Jaipur: On the afternoon of 17 February 2020, Amra Ram* and a friend had gone to get his motorbike serviced, at a showroom in Karnu village of Nagaur in central Rajasthan, from where he had bought the two-wheeler. The showroom owner, Hanuman Singh, asked him to pay two months’ pending installments on the bike, Rs 8,400. But Amra Ram didn’t have the money, and left after an argument.
Within minutes, he received a call from Singh, calling him back.
At the showroom, Singh, who belongs to an upper caste, and his staff members stood in a circle, Amra Ram recounted to Article 14.
The duo was beaten and abused with casteist slurs. The men forcibly removed Amra Ram’s pants and, while Singh’s alleged accomplices held him pinned to the ground, another inserted a screwdriver dipped in petrol into his rectum.
One staff member filmed the incident and shared a clip on a local WhatsApp group. In the clip, Amra Ram and his friends were seen begging for mercy as they were beaten.
“They made the video of the assault, circulated it deliberately and ruined our lives to keep our fear of them intact,” Amra Ram said.
At a hospital, the young man chose not to disclose to the doctor or other acquaintances what had transpired. He reluctantly approached the police, but police officers were initially unwilling to register a case, he said. “It was after the video went viral and pressure mounted that they registered a case,” he said.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi posted a tweet about the incident, after which chief minister Ashok Gehlot announced that “prompt action has been taken”.
Several atrocities against Dalits have been reported (here, here and here) across Rajasthan in regions where they are a minority, a trend that prompted the Rajasthan police—in November 2021, after a series of attacks (here and here) on Dalit bridegrooms—to issue a circular to police stations to provide security to such weddings and quickly begin invesstigations in case of attacks.
The Dalits or scheduled castes, a conglomeration of various lower castes, comprise 17.83% of Rajasthan’s population according to the 2011 Census, while the upper castes are fragmented, including Jats (12%), Gurjars and Rajputs (9% each), and Brahmins (7%).
Despite their sizable presence in the state, atrocities against Dalits increased exponentially, from 34.7% in 2017 to 55.6% in 2019, according to the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) annual statistical report on crime in the country. The report for 2020 showed Rajasthan has the 2nd highest crime rate, 57.4%, against scheduled castes.
While hate against Dalits was spread through text messages earlier, a new strategy adopted by the dominant castes over the past couple of years is the viral video. From filming sexual crimes against Dalit women to circulating clips of Dalit youngsters assaulted in public while they beg for help, these videos serve to send a message on power and caste hierarchies to the community, said activists and experts.
In an open letter to Gehlot on 13 November about the rise in cases of atrocities against Dalit communities, social organisations said the “poor, Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims are targeted by the dominant castes”.
Activist and lawyer Tarachand Verma, one of the signatories, said the government had “completely failed” in working on the root cause of caste violence in the state.
Article 14 sought comment from Rajasthan director general of police M L Lather and home secretary Abhay Kumar without success. Lather listened to a description of the story and a question and disconnected. Emails sent to Lather and Kumar on 26 November received no response.
The Trend Of The Hate Video
Barmer-based activist Suresh Jogesh said the spate of videos of attacks on Dalits also tend to share common forms of attack—with sticks and rods, making the victim drink urine, forcefully feeding a victim alcohol, for example. The assault is brutal as a message about their caste domination, said Jogesh. “The video itself is enough to shake an ordinary Dalit and instill fear in him.”
Dalit rights activist Bhanwar Meghwanshi said the videos were designed to send a strong message that Dalits must remain within set limits. Most victims are young, he said, “because the new generations are blurring the boundaries through education, raising their living standard, building good houses, wearing good clothes, attending social events where they weren’t allowed earlier.”
In Rajasthan, literacy rate among the scheduled castes rose by 7% in the span of a decade, from 52.2% in 2001 to 59.7% in 2011.
Speaking to Article 14, an upper caste man accused in such a case said: “We had to make a video because these dedh chamars should always remember what it means to cross a line.” He said they circulated it among local groups to convey their “superiority” to Dalits.
He is accused in a case registered in July 2021 in Sikar district in east Rajasthan, where a Dalit employee was beaten with sticks and stones for purchasing a new Royal Enfield motorcycle, considered to be a ride exclusively for “superior” castes.
The accused said WhatsApp was a simple medium to circulate the video on, without a caption as he cannot write. A large number of videos circulated have no text; those that do are often in broken Hindi.
After talking to dozens of victims, accused and activists, we identified a loose pattern in these videos.
Common phrases and terminology used to address members of lower castes include “saale dedh” (a slur used forSCs, especially Meghwals), dedho ke guru (to refer to Dr B R Ambedkar), “aukat dikha di'' (showed them their place), “dhari bichhane wale” (to refer to Dalits who are tasked with spreading family bedding on the floor).
Contrary to popular belief, in Rajasthan, caste oppression is practised not by those belonging to the general category castes alone but by communities designated as other backward caste (OBC).
Many accused belong to the Rajput, Rajpurohit (Brahmin), and Jat communities. The Jats, an OBC, hold sway In the northern part of the state, while Rajputs and Jats have an upper hand in central Rajasthan. In southern Rajasthan it is the Rajputs and Gurjars who are most powerful. Gurjars, also an OBC, dominate in parts of the east too.
Often, the caste of the perpetrator defines the nature of the attack—Rajputs commonly have a feudal set of dos and don'ts for Dalits; Brahmins take offence at caste practices broken in schools and temples; Jats are most commonly angered by growing land ownership among Dalits; and Gurjars legitimise atrocities they commit as a form of devotion to Hinduism, reasoning that Dalits follow Ambedkar and not Hindu deities.
A common grievance among all, however, is the reservation for SCs in jobs and educational institutions.
A prominent activist from eastern Rajasthan, a Gurjar who wished to remain anonymous, told Article 14 that a sharpened Hindutva identity is particularly common among Gurjars associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Hindu Yuva Vahini. “They mislead others into believing that Dalits don’t believe in our gods,” he said.
Vivek Gurjar, a lawyer from an affluent family in east Rajasthan was vocal about his family’s caste practices. He told Article 14 that Dalits don’t believe in “our” gods, but want to avail reservations and otherwise “do everything like us”.
He said, “Sab haathon mein toh laddu nahi milega, koi mazaak thodi hai, kuch to khona hi padega saalon ko.” (“You can’t have everything handed to you, it’s not a joke. They have to lose something as well.”)
Gurjar cited several WhatsApp texts about SCs “disrespecting our gods”. He said he forwards these messages to as many groups as possible.
In June 2021, a 21-year-old Dalit youth was beaten to death in Kikraliya village of Hanumnagarh district in the northern part of the state after he pasted a poster of Ambedkar outside his home. According to the first information report (FIR), the accused, a group of boys from an OBC community, allegedly shouted casteist slurs during the assault. “Aaj tumhe tumhara Ambedkarvad yaad dilvayenge,” they allegedly said. (“We will remind you of your Ambedkarite ideology today.”)
Jogesh said videos are sometimes circulated with accompanying messages such as ‘Jai Shree Ram’ or ‘Jai Rajputana’.
On 26 April 2019, five bike-borne men abducted a couple from the Alwar-Thanagazi highway, took them to the dunes, raped the woman and filmed the crime on a mobile phone. The victim’s husband informed his family on 29 April after the accused called him with a demand of Rs 10,000, threatening to make the video viral if he didn’t pay up.
A dispute among the accused persons led to the video being released and going viral eventually.
The father of the victim said the video was shared on groups professing to be followers of ‘Devnarayan’, a folk deity of the Gurjars. “I wonder what they got by involving gods in these heinous acts,” he told Article 14.
‘My Village Isn’t Safe For Me Any More’
In several cases, the victims of such caste violence were forced to relocate, felt shame and feared for their safety.
Early in 2021, Ashok Meghwal, 26, of Sirana village in south Rajasthan’s Pali district filed a police complaint after an upper caste mob attacked his pregnant sister and his mother over a land dispute.
“There is a persistent threat to my life and my village isn’t safe for me any more,” Meghwal told Article 14. He shifted to Jodhpur recently, but others in the village were told he has gone to Jaipur to study. “I rarely go to my village now and I don’t accept calls from unknown numbers.”
Ashok said he had approached the police about being harassed by upper castes. As news of this development spread, 30 to 40 upper caste men, mostly Thakurs, arrived at his house armed with sticks and stones. He locked himself in the house while his mother and pregnant sister faced the men.
The women were attacked with stones and sticks. Ashok witnessed the incident and secretly recorded a video that he uploaded on Twitter after rushing his mother and sister to a hospital in Pali.
Ashok’s use of social media did not yield the resolution he had hoped for. “My efforts went in vain and my life is in danger because of the risk I took that day,” he said.
He continued to tweet, seek help with his case and posted updates, but the initial action that led to the arrest of the accused waned. He no longer gets a response on social media from activists, leaders and officers he tags.
Vijay Pal Singh*, an active member of the Shri Rajput Karni Sena who is one of the main accused in the case, told Article 14 he believes that Dalits needed to be taught a lesson, or else “they will wipe out our presence”.
From WhatsApp Groups To National Screens
While Ashok used Twitter, WhatsApp serves as the most convenient tool to circulate hate videos. WhatsApp has over 390.1 million users in India, the highest in the world, making it a potent weapon for those seeking to spread bigotry.
Journalists in Rajasthan recalled the case of dairy farmer Pehlu Khan of Nuh in Haryana, lynched in 2017 in Alwar while he was transporting cows, as the first case where a video was used as a weapon in Rajasthan. Khan was lynched by a mob of cow vigilantes affiliated to Hindutva groups.
After being called out, WhatsApp introduced limits on the number of people a message can be forwarded to, but this made only negligible impact. WhatsApp also lacks warning features about sensitive content.
Some accused also admitted they circulated the video to carefully selected groups. One of the men accused of assaulting an employee for purchasing an expensive motorbike said their video wasn’t viral at the national level. “I knew it wouldn’t be, because I circulated it on very selective WhatsApp groups, to reach only the people we want, who are anyway illiterate and afraid to speak up.”
According to local journalists and lawyers in the state, roughly 70-80% of videos filmed during caste crimes make it to national screens as news events, while the rest peter out in the villages where awareness of rights and laws is limited.
Dalits view the videos as indicative of the failure of the legal system to protect them. “If the accused can shoot a video confidently, then they can also kill us,” said Meghwanshi, the activist.
Low Awareness Of Cybercrime Laws
In July 2021, Ajay Bhilai* was tortured on camera in Mandalgarh of Bhilwara district in south Rajasthan on suspicion of stealing a goat. The accused were mostly OBC men.
Bhilai was paraded through the village, beaten and tied to a tree, where the assault continued. He went missing after the incident and was found by the Mandalgarh police after 36 hours.
The incident affected Bhilai’s mental health, and he kept running and hiding from authorities subsequently.
“He is from a very poor family, doesn’t have a proper house to live in, and doesn't even own a mobile phone,” his lawyer, Gopal Salvi, told Article 14. Sometimes even contacting Bhilai is a challenge, he said.
Like most other cases we tracked, Bhilai had no way of knowing that the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000, could be invoked in his case in addition to the charges related to the assault and charges under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, often called the POA Act or the Atrocities Act.
Meghwanshi said activists are often not tech-savvy or aware of legal intricacies, and if lawyers and investigating officers are also not skilled, charges under the more stringent laws are often not filed in these cases.
This was seconded by Bhilai’s lawyer Salvi, who simply said his client’s family didn’t demand that the IT Act be invoked. “Our priority was to get it registered under the Atrocities Act,” he said.
Police Slow To Act While Video Went Viral
“...Agar policewale action lete, toh baat Thanagazi tak hi reh jaati, desh aur duniya mein nahi jaati (Had the police acted, we would have been saved the nationwide and global humiliation),” the father of the woman raped in Thanagazi told Article 14.
The family said it took the police three days to register a case in the matter, and another four days to make the first arrest despite the victims giving them several leads. “They asked us to wait as they were busy in the voting process of Lok Sabha elections,” said the father.
When no FIR was lodged at the Thanagazi police station, they went to the office of the Alwar superintendent of police on 30 April, but the case was registered neither that day nor the next. “The police misled us for three days, asked us to go to Alwar, and gave excuses of the elections, and that they were conducting spot inspection, etc,” the father added.
Three days after informing the police and submitting the video that had gone viral, a case was registered on 2 May. The first arrest in the case was made on 7 May, only after Alwar went to polls on 6 May.
The family said as the video of their daughter being raped reached more mobile phone across India with every passing minute, police didn’t appear to appreciate the sensitivity of the case.
After the video went viral, with mounting pressure of public opinion, the Alwar SP was removed and the SHO suspended for inaction. An under-pressure chief minister announced measures to improve police reaction in cases of crime against women.
On 7 September, Jagdish Meghwal, 29, was beaten to death by a group of people from the OBC community over an alleged love affair.
The accused shot a video of the assault and circulated it. The body was dumped outside Jagdish’s house in Prempura village of Hanumangarh in north Rajasthan. “Police were lazy in the beginning, and so we had to protest with the dead body,” Jagdish’s brother Mohan Lal told Article 14. The family refused to cremate the body until the police nabbed the accused.
Notably, of the 7,017 cases reported of violence against Dalits in the state in 2020, the police closed 2,909 cases as false cases. The Rajasthan police hold the lowest charge sheeting rate of 50.1%, in the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.
Compensation For Victims Inadequate, Delayed
In most of these cases, police action is initiated only when activists pressurise officials, despite the apparent social ramifications of the victims’ humiliation being broadcast on social media. “This is the same in both (BJP and Congress) governments. They aren’t serious about such issues of atrocities,” said Hansraj Meena, founder of the Tribal Army.
Under the SC\ST Act, compensation is to be paid to the victim by the state government, the sum depending on the nature of the atrocity.
Ashok Meghwal hasn’t received any financial aid, he said, almost a year since the attack on his family. He has borrowed more than Rs 400,000 to pursue his case. “It's a very big amount for us, I haven't received anything from the government,” he said. “But I will keep fighting for my dignity.”
Amra Ram said he did not receive so much as a follow-up phone call or text message from the officers, ministers and leaders who visited him just after the incident, but he was given a government job, apart from the compensation.
“I was given a government job with a very meagre salary of Rs 5,000 per month and that too was delayed,” he said. “I have a wife and a daughter to take care of.” He quit the job after seven months, preferring to relocate to another state for better pay.
His case is currently in the trial stage, and the accused are out on bail. They have attempted to make Amra Ram “compromise” time and again, he said.
“They have ruined my life already... what’s left now?” he said. “I will fight till the end.”
Police Apathy, Complicity In Crimes Against Dalits
During a nationwide strike call given by Dalits on 2 April 2018 to demand that the Union government challenge a Supreme Court ruling that sought to dilute provisions of the SC\ST Act, the houses of two Dalit leaders, one a Rajasthan legislator and one a former legislator, were set on fire amid protests in Rajasthan. Dozens were arrested, over 1,000 people were booked.
Taking suo moto cognizance, the National Human Rights Commission issued a notice to the Rajasthan government over police brutality and the “illegal” detention of Dalit leaders.
Jogesh remembered that he pretended to be an upper caste man and walked straight towards the protests. He said he saw the police standing as mute spectators while leaders of the Karni Sena assaulted Dalits and hurled casteist slurs at them.
Jogesh uploaded a few photographs on Twitter and informed his friends in the media and senior administration about the behavior of the police. He was called to the police station and asked why he kept naming the Karni Sena.
Ashok Meghwal’s family faced a similar situation. The presence of the Thakurs in the village is a continuing threat for his family.
“Earlier the investigating officer was from our community. He did good work on the case, but they removed him and a Brahmin took charge,” he said.
According to Ashok, upper caste policemen misguided senior officials, and the case was closed, before being reopened on the intervention of officers and other prominent people from Ashok’s caste.
The accused in Ashok’s case, Vijay Pal, concurred that police officers’ caste loyalties impact such cases’ trajectory. “Jiski jaati afsar, uske paksh mein khel. (The community the officer belongs to wins the bout.)” He said “our officers” often go out of the way to help the accused, as do “their officers” for the opposite side.
For the victims, the experience of being publicly shamed is overwhelming, and even a police case and trial do not bring reparations.
“I cannot live and work in my village any more with the same pride,” said Amra Ram, the 22-year-old from Nagaur who was assaulted at a two-wheeler service centre. “They robbed us of all our luxuries because of our caste.”
* Names have been changed to protect the identity of some of those who spoke to us.
(Devendra Pratap Singh Shekhawat is a journalist based in Rajasthan.)