes and the feudal forces pitting one oppressed community against the other to secure their own interests. The role of RSS has historically been to use oppressed communities to further their own ends.
The role of the administration: The administrative complicity in the entire carnage was clear in more than one ways. The police was virtually absent as long as the carnage took place and the excuse of the SP was that he did not have sufficient force to stop them. Till now a meager compensation of one lakh rupees per family has been given by the state government. Although 45 families have been affected, the ‘compensation’ has been issued to 38 families only. The authorities are denying any responsibility to rebuild the gutted houses. More importantly, although the incident is a clear case of caste atrocity, has not yet been booked under the required clauses to establish it as a case of caste atrocity. The clauses which have been applied so far are all bailable ones. These are -109, 147, 148, 149, 154, 294, 323, 341, 354,395, 436,463, 477 and 506 under IPC. More appropriate and stringent clauses which suite the context most, i.e., Section 380, 384, 395, 453 of the IPC ( for forcefully entering someone’s house, looting, and inflicting violence on cast lines etc ) have not been applied. Incidentally, these last Sections are non-bailable.
Condition in the relief camp: The condition within the relief camp is pathetic. Almost 200 people are huddled up in four school rooms, many of them therefore have to sleep outside in the cold. The food at the beginning was not even eatable. After the people protested and went on a hunger strike, the quality of food improved slightly. But every day there were shortage of food towards the end of each batch. There is only one source of water in the camp. There is only one bathroom for women which has to be shared by all women in the camp. The children have all lost their books and copies as well as the people have lost their certificates and other important documents. The panchayat elections are currently taking place in Odisha and over telephone the people of Gandapara told us that they have boycotted the elections. There has been no visits made by the officials of the state administration so far and people are still in the relief camp.
This incident of caste violence is another glaring instance of the feudal backlash on assertive Dalits, the collusion of the state with the dominant feudal forces and the venomous role of RSS. Now a similar gruesome incident has already taken place in Dhenkanal. The pattern of the atrocity is similar to that of Lathor including the active involvement of RSS. These repeated incidents only vindicate the pattern and planned nature of these attacks. The state government of Odisha led by Navin Patnaik, a former NDA ally, has ensured and facilitated planned pogroms of Dalits earlier too in Kandhmal. The two successive incidents of atrocity only reflect his complicity and active support to the ‘upper’-caste feudal forces who perpetrate such gruesome incidents with absolute impunity. We must unitedly resist these series of attacks on the Dalits and strengthen our struggle against the feudal, casteist sangh-giroh. We must force the state government to book the culprits and ensure justice to the targeted families.
Members of the team: Abdul (DSU,JNU), Amit (DSU, Jamia Milia Islamia), Banojyotsna (DSU, JNU), Kundan (DSU, DU), Om (AISA, JNU), Shriya (DSU,JNU), Sushil (DSU, DU), Tanvi (JNU), Vinay (AIBSF, JNU)