One does not have to venture very far from Delhi on the 1,465 kilometre-long National Highway 2 to take the left turn leading to Sunped—a village in Haryana with around 400 households. Under ordinary circumstances, the only source of light at the entrance of the village, where I got off from my cab, would be the moon. But as I alighted, the flashing headlights of police vehicles and the torches of policemen illuminated the dark night. Very little about the evening of 20 October, I realised, was going to be ordinary.
That morning, as several news stories had reported, a Dalit family in the village had been set afire in their home. Two-year-old Vaibhav and nine-month-old Divya were declared dead as soon as they reached the Burns and Plastic division of Safdarjung hospital in Delhi. By the time I reached the hospital that afternoon, their father, Jitender, who had only received relatively minor burns on his hands, had been discharged; Rekha, their 23-year-old mother, was in the Intensive Care Unit. According to a nurse I spoke to at the hospital, she was recovering from “25 percent burns on her body.”
The incident was widely covered as a result of both the brutal nature of the assault, and because it was suspected to be an act of caste conflict. Many news stories about this attack termed it an act of revenge that was allegedly choreographed by the family’s upper-caste Rajput neighbours, in order to get back at the family for its role in a dispute over a mobile phone in October last year. However, this dispute did not take place in isolation, it had its roots in the economic and political rise of this Dalit family.
By the time I reached the village, at around 6.30 pm, the matter had gained political attention. Home Minister Rajnath Singh had called Manohar Lal Khattar, the chief minister of Haryana, to ensure security in the village. Security had duly been ensured: Sunped’s population is about 2300, but it seemed that there were at least half as many policemen milling about the town, with guns dangling from their shoulders.
Finding Jitender’s house proved to be an easy task. All I had to do was follow the news vans. The lane in which they lived was teeming with journalists, and recorders were beeping in every corner of the house. The first room I entered was that the family had been sleeping in the previous night. A television reporter was now speaking into the mic as the camera focused on the charred mattress. “This is where the innocent kids were sleeping last night when…” she began, against a background that had been manufactured, if it were possible, to look even more morbid than it was. No lights in the room were switched on. In the spacious backyard, I could see Jitender sleeping on a cot with bandaged hands.
Shiv Kumar, Jitender’s relative, described the previous night’s incident to me. “There is a window close to the bed in the room that they were sleeping in,” he said. “About 15 people—all from the neighbouring Rajput family—came and doused petrol. Jitender woke up and ran for the door, but it was locked from outside. Before anything could happen, they lit the bed up. People only realised a few minutes later—a jaagran was going on in front of the house.”
Just a year earlier, on 5 October 2014, a mobile phone belonging to a Thakur had gone missing. According to the Thakurs, it was found by a young man who belonged to Jitender’s family, and then deliberately dropped in a drain. However, the family says that the Thakurs dropped the phone, and asked the Dalits to fish it out. In the ensuing fight, three Thakur men were stabbed to death. Shiv Kumar told me, the killings had been in “self-defence.” The police arrested ten people, all Dalits, in the matter. One of these arrested men was Jagpal, the brother of Jitender, and the sarpanch of Sunped. Nearly all the villagers I met, seemed convinced that the arson was how the Thakurs had decided to settle scores for the death of their kin.
Most villagers that I spoke to—both Dalits and Thakurs—at Sunped were at pains to assure me that the village had not witnessed any instances of caste violence before this. They would deflect instead, to the Hindu-Muslim riots that took place in Atali—about 15 kilometres away—earlier this year. “Mostly, the fights in our village—and there aren’t many—include young Thakur men on either side,” Nehpal, a Dalit who lives opposite Jitender’s house told me.
Vijender Singh, a Thakur who is the brother-in-law of the Rajan Devi, the former sarpanch of the village before Jitender’s brother Jagpal took over in 2010, sought to downplay the role of caste in this on-going feud. “Jitender’s brother is the sarpanch, and their father was a government servant in the telephone exchange. They own several cars. If you look closely they won’t fit in the image of a Dalit that you have in mind.”
But the genesis of the animosity that led to Vaibhav and Divya’s murders seems to lie in this very ascent to power. In 2010, when polls in Sunped were underway to elect a sarpanch, Sunped was declared a seat reserved for candidates from scheduled castes. Although Vijender wasn't able to contend himself, he threw his weight behind Jagpal’s competitor, a Dalit candidate called Pradhan. Vijender’s endorsement meant that a majority of Sunped’s Rajput vote lined up behind Pradhan, and against Jagpal. "The results were in Jagpal's favour, but the margin of victory wasn't big," Singh said.
Most of the other Thakurs I spoke to refused to be named in the story: they said that they did not trust the media. “Your ilk wants stories, not the truth,” one said while dismissing me. “None of you came to this village last year—three people were killed right where you stand right now,” said another, as we stood outside Jitender’s house. In this battle for political power, both castes now claim that the other is favoured by the state.
Since the fight over the mobile phone last year, Jagpal and Jitender’s family was given police security for protection, but that was scaled back over time. “First, there were about 20 men deployed, then the number kept receding, and last night there were three,” Rampal, a family member, told me. Shiv Kumar alleged that these three policemen had colluded with the Rajputs. “They are not even writing an FIR [First Information Report] now. That’s what happens to poor, lower-caste people,” he told me.
Even the descriptions of the specific events of the clash in October last year are framed in terms of caste. Shiv Kumar told me, “We are lower caste people and the Rajputs in the area threaten us repeatedly. There was some argument between kids over a mobile phone—they dropped the phone in the filthy drain and asked our boy to pick it up, calling us names.Then things flared up quickly and dozens of them came to our house with knives and lathis and other things. Three of them got killed. It was in self-defence.” His relatives narrated a similar sequence of events to me and testified this account.
A Rajput man in his fifties countered this version, and was backed by three acquaintances: “One of our boys had lost his phone while he was talking to their kids on the small grocery shop they had in front of their house,” he told me. A few days later, as tension was building up because of the political differences over the election of the sarpanch between the two families, the Dalits called the boy who owned the phone so that he could take it back. The Rajput continued, “But when he was about to pick it up, they dropped it in a drain nearby.” Infuriated, the group of Thakurs accompanying the boy slapped the Dalits. Subsequently, someone in the group threw a stone at the men who had flung the phone. The stone hit Jagpal’s father, who sitting on the porch of the house. According to the Rajput, “The old man was hurt, and bleeding. Next thing we know, knives were out—they killed three people and two were hospitalised. After that, they got into their cars—the bunch that they own, don’t think of them as poor—fled the scene. Police later arrested them. And guess who got the police protection after this incident?”
In the storm of contradictory news stories and versions of the story, there is no authoritative account of what triggered that particular clash. But two children have now been burnt alive as a result. During the course of the evening I spent at Sunped, an assortment of local politicians made their way to the village in their tinted glass cars. They wrote the family cheques and gave the journalists sound bytes. They were followed, in the days after, by national-level opposition leaders, including Rahul Gandhi and Brinda Karat. Hushed voices spoke of the politics and rivalries that appeared to underscore this incident.
I sat outside Jitender’s house that night and tried to make sense of the incident, before being shaken out of my reverie by the sound of a wail emanating from the house. I went in to find that it was Jitender’s mother, who had been at her son’s side for most of the evening. She had now gone into the room where her grandchildren had been sleeping the previous night, and was slumped to the floor, with tears streaming down her cheeks. From the window, the one close to the bed, people gawked and clicked pictures.
It was stated, erroneously, in a previous version of the article that Vijender Singh was the sarpanch of Sunped before Jagmal won the reserved seat in 2010. The sarpanch was Rajan Devi, Singh's sister-in-law; the post of was reserved for women in the 2005 elections. The Caravan regrets the error.
Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.