Violence on video is India’s new pastime. Every day, images of public assault and in some cases even lynchings flit by on phone screens. On June 24, a short recording of two men brutally beating a young man went viral on social media. Faced up against the wall in a small room, his trousers down, the man is thrashed with a stick on his buttocks as he cries out in pain, begging for the assault to stop.

The attackers, Mohit Kadyan and Jitendra Kadyan, are Jats from Bajana Kalan, a village around two hours north of Delhi in Haryana. Ankit, the young man who was beaten, is a Dalit from the Balmiki caste, also from the same village. The immediate reason for the assault can be gauged from the angry comments in the video: the Jat men wanted the Dalit to work in their fields and bathe their buffaloes.

While forced labour based on caste might have been common in this part of Haryana once, this is hardly the case now. This incident, then, is more complex than that. At one point, the beating stops and one assaulter ask: “Why did you blacklist my number?” Strangely, Mohit and Jitendra were feeling slighted that Ankit wasn’t taking their calls. travelled to Bajana Kalan and found that behind this gory video lay a tale of complex social change. Situated in a highly industrialised area, the Dalits of Bajana Kalan are now largely independent of the economic control of the village’s land-owning Jats. However, social change has been slow to catch up, leading to Jats to still feel a sense of caste-control over the Dalits, which they now have limited scope to enforce.

A tractor in Bajana Kalan with a message of caste pride in the Haryanvi language: "One day this Jat will buy even you". Photo Credit: Shoaib Daniyal

‘They abused me using my caste’

Still in shock, Ankit speaks slowly and needs encouragement from his father to tell his story. “Mohit asked me to come with him,” said Ankit describing events which took place on June 2. “And then he took me to a small room in the middle of the fields and beat me.”

Mohit and Jitendra wanted Ankit to leave his current job and work for them. “They asked me to sell alcohol,” said Ankit. Ankit’s refusal to leave his job at a factory nearby making mobile phone screen protectors enraged them. The fact that he blocked their number on his phone even more so.

This anger at their command being ignored soon found vent in caste – the basic social principle that underpins Haryanvi society. “They abused me using my caste,” said Ankit repeating caste abuses that cannot be published here. He was also forced to dance. It was clear that the assault was meant to humiliate Ankit.

When Ankit came back from the assault, he did not tell anyone what had happened. Mohit and Jitendra, on the other hand, shared the video of the incident. “They released the video to insult me,” claimed Ankit. “They wanted to scare other Harijans [Dalits].”

In the village, there is widespread condemnation of the assault, even in the Jat quarters. “What he did was wrong, there is no doubt about that,” said Sunil Kadyan, a Jat farmer in Bajana Kalan. Such violence was rare in the village, said residents.

Ankit, the victim of the June 2 assault in Bajana Kalan. Photo Credit: Shoaib Daniyal

Changing Haryana

Caste is often seen as an unchanging system. However, the reality is more complex. In Haryana, like in most other parts of India, till the Green Revolution in the 1960s, caste was based on a patron-client relationship where lower castes offered services to the dominant land-owning caste, which in Haryana are mostly Jats.

However, increasing urbanisation and the mechanisation of agriculture started to weaken this system. “As a result of these changes, backward castes were no longer obliged to serve,” explained Ranbir Singh, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences in New Delhi. “They took up jobs outside the patron-client system. Some started shops, some migrated to the cities.”

To this mix was added the state’s rapid industrialisation after liberal reforms in the 1990s. Haryana has one of the highest per capita income figures of any state – a figure that is nearly double that of the India’s per capita income and fifth-largest of any state or union territory.

Bajana Kalan is located in one of the state’s industrial belts, close to the town of Sonipat. Just a half hour from the village is Barhi, a planned industrial area established in 1999, with more than 300 units in production. A number of Dalits from Bajana are now employed here in low-skilled jobs.

Leaving the village

Pardeep Kumar, 23, works in Barhi, cutting cloth for shoes that are then sent to Delhi. “No Dalit now works in the fields anymore,” he said. “It used to happen in earlier generations, but now we mostly do jobs and fill our stomachs.”

In Barhi, the labour mix is drawn both from surrounding villages as well as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Narayan comes in to the industrial estate from Panchi Jatan, a village around 20 kilometres away. A Dalit, he prefers to work at Barhi, where he performs heavy physical labour such as loading lorries rather than in his own village as a farmhand. “We get more money and more ijjat [respect],” said Narayan. “Now our women do some work in the fields and there are also Biharis. But the men go out of the village to work.”

Sanjay Bankhar apprenticed as a boy with a person who operated farm machinery and soon graduated to driving a JCB excavator. He belongs to the Kashyap caste, a community with little power slotted under the Other Backward Classes category. “I will never go back to working in my village,” said Bankhar. “This work is very hard and I have to stay away from my family. But I get paid far more than my relatives, who are working in the fields.”

Sanjay Bankhar belongs to a relatively powerless OBC caste and prefers to not work in his village. Photo Credit: Shoaib Daniyal

Surinder Jodhka, a professor of sociology at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, studied two villages in Haryana in 1980s. Twenty years later, he went back to the same villages and found Dalits and other lower castes had withdrawn from farm labour, which in turn had changed how caste worked in rural Haryana:

“As I had earlier observed in Punjab villages, the Dalits did not wish to work on land with cultivating farmers primarily for social and political reasons. Working with farmers implied accepting their domination and power. By refusing to work on land, Dalits expressed their dissent against the traditional structure of patron-client ties. Even if it meant cycling to town for casual labour for no higher a wage or secure income, a Dalit did not like working on land.”

This has sparked resentment among the Jats. In Bajana, Jat cultivators were angry with rising labour costs and the lack of farm labour. “The dihari [daily labour rate] is now Rs 500. Can that be sustained?” asked Dharampal Kadyan. “It is impossible to be a farmer in Haryana now.”

A Jat from Bajana Kalan, Dharampal Kadyan complains of the rising rates for farm labour. Photo Credit: Shoaib Daniyal

Caste identity sustains

While Haryana’s industrialisation has clearly had an impact on its society, however, there are also limits to what it has achieved. In spite of the state’s wealth, many of its human development indicators lag those in much poorer states. Life expectancy for Haryanvis ranks twelfth amongst other states in the Indian Union. Infant mortality, the number of deaths per 1,000 live births of children under one year of age, is greater in Haryana than in much poorer Jharkhand.

“There is a paradox in Haryana,” said Kushal Pal, a political scientist at Dyal Singh College in Karnal. “High economic development exists alongside regressive social practices and poor human development.”

Pal explains blames the state’s social backwardness on the strength of caste in Haryanvi society. “Haryana is basically a caste-driven society,” he said. “There is very little communal politics here since there are very few Muslims and the state has no independent cultural identity of its own since Haryanvi is not a recognised language. As a result, caste becomes extremely important.”

He explained: “Modernisation, urbanisation and industrialisation may have caused great changes in the patron-client system of rural Haryana but it has not weakened caste identity per se.” This is, in fact, true all across India. Research involving inter-caste marriages has shown that caste identity remains robust, no matter factors such as urbanisation or industrialisation.

The end result: Dalits might rarely work in Jat fields anymore but yet Jats could chafe at a Dalit refusing to work for them. So much so that this could even lead to a brutal, viral assault.

Also read: How same-caste marriages persisted for thousands of years in India – and are still going strong