Few residents of a temporary camp set up on farmland on the outskirts of Hisar town in Haryana can understand what the oldest person among them mumbles. But on Thursday afternoon, Subeh Singh, 90, who sat on a cot outside his makeshift home, wearing several layers of warm clothing and a woollen cap, could be heard loud and clear: “We shall never return.”

The camp, at one end of Hisar’s Camry Road, is inhabited by 120 families of the Balmiki caste, considered to be among the lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy.

In April 2010, these families fled their village, Mirchpur, around 70 km away from Hisar, after a mob of nearly 1,000 people from the village’s dominant Jat community burnt 18 homes in the Balmiki colony following a dispute among few men from both communities. Singh’s younger brother Tara Chand, and his teenage daughter, Suman, who suffered from polio and could not walk without aid, were burnt to death in that incident.

“The preparations were on for our eldest granddaughter’s marriage when the incident happened,” recalled Krishna Devi, 85, Singh’s wife. “They [people from the Jat community] just came inside our house with kerosene and petrol and set everything on fire. We had to run for our lives. The marriage finally happened nearly a year after we shifted to the camp.”

In 2011, a Delhi court convicted 15 of the 84 accused in the case.

The displaced families in Hisar never returned to their village despite repeated attempts in the past seven years to convince them to do so, both by their relatives – some of whom still live there – and the state government, which rebuilt the 18 houses that were set on fire.

An incident on Monday has ended any likelihood of that ever happening.

Inter-caste clash

On Monday, nine Dalit youths, aged between 14 and 25, were severely injured after a fight broke out between a group of Dalits and a group of upper-caste men in Mirchpur.

According to the villagers, the incident took place at a local playground where a cycle-stunt competition was being organised. It started with an argument over a group of youths from the upper caste allegedly passing casteist remarks against one of the participants, Shiv Kumar, 18, a district-level athlete.

The argument deteriorated into a full-blown assault within minutes, after several men from the upper castes joined in and started physically assaulting Kumar. When Kumar’s friends and cousins tried to intervene, they were thrashed too. The situation was only brought under control when a posse of police personnel arrived at the spot.

The oldest resident of the Hisar camp, Subeh Singh, 90, left home with his family after the 2010 violence in Mirchpur. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).

A case of rioting, unlawful assembly, criminal assault under sections of the Indian Penal Code and provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act has been registered. The accused have been identified, but no arrests were made till Thursday. The police said that the accused men belonged to several upper caste communities, including Jats.

The clash took place just a month after the state government withdrew the additional security cover – provided by police and paramilitary troops – that had been deployed in Mirchpur after the 2010 attack.

On Tuesday, the 40-odd Dalit families still living in Mirchpur left their homes temporarily, which compelled the senior district and police officials to intervene.

An abandoned home in Mirchpur's Balmiki colony. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).

Pitiful living in Hisar

The residents at the Hisar camp came to know about the clash when one of the villagers arrived there on Tuesday.

The displaced community is quite in a fix – while they feel returning to Mirchpur is no longer an option, life in the camp is equally difficult. The families in the camp live inside tents that barely can accommodate a cot, a few utensils and closets that they have purchased in the past six years. The families usually share cooking space. Two or three families use one earthen stove outdoors, with others using kerosene stoves.

The government sends the camp’s residents a tanker of water every day but there is no permanent toilet – defecation happens mostly in the open and there are temporary arrangements for bathing.

The men work as daily wage labourers, and offer their services at Hisar’s labour chowks.

“For how long are we supposed to live this way,” asked Mela Devi, 75, a resident of the camp. Devi and her husband Bhisma, 80, had suffered severe burn injuries when their house was set afire and their livestock stolen in the 2010 incident.

“When our relatives in Mirchpur try to convince us to return home, we ask them to come here instead,” she said. “Now it seems like we were right. We live in uninhabitable conditions, but at least there is no threat to our lives here.”

Plastic tents in the Hisar camp. (Photo: Abhishek Dey).

On Thursday, in Mirchpur, nearly 100 policemen patrolled the lanes of Balmiki colony. With over 100 unoccupied houses, the colony looks desolate. Most of the police teams stationed themselves at the abandoned houses. A few policemen were entrusted with taking down details of outsiders – including journalists – coming to meet Dalit families after Monday’s incident.

This reporter was grilled by a policeman who asked for details like name, address, telephone number, and name of publication, as well as how much he knew about Monday’s clash.

Before the 2010 attack, as many as 250 Dalit families lived in this colony. Now only around 40 are left. While most of the others have settled at the Hisar camp, some left for Jind, Adampur, Barwala, Fatehabad in Haryana, and Delhi. Most of them also work as daily wage labourers.

Uninhabited since 2010. This is the house of Tara Chand, who along with his disabled daughter, was killed in the 2010 violence. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).

Living in fear

“These 40 families will also not live here anymore if the situation remains like this,” said Prem Prakash Chauhan, 65, who is related to one of the injured youths. “This is not the first such incident post-2010. Around two months ago, two senior residents of the Balmiki colony were thrashed by Jat youths at the village temple. Many such incidents happen but they do not materialise into police cases as they are settled among the communities.”

Chauhan added that the reasons cited as triggers for such inter-caste violence are just excuses. For instance, in 2010, it was a Dalit man’s dog that had barked at a group of upper caste men, while this time it is a sports contest, he said.

A deserted lane in Mirchpur's Balmiki colony. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).

According to Ved Pal Singh Tanwar, a Dalit activist in Haryana, who owns the four-acre plot in Hisar where the displaced families have settled, the state should have provided them with an alternate resettlement and rehabilitation facility by now.

In 2013, the Supreme Court asked if these families could be be brought back to Mirchpur. In a report submitted to the Supreme Court that year, a joint inspection team led by the chairman of the district legal services cell and an assistant professor of Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences had recommended that the Balmikis of Mirchpur be immediately resettled at a safe place, and rehabilitated.

It had also asked the state to provide the displaced families with education facilities for their children, adequate healthcare facilities, and help to enable them to obtain official documents like Below Poverty Line cards, ration cards and voters cards. It also recommended psychological trauma counselling for them.

Tanwar said that though the state government has made several attempts to convince the families to return, they are reluctant to do so because of the fear of being attacked again. Monday’s assault has confirmed those fears.

“There is no chance of us ever returning home after what happened on Monday,” said Krishna Devi.