In 1955, Rajasthan passed a tenancy law that sought to give land rights to Dalits. But the law makers were worried that the upper castes would wrest control over government land given to landless Dalits by either buying it, advancing loans against it, or occupying it through sheer force. So a provision was added to the law that prohibited the transfer of Dalit land to other communities.

Despite this, lakhs of acres of land registered in the name of Dalits is actually in the hands of upper castes. According to one estimate, about 70,000 cases of illegal occupation of Dalit land are being fought in the state's revenue courts. In several cases, the judges have ruled in favour of the Dalits, but in the absence of support from the administration, Dalits have not been able to get back their land.

This context is essential to understand the violence in Dangawas village of Nagaur district's Medhta block on Thursday that left four people dead. The police described the incident as a clash between two castes. They say that Dalits fired at Jats, killing a man called Ram Pal Goswami (who was neither Jat nor Dalit, but appears to have been a bystander). The crowds then went out of control and mowed down three Dalit men with a tractor.
The disputed land

But Dalits in Dangawas have a different story to tell and reach several decades to explain the roots of the violence. They say that the killings revolved around a 15-acre plot of land owned by a Dalit Meghwal family in the village. Omaram and Kanna Ram, two Jat brothers, staked claim to the land. They said the land had been mortgaged by its owner, Basta Ram Meghwal, to their father Chimna Ram Jat in 1954 for Rs 1,500. Since he had failed to repay the loan, they argued the land belonged to their family. Eighteen years ago, Basta Ram's family went to Medhta court and filed a case against the brothers, alleging they were trying to wrest control over the plot.

In 2006, the ownership of the land passed to Basta Ram's son, Ratna Ram Meghwal. The dispute picked up steam. As Onaram and Kanna Ram began to threaten him, Ratan Ram filed a complaint in the local police station. But given the clout of the Jat community among the police and administration, the complaint was ignored.

This year, the friction intensified after the Meghwals began to construct a house on the plot. On May 14, the Jat family allegedly called for a meeting, mobilising large crowds, which rode tractors and motorcycles to the plot of land.

The anatomy of the attack

According to the police, the Dalits allegedly fired at a 200-strong crowd, killing Goswami. In retaliation, the crowd drove the tractors over Ratna Ram, his brother Pokar Ram, and their relative, Pacha Ram, a well known workers' leader in Gujarat. Fourteen men were beaten up. Dalit women alleged they were threatened with sexual violence and were told that sticks would be stuck in their private parts.

But the Dalits who were injured, and who are recuperating in Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Ajmer, contest this version of events. Not only is it unthinkable for them to own firearms, they say they did not even have lathis – if they did, at least they could have defended themselves.

"The crowds of the Jats fired at me, but at the same time someone struck my head with an iron rod and I fell down," said Munna Ram Meghwal, the 30-year-old son of Ratna Ram. "The bullet instead hit Goswami who died."

In addition to filing an FIR for the murder of the three Dalits, the police has also filed an FIR against the Meghwals for Goswami's death. But Dalits claim that the counter-complaint was filed to dilute the impact of a massacre. Not a single Jat has been injured, they say. If this was a battle between two sides, then why are the injuries so asymmetrical, they ask? And if Dalits in Dangawas had weapons , then why hasn't the police found any?

As a result, Dalit activists and human rights group are demanding that the incident be investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation. In my two-decade long experience of tracking cases of atrocities against Dalits in Rajasthan, I haven't come across any evidence that shows that the community has become strong enough to take on the dominant castes by firing upon them.

A view from the Jats

The killings has been followed by incendiary comments on social media by members of the Jat community. In a comment that circulated on WhatsApp, Ram Ratan Akodia, who claims to be a social worker, congratulated the Jats of Dangawas, saying they had bravely put into place arrogant Dalits who had been "emboldened" by reservations and the Scheduled Caste and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. In a post on Facebook, a man named Sis Pal Ola said, "Dedhos [a pejorative term for Dalit] should not lose sight of their place in society. They have begun to cut down the very people whose charity they lived on."

While a police complaint has been filed against these two men, several other comments can be found on social media praising the Jats and justifying the violence against Dalits.

The writer Sandeep Meel, best known for Dooji Meera, a collection of short stories, who happens to be Jat himself, writes in one of his stories that the Jat community hates things like love, democracy, thought and word. If they could, they would murder him for thinking, he said. In a conversation soon after the Dangawas massacre, speaking of the Jats, he told me, "You are mistaking animals for humans."

From oppressed to oppressor

Why are the Jats, members of a community that itself faced feudal oppression for centuries, perpetrating such violence on others? Inspired by Swami Dayanand Saraswati, the Jats were among the first to reject untouchability and support caste reforms in the nineteenth century. That the same community is now embroiled in violence against Dalits and minorities from Muzzafarnagar to Dangawas, and has enthusiastically taken to communal politics, is something that worries Jat intellectuals like Meel.

Unlike the Dalits, the backward castes were not untouchable and landless. After the Mandal Commission report in the 1980s, they made their presence felt in politics and the administration. They moved ahead with speed, and within a few decades have acquired feudal characteristics. The violence of the upper castes against Dalits has ebbed and so-called backwards are now the main perpetrators.

In Bhilwara in south Rajasthan, Dalit activist Ganpat Barot obtained used RTI to source information from 23 police stations on cases filed by Dalits under the Scheduled Caste and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The information was analysed by Sowmya Sivakumar and Eric Kerbart of the Research for People group. They found that in the four years between 2003 and 2006, of the 611 complaints filed, 12% featured Jats. Eighty percent of the cases of atrocities by Jats were over land. The rest were over caste discrimination.

A den of injustice

In Nagaur district, three months before the Dangawas massacre, in the village Baswani, an old Dalit woman was burnt alive and a young child received serious injuries when some Raikas, another backward caste, allegedly set their house on fire over a land dispute. In April, in Mundasar village, a young Dalit girl's hands were burnt by a Jat farmer who placed them on the silencer of his tractor, annoyed that she had asked him to lower the volume of the music he was playing on it. In the same district, in early May, in Chindaliya village, a Dalit groom was forced to alight from a horse. These are just the incidents that were actually registered as  police complaints. Dozens of cases do not reach the police and are sorted out in the village through threats and coercion.

The Dalits of Dangawas are too frightened to speak up. Whoever speaks up, his death is certain, they say. "We have faced injustice for centuries and we are condemned to continue facing it for centuries to come. No one listens to us. Their people [Jats] are everywhere. We know our people have been killed, our women abused, but we can't speak because we have to live in this village..."

Translated from the Hindi by Supriya Sharma.

The author is an activist with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan and works among Dalit, adivasi and nomadic communities.