Just four day after the celebrations of 68th Independence day, on 19th of August 2014, all 42 houses in the Banjara Basti of Dungari in Dhikola Panchayat of Bhilwada district, Rajasthan were burnt and looted of their every belonging by a mob of about 2500. Situated about 2 kilometres away from the main village of Dhikola, Banjaras settled in this basti about 40 years ago; breaking away from their traditionally nomadic nature. 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. Mostly farmers, buffalo traders and labourers, a majority of the Banjara’s of Dungari had gone on their annual pilgrimage to the Ramdev temple in Jaisalmer district, leaving their houses relatively unguarded at the time.
According to eyewitnesses, the mob from Dhikola and some surrounding villages came down the main highway towards Dungari in the morning, in full view of all. The rioters came armed with guns, iron rods, sticks and swords; many on foot and some on tractors and motorcycles.
There is a police chowki between Dhikola and Dungari, on the main road. According to the Banjara’s themselves; it seems the police had prior information about what was planned, as not only did they warn them to flee that morning, they also aided the evacuation of most Banjara’s. Maintaining they would be unable to stop the mob; and could only help them in fleeing, the police allegedly stood by throughout the mob’s activities, from 8.30 AM to about 4 PM.
Each house was destroyed with the same precision and hatred: The doors of the houses broken down; everything inside-beds, utensils, switch boards- thrashed till broken; the jewellery and money boxes forced open and looted, then smashed and disfigured; and finally the house sprayed with kerosene and set alight.
“One of the tractors which the mob had brought along was fitted with a tank full of kerosene oil, and the spraying machine normally used to spray pesticide in farms was used to spray kerosene on the houses. Many among the thousands present in the mob were involved in the ruination, while many like the police; were looking on.” An eyewitness recounted.
The scene I saw in Dungari when I visited it on 31st August was horrifying. The people were frightened, irritated and crestfallen. Many were still wearing the same clothes they had been on 19th, as they had none others left. Small tents were still around, some houses were still rubble; while some were being re-constructed with the help of relatives and friends of the Banjara’s, who had come in the days following the devastation.
In front of each house was a heap of all the disfigured, burnt and broken items which were of no use now. 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…; Over and over again.
Each family made sure they took me to their house to show me how much of theirs had been destroyed, and have me photograph it. Even 12 days since, it seemed the village had not got much attention. Each house was the same from inside- charred entirely black. The cots, trunks, utensils, grain containers, had all been broken with rods; before they were burnt along with the house.
The mob had vandalized the few tube wells the basti had had- the pipes leading to them hacked, motors broken and thrown, rocks dropped into the bore to block water. Nothing in the village was of use. Not a cup, not grain, not a well.
Suresh Banjara, a spirited boy of 8, had been in the fields that morning and hadn’t been able to flee with his parents. When he returned, seeing the thousands of people around and the mob burning houses; he decided to save his family’s money and jewellery- he ran into his house and came out with the jewellery box. Seeing this, some members of the mob hit him with sticks on his hands and feet, and took the box from him. His dog Sheru stayed by his side and attacked whoever came too close. Suresh tried to go back to his house a second time to save some other valuable items. He even told many of the mob members whom he recognised, that he had seen them and would tell their names to his father. Following this, the mob locked him up inside his house, sprayed kerosene and put the house on fire. It was only on hearing his screams that 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 to his own house. Another small boy, Batul Banjara was also saved in a similar manner.
The children present in the primary school located in the village were saved by the actions 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 when it reached the school to assault the children. The teachers and the children were beaten up severely, but their actions helped in saving many lives, and the school building was not burnt. The strength of these individuals – in stark contrast to the impassivity the administration displayed.
Kamla, 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 whole scene 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 mood of the mob can be understood by the fact that after setting the houses afire; the mob members roasted some chickens reared by Banjara’s on the same fire, and ate them sitting there.
The mob stopped three fire brigades which tried to come in to put out the fire, and blocked those from nearby villages who wanted to help the Banjaras. It was only after the Tehsildar and District Collector reached in the afternoon that the ruination reduced.
There doesn’t seem to be any clear or immediate reason to have provoked this act of violence. It is being said that a recent land conflict could have been one reason. Opposite the Banjara basti, some land which belongs to the electricity board is leased out for grazing to one person every year. This year, a Banjara got the contract instead of an influential man from Dhikola, who had had it in previous years, and thus a fight had ensued.
However, many people around are of the opinion that a politically influential man from Dhikola had wanted the Banjara’s to move from the basti since long, to allow the expansion of his factory, which is right next to it. Also, the construction of a new highway near the basti had caused the demand of the land to increase as well, and influential men in Dhikola had allegedly been wanting to occupy the land themselves and sell it to developers.
In a meeting held on 18th evening in Dhikola wherein the riot was allegedly planned, it was announced that any family not wanting to participate would need to pay Rs. 11, 000 as a fine. Only two families reportedly paid and thus, many who couldn’t were forced into the violence.
Although the Banjara community knew that people in Dhikola had being eyeing their land, they had no idea that something on this scale could happen, as no prior threats had ever been made.
“We didn’t think they were coming to burn down our houses. Had we known we wouldn’t have just locked our houses and left, but taken our valuables along. The Police told us to flee, but how could we have known this is what was planned?” said Mohan Banjara.
The people were terrified by what had happened, and the brutality with which it was done. “Look at the manner in which it has all been done. Had we not gotten away, they would certainly have burnt us as well” said Anichi, Suresh’s mother, who returned to the village before the rest to find her son.
Not in the habit of keeping cash in a bank or on them, but rather of buying gold and silver with any dispensable cash; the losses have been tremendous. Savings in jewellery of many generations, accumulated over decades and decades, has all been looted.
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, 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 in which they informed her of the devastation and demanded help. It was at her behest that the administrative machinery stirred into taking action. Though, in no way compensating for the loss and violation which the people have faced, it is with this money that they have begun rebuilding their houses.
This attention given by the Chief Minister has also resulted in BPL status being promised to all households, who literally have nothing now. The process of acquiring patta’s has also been set into motion.
FIRs have been filed by each household, and 43 people have been arrested so far. Their bail petitions have been refused in the lower court; and the decision of Jodhpur High Court is awaited. However, it appears that the chief instigators are still at large.
The Banjara people are not hopeful of any of their belongings being returned, and are certain a political hand was involved.
“Such a big thing has taken place in his constituency, and the MLA hasn’t even visited us. It is clear he was party to the affairs.” Sardar Banjara said.
There is an eerie silence about the whole issue in the region, and no one from any other community has visited the Banjara’s to express their concern. The police are a continuous presence now; and will be deployed in Dungari for the coming 3 to 4 months.
On our way out, we drove through Dhikola. The entire village was deserted. Most people, terrified by the arrests and attention, have 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 so much support from outside.
On 31st August, a meeting of Banjara’s gathered from different parts of India in Dungari was held in solidarity. The demands from the meeting were clear: Punishment for the guilty, Rs. 10 Lakh compensation to each family, continuance of police surveillance for the time to come, provision of BPL status to all, re-development of the village as a model village and provision of bank loans to the families at simple interest to enable them to get back on their feet.
Yet, the crushing influence of the intolerant feudal system on the fate of this finally prospering marginalized community, profiteering from the rising land prices, and the ambivalent police response remain to be addressed.