BHAGANA, India — On March 23, M., a 13-year-old girl in this Haryana village, said that she performed a nightly ritual with three of her friends. She joined them outside their neighboring houses and walked to the middle of the harvest-ready wheat fields belonging to the majority Jat community, where the girls relieved themselves.
The girls are Dalits — known as untouchables — and their families lacked basic amenities, including toilets. They went into the fields every night in a group for safety, but on that night in March, their numbers didn’t help them — they say they were attacked by a group of higher-caste Jat men.
M. said she and the other three girls, one was 16 and two were 17, had handkerchiefs with a strong-smelling chemical placed over their mouths, and that they then passed out. The girls woke up on a train platform in Bhathinda, a town in Punjab, in another state, 90 miles from Bhagana. Their clothes were torn, their bodies bruised, she said.
The girls, who may have been sedated, told authorities that they had been raped.
M., who as an alleged rape victim cannot be identified under Indian law, asked train passengers how she got there. They answered in Punjabi, a language she does not understand.
“The stares of the people brought my attention to the torn clothes,” she said in early May at Jantar Mantar, a protest venue in Delhi where she and her friends, as well as other members of the Dalit community, sat in protest of the treatment of Dalits in Bhagana.
The four girls’ accusation of rape has only added to long-simmering tensions between Dalits, the lowest of low castes, and Jats, a higher caste of largely land-owning neighbors.
The events that led up to the attacks on the girls in Bhagana go back to 2012, when the elected village council was granted a plot of land to divide among the community free of cost. According to Dalits in the village, the khap panchayat — an unelected council led by Jat village elders — decided to divvy up the free land among Jats only, and charge Dalits 1,000 rupees, or roughly $17, for a plot, a prohibitive expense for a day tiller.
According to a report on the hostilities between Dalits and Jats in Bhagana, published in September 2012 by two civil liberties organizations, one Jat landowner denied that the Dalits had been asked to pay any money for the land, and added that the Dalits, eager to own land, collected the money on their own to clear and level the land – all of which the Dalits deny.
Members of the Dalit community complained to the district commissioner and the police, but little action was taken. In March 2012, some of the Dalits in Bhagana protested. In response, an all-male village council announced a bandi, or boycott, of the Dalits, according to the Dalit protesters in Jantar Mantar and other Dalits living in the village.
The boycott included a ban on the use of most common resources in the village, including wells, barbers, local transport, grocery shops, access to cattle feed, access to roads passing through the Jat areas and employment in the agricultural fields.
Dharamveer, 40, a Dalit laborer, said 137 Dalit families moved into the mini secretariat in Hisar town, several miles away, on May 21, 2012, to demand action from the authorities.
Afterward, hostility against the Dalits remaining in Bhagana increased. Many of the Dalits who remained were those employed under the practice of seeri, a contract where Dalits work on Jat fields for meager wages. Because the contract is renewed annually, it bypasses a land reform act passed in 1953 that grants ownership rights to tillers who have worked 12 consecutive years.
As Dalits in the village have slowly gained access to education and jobs through a government program called the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which provides a minimum of 100 days of employment to daily wage laborers, they have increasingly abandoned seeri, adding to tensions in the village.
The tensions manifested themselves through Dalit women remaining in Bhagana. Many girls were harassed at school and chose to stay home, including three of those who reported they had been raped in March.
On a visit to the village earlier this month, the rancor between the two communities was apparent.
“They are namak haraams,”said Kundan Panghal, a Jat farmer, using a term that in Hindi means people who cheat their bosses. And Dalits now had to go to Hisar for basic groceries.
On March 25, the police registered an initial criminal complaint against five men in the girls’ rape cases. Medical tests confirmed the four had been raped, according to documents that M. provided.
The five suspects were arrested on March 29. In an interview, Rakesh Panghal, the uncle of two of the men, denied that the girls had been raped.
“These girls are known to have multiple love affairs,” he said. “How can they be trusted?”
Mr. Panghal, who is head of the village council, denied that the common land was allocated illegally and that the Jats were exercising a social boycott of the Dalits. “They have left their houses on their own to extract unjustified compensation from the government,” he said.
Kaviraj, the superintendent of police in Hisar district, who goes by one name, said the police were following legal proceedings and that he could not comment on either the rape cases or the dispute over the land allocation.
The issue of the land dispute is due to be heard soon by the National Commission of Scheduled Castes. The Dalits are also demanding employment, legal access to land in Bhagana and monetary compensation for the rape survivors from the state government.
The Bhagana police have 90 days within the initial report to charge the five suspects.
Meanwhile, some of the girls and their families continue to protest in Jantar Mantar in Delhi. Some returned to Hisar on Wednesday for a street protest to put pressure on the local government to file rape charges and register a complaint in the land allocation case. On Wednesday, the parents of the 16-year-old victim, S., were arrested with several others in Hisar for their protests against the state government.
Earlier in May, during the sit-in protest in Delhi, S. seemed full of purpose as she managed journalists and sifted through official documents.
“If the government has turned deaf, we will get them to hear,” she said.
Published by India Ink, The Newyork Times on May 29, 2014