By Kabir Sharma:Â
On 15 September 2014, a day before the Rajasthan poll results were announced, about a thousand Banjaras from 6 districts of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh came together to demand justice for the victimized Banjara community of Dungari Basti at a protest organized by the Banjara Sangharsh Samiti at the Collector’s office in Bhilwada. “We are demanding the prosecution of the still at large main conspirators, provision of a relief package of Rs. 10 Lakh and return of the stolen jewellery to each family, as well as hastening the allocation process of the promised BPL cards and pattas. We will not stop till the people get justice” said Paras Banjara. He is the president of the Samiti that was formed in the wake of events of 19th august, when all 42 houses in the Banjara Basti of Dungari in Dhikola Panchayat of Bhilwada district, Rajasthan were burnt and looted of all valuables by a mob of about 2500 people.
About 2 kilometres away from the main village of Dhikola, the Banjara community settled in Dungari about 40 years ago. Now working largely as farmers, buffalo traders and labourers, they broke away from a traditionally nomadic nature to live more stable lives. Classified as a De-Notified Criminal Tribe, a hangover of the Criminal Tribe status imposed on them by the British, they remain a heavily stigmatized and oppressed community.
What I saw when I visited Dungari on 31st August was horrifying. All 42 houses had been burnt to rubble. Everything from the houses had been looted, and what was not, had been broken. The people were frightened, angry and in disbelief. Many were still wearing the same clothes they had been on the 19th, as they had none others left. In the habit of buying gold and silver with dispensable cash, and not keeping money in a bank or on them; the Banjaras had lost all they had- savings in the form jewellery carried over many generations, accumulated over decades and decades.
Each family took me to their house to show me how much had been destroyed, and have me photograph it. Even 12 days on, it seemed the village had not got much attention.
All houses had been destroyed with the same precision and hatred. The door broken down, jewellery boxes looted, cots, trunks, utensils, switch boards- smashed ruthlessly with rods; and finally the house sprayed with kerosene and set alight.
What remained was piled outside – Charred motorcycles, burnt grain, broken pots, plates and glasses, charred beds, burnt mattresses and blankets; smashed trunks, burnt bamboo, burnt bricks, disfigured grain canisters, broken jewellery boxes…
The mob had even vandalized the few tube wells the basti had- the pipes leading to them hacked, motors broken and thrown, rocks dropped into the bore to block water. Nothing left in the village had any value or use.
Not grain, not a cloth, not a cup, not a well.
According to eyewitnesses, the mob came from Dhikola, down the main highway towards Dungari in the morning, in full view of all. The rioters were armed with guns, iron rods, sticks and swords; many on foot and some on tractors and motorcycles. This was a strategic time to attack, as a majority of the Banjaras had gone on their annual pilgrimage to the Ramdev temple in Jaisalmer district, leaving their houses unguarded.
At a meeting in Dhikola on the eve of the attack, it was allegedly announced that any household not wanting to participate in the destruction would need to pay Rs. 11, 000 as a fine. Only two families had the money and paid, and thus many people in the mob were there without choice.
A police chowki is located right on the main road between Dungari and Dhikola. According to the Banjaras themselves; the police had prior information about what was planned. They warned them to flee that morning, and also aided in their evacuation- maintaining they would be unable to stop the mob; and could only help them flee. The police allegedly stood by throughout the mob’s activities, from 8.30 AM to about 4 PM.
Kamli, a woman of about 28 was unable to flee, as she had an eight month old child with her; and her husband had gone on the pilgrimage. She described the riot to me- of the men climbing on her house; clubbing on the roof and walls with rods; breaking down her door and the locks of all her trunks; stealing the money and jewels before her eyes; and finally burning her house and motorcycle. They threatened her that if she protested, they would burn her as well, along with her two children.
“The mob had fit one tractor with a tank of kerosene oil, and the spraying machine normally used to spray pesticide in farms was used to spray kerosene on the houses.” An eyewitness recounted.
Three fire brigades which tried to come in to put out the fire were blocked by the mob, and so were people from nearby villages wanting to help the Banjaras. It was only after the Tehsildar and District Collector reached in the afternoon that some attempt was made to douse the fire.
The mood of the violence can be understood by the fact that after setting the houses afire, the mob members roasted chickens reared by the Banjaras on the same fire, and ate them.
Suresh Banjara, a spirited boy of 8, had been in the fields that morning and was unable to flee with his parents. When he returned, seeing the thousands of people around and the mob burning houses, he ran into his house to save his family’s money and jewellery. On seeing him running away with the box- the rioters hit him with sticks on his hands and feet, and snatched it from him. His dog Sheru protected him and attacked whoever came too close. When Suresh tried to save some other things, the mob locked him up inside his house, sprayed kerosene and put the house on fire. On hearing his screams some present people broke down the door and saved him. A man from Dhikola itself, who knew Suresh, took the courageous step of taking him away. A six year old boy, Batul Banjara, was also saved like this.
The children present in the primary school located in the village were saved by the courage of their school teachers- two women of a different caste who belong to another village. Having taken full responsibility of the children that morning, they hadn’t even allowed parents to take their children with them while fleeing. They both fought fiercely with the mob and saved the children from assault, getting injured themselves.
The strength of these individuals was in stark contrast to the impassivity the administration displayed.
The reasons for an attack of this scale are not understood properly. The construction of a new highway near the basti had caused the demand of the land to increase, and powerful men in Dhikola had allegedly wanted to occupy the land themselves and sell it to developers.
Further, opposite the Banjara basti some land belonging to the electricity board is given on lease for grazing to someone every year. This year, a Banjara had got the contract instead of a politically influential man from Dhikola, who had had it in all previous years. A major upset to the social status quo, a fight had ensued.
Many are of the opinion that since the same man had wanted the Banjara’s to move from the basti to allow the expansion of his factory, he had used this to instigate the mob.
“Such a criminal incident has taken place in his constituency, and neither the MLA nor the MP has even visited us. It is clear that they were party to it.” Sardar Banjara said.
It is ironic that at the time of the attack, an elaborate ‘Aapki Sarkaar Aapke Dwaar’ program-in which representatives from various ministries were visiting panchayat’s to address problems-was in a nearby village.
In a similar incident just two days later on 21st August, 6 kilometres from Dungari, a small settlement of the Kalbeliya tribe-another nomadic community-was attacked by a mob. Individual families of Kalbeliyas being displaced is not unheard of in Rajasthan.
Till date, these attacks have not had the national media coverage they need.
“No prior threat had ever been made to us. We knew some people had been eyeing the land, but our relations were okay before this. The police told us to flee, so we just locked our houses and left. How could we have known something like this would happen?” asked Mohan Banjara.
“Look at the brutality. Had we been here, we would have been burnt as well. We are very scared now.” said Anichi, who returned to the village the first to find her son, Suresh Banjara.
Despite the District Collector and other officials having visited the village, the only relief that the families have received so far from the government has been a one-time grant of Rs. 50,000, and that too following the intervention of Mazdoor Kissan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). The Sangathan facilitated a meeting between the Banjara’s and the Chief Minister of Rajasthan. It was only at her behest that the administrative machinery stirred.
FIRs have been filed by each household, and 43 people have been arrested so far, though the chief instigators are still at large. Bail petitions have been refused in the lower court; and the decision of Jodhpur High Court is awaited. The police are a continuous presence now; and will be deployed in Dungari for the coming 3 to 4 months.
There is an eerie silence about the issue in the area, and no one from any other community has visited the Banjaras to express their concern. On our way out, we drove through Dhikola. The entire village was deserted. Most people, terrified by the arrests and attention, had run away for the time being.
It is clear that the masterminds of this attack never thought that the weak Banjara community would ever get support from anyone.
“Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic.” as Dr. B.R. Ambedkar has said.
The crushing influence of the intolerant feudal system on the fate of this finally prospering marginalized community, an emerging trend of displacing the weak to make profit from rising land prices, and the ambivalence of the police’s response are questions that arise and must be addressed.
Note: This is an updated version of a previously published report here.