“Jo kabhi nahin jaati, wo hai jaati”. That which cannot be cast away is caste, goes one snarky yet illuminating Hindi idiom. Caste underpins life in India and has done for thousands of years. Reporting in Hindaun, a town of about a lakh people in Rajasthan, brought home this fact to me rather starkly.

On April 4, my train trundled into Hindaun at noon. The railway station was deserted, parts of the structure charred black. For the past two days, the town had seen furious inter-caste rioting, after Dalits had staged protests across North India against an order of the Supreme Court which had diluted provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

The mobilisation on April 2 had taken place without the backing of a major political leader or organisation. Word had spread through WhatsApp. Even in Hindaun, which had almost no history of Dalit mobilisation, social media alone had done the trick: the crowd that turned up to march for Dalit rights was impressive. In fact, so impressive that it sparked violence, with Dalits and upper castes clashing.

Taxi driver

My first task, as I tried to report on the incident: find some transport to get me around the city. Not an easy task given that there was a curfew in place. A local journalist came to my help. He had an acquaintance who usually hired out his car. But there was another hurdle: because of the curfew, there was no one to drive it. In the end, convinced by the urgency of my situation, the taxi owner’s son, Raju Jain, decided to drive me around himself.

Raju took me around the upper caste neighbourhoods of the city. While the homes and shops were under lockdown, these areas had not seen much damage. However, rumours were spreading furiously: Dalit protestors had stopped a school bus and molested school girls, they were threatening to convert – en masse! – to Islam. I wrote these down, making a mental note to triangulate them with other sources in order to arrive at something close to what actually happened over the past couple of days.

Fear and loathing

I then asked Raju to take me to Hindaun’s Jatav Dalit neighbourhood. He flatly refused. “We cannot go. They would have been drinking all day, it is not safe,” Raju said with a certitude only stereotype can provide. Caste bias was strengthened by fear engendered as a result of the past two days of rioting: Raju was genuinely scared that either he, his car or both would be attacked once we entered the Dalit neighbourhood and they found out, as he put it, that he was “from general [caste]”.

It took me nearly a half hour to convince Raju that nothing of the sort will happen. For me, getting to the Dalit neighbourhood was critical. There lay the other side of my story. In the end, my belligerent pleading worked: Raju agreed to take me to the edge of the neighbourhood, strategically positioning his car so that he could swiftly retreat should the other side mount an attack.

The other side

There was, of course, no attack. I wish Raju had come with me as I spoke to the Dalits, though. The neighbourhood was petrified. The day after the April 2 bandh, upper castes had put on a retaliatory show of strength by mobilising a crowd. They had proceeded to torch the house of the sitting MLA of Hindaun, who belonged to the Bharatiya Janata Party. The fact that she was a member of the ruling party paled in front of her caste identity as a Dalit. Also gutted was the home of another Dalit leader and former Congress MLA, Bharosi Lal Jatav.

Other Dalits showed me bruised and battered bodies as they had been assaulted with lathis. Through the night, they had feared an attack of the neighbourhood itself, which thankfully never came.

Manoj Jatav, a municipal ward member, complained of caste bias in the local media driven by its own caste composition. “They are writing we are planning to convert to Islam,” he complained, rubbishing the rumour. “Reporters only go to the upper caste neighbourhoods and write up their stories. They simply don’t come here.”

The incendiary rumour of schoolgirls being molested turned out to be just that – an incendiary rumour. The local police confirmed nothing of the sort had happened.

The gap between what people thought had happened versus what had actually happened bought home the caste divide that runs through so much of India. “Each caste endeavours to segregate itself and to distinguish itself from other castes,” BR Ambedkar wrote in 1936. Hindaun in 2018 showed me how accurate his words still were – and given the gulf, would probably be for some time.

In this series, Scroll.in reporters look back at their experiences while reporting a significant story in 2018.

Read more in this series here.