The journey of the Karwan e Mohabbat into Rajasthan on September 15 was overcast by the violent opposition to our resolve to place flowers on the dusty kerb of the highway in Behror where dairy farmer Pehlu Khan was lynched by a vigilante mob in April. I have already recounted this story earlier, and will not repeat it.

But I am still bemused by the stir created by two fistfuls of marigold flowers. The determined opposition by stone-throwing mobs to my tribute to a man felled by hate-driven violence underlined a profound absence of remorse, and a sustained communal hatred. I recall the heated argument I had with a police officer as I sat on a dharna when the police blocked my path to the site where Pehlu Khan had been killed. I told him that if the police chose, they could have easily prevented the gathering of a hundred men armed with stones. He hotly replied, “They have a constitutional right to protest.” I replied that I was not sure they had the right to protest with stones, but if they did, surely I had the right to protest with flowers.

And flowers were what we were greeted with in Ajmer, on our second day in Rajasthan. As we marched for peace and love to the historical Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti dargah, hundreds of ordinary people pelted us with rose petals.

We then drove to Dangawas village in Nagaur district for a sombre journey to the place where in May, five Dalits and one other man were brutally killed in an attack by the Jat landlords of their village.

More than 60 years earlier, in 1954, a Dalit family had mortgaged its land to a Jat landlord against a loan of Rs 1,500. But even after the loan was repaid, the landlord did not allow them to reoccupy their land. The Dalit family fought and finally won a long and expensive title battle for the land in the courts, but even then the Jat landlord’s family refused to restore the land to them. The Dalit family approached the village panchayat, which also refused to order the Jat family to hand over possession of the land. The Dalit family finally occupied the land, built a house on it, and began to cultivate the fields. They were to live there for only 32 days.

To teach them a lesson, on May 14, a mob of Jat men, armed with stones, daggers and firearms, reached the fields, thrashed the Dalit men and ran them over with their tractors. We met the families of the bereaved men who described the horror of that morning. Even women were dragged, stripped, and brutally molested.

Some women ran for safety to the roof of their house, but their attackers drove their tractors into the house, and its roof came crashing down. Three Dalit men died on the spot, and two more in hospital. The attackers mutilated the bodies of the men who died in the fields, gouging out their eyes and chopping off their legs. Many more Dalits – men and women – were admitted in hospital with serious wounds from daggers, lashings and molestation, but the angry Jats even broke into the hospital.

The role of the police followed a standard pattern. They switched off their mobile phones and did not come to the site for a full two hours. They registered murder charges in connection with the death of a sixth man and also claimed that the slaughter was not a Dalit atrocity but just a land dispute.

(Photo credit: Nikhil Roshan).

What exactly happened?

The circumstances in which the sixth man was killed remain hotly disputed. His name was Ram Pal Goswami, and he was neither a Dalit nor a Jat. According to the Jats – a version supported by the police – it was the Dalits who started the carnage by firing unprovoked at a crowd of Jats, killing Goswami. This version goes on to say that the killing enraged the Jats, which is why they crushed the Dalit men under their tractors.

However, the Dalits claim that Goswami was a bystander and that the Jats shot at one of the Dalit men but the bullet hit Goswami by mistake. They argue that in the unequal social order of the village, Dalits do not, and cannot own firearms. And if they did, why are there no casualties among the Jat attackers? The police registered charges of murder against many Dalit men.

But the local Dalit community was not cowed down. Organisations from across Rajasthan rose in solidarity with them. After a long struggle, the case was transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation, which absolved the Dalit victims from any criminal charges. However, they refused to acknowledge the role of the police in facilitating the massacre. The upper caste villagers are united in boycotting the Dalit families, and therefore they have no work. Even some members of their own Dalit caste, other Dalits and Muslims of the village, are wary in supporting them. But we found their spirit unbroken, unwilling to be cowed down by caste hatred and violence. It was very brave of them to invite the Karwan to their village and to speak of what they had suffered in a public meeting. Even women spoke out fiercely about their suffering.

Violence against women

In the evening, in Kekri village of Bhilwada, we encountered a very different kind of hate-driven violence. This was the unspeakably cruel killing of a woman accused of being a witch or daayan. It all started when the woman’s drunkard husband died. Even as the family was mourning his death, his elder brother also died. During the prayers after their ashes had been immersed, the woman’s husband’s 25-year-old niece and another relative of the same age went into a trance, saying that they were possessed by the deity Bheruji.

In this trance, they said that the widowed woman was a witch. To exorcise her, they demanded that she be forced to eat human excreta, hot embers be placed on her feet, palms and eyes, and she should be stripped and forced to run outside the house. Even as the woman screamed in pain, members of the family held her down and subjected her to all these tortures. Her face was pushed into a tray of burning embers. Her terrified teenaged son could not bear to see his mother naked, and locked himself in a room. No neighbour intervened. The woman died the next night.

The villagers hurriedly cremated her early the next morning before the police could be informed. The village panchayat met and imposed a small fine of Rs 2,500 on her killers, and asked them to take a bath at the Pushkar lake, which Hindus consider to be sacred. It then closed the matter. The matter would have rested except for the intervention of a courageous relative. After he learned of the horrific murder, he braved the anger and ostracism of the family and complained to the police. They sat on the complaint for five days, but after a local agitation by some women’s groups, they finally registered a murder case 10 days later. The woman’s killers are behind bars today, but unrepentant.

We spoke to her teenaged son who told us about how his mother was killed. He was clearly still intensely traumatised.

We were reminded that the targets of hate violence today are not just religious minorities and Dalits. They also include women, especially single and low-caste women. The incredible cruelty in the way she was killed – by irrationalism and misogyny – left us all shaken.

This is the eighth article in a series on Karwan e Mohabbat, a civil society initiative to reach out to the victims of communal, caste and gender violence across India.