How Jutts led an attack on the Dalits of Jhaloor to “teach them a lesson” in October 2016

16 November, 2019

In the “Jaat” chapter of his book Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines, the author and journalist Amandeep Sandhu draws on his travels in the state to document caste relations there. His observations include incidents of caste discrimination he witnessed at a gurdwara at the Maddoke village to recording details of a land movement which saw Dalits—who comprise 32 percent of the state’s population—attempt to wrest back control of land reserved for them, from upper-caste owners who had occupied it.

On 11 October 2016, Sandhu travelled to the village of Jhaloor, where, though 250 of the 600 families belong to the Dalit community, they do not own any of the 2,300 acres of land in the village. He learned that six days earlier, Jutts had mounted a brutal assault on Dalits, against the backdrop of a long-standing dispute over agricultural land reserved for the Scheduled Caste community. While the Jutts constitute only about 25 percent of the population in the state, they own most of the land and dominate the political and social life. Sandhu explains that one aspect of this incident that continued to haunt him was the fact that “Jatts had used the village gurdwara to make divisive announcements, rally their men and prepare for attacks on Dalits … on the one hand, Panjab was battling incidents of sacrilege of holy texts, on the other, the Jutts and Akalis were misusing the gurudwaras, supposedly places of truth, justice and equality.”

Most Dalits in Jhaloor eke out a living by tending to cattle and selling milk, working for Jutt farmers, or through other petty trades. The panchayat land in Jhaloor is nearly 50 acres. The 16.5 acres of land reserved for the Scheduled Caste community is split into three parts, of which only one part—about six acres large—is cultivable. The other two plots, of 6 and 4.5 acres each, are located at quite a distance from the village and are not cultivable. Relying on the villagers I met, as well as a report that was released by the Association for Democratic Rights (AFDR), a Panjab-based human rights watchdog organisation whose members had visited Jhaloor a day before us, I pieced together an account of the events that led to the violent attack the Jutts had launched on 5 October 2016.

On 10 May 2016, after the revenue officials and administration at Jhaloor failed in three of their attempts to conduct auctions because of protests led by the ZPSC [Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee is a committee to fight for land rights], they decided to hold a forced auction of the six acres of cultivable land reserved for those belonging to the Scheduled Caste community. The auction was conducted in the presence of police officials. Jugraj Singh, a Dalit, won the six acres for Rs 2.62 lakh. Jugraj later told the AFDR team that Harvinder Mangu—a Jutt landlord—had lent him the money to buy the land. He also said that he had no prior farming experience. According to the account he gave the AFDR team, Jugraj did not own a tractor or any agricultural implements either—he was planning to borrow all of these from Gurdeep Babban, another Jutt landlord. Effectively, Jugraj had stood in the auction as a dummy candidate for Babban.

According to the report, when the administration handed over the land to Jugraj, many Dalit residents of the village, aware that Babban would control it, had camped on it for a month in protest. In the second week of June, the police had forcibly evicted them. Subsequently, Jugraj, with help from the Jutt landlords, planted paddy on the land. A few weeks later, the Dalit villagers uprooted the paddy seedlings.

In the meantime, six members of the Jhaloor panchayat wrote to the additional deputy commissioner (ADC) of development, asking for a revocation in the decision to allot the land to Jugraj since he was a dummy candidate. They received no response. The ADC later denied receiving any such letter. Members of the ZPSC said they had submitted multiple memorandums to the block development and panchayat officers as well as the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM), requesting that the false bid be cancelled. Several Dalit villagers recounted that they had protested in front of the office of the block development officer on 10 and 11 August. The members of the community repeatedly demanded the cancellation of the bid. In spite of all this, by late August, Jugraj had planted paddy on the land again.

Till 29 September, the outcome of the bid remained unchanged. That day, the Dalits uprooted the unripe paddy once again. For this, the police booked several members of the community under Section 452 of the IPC—trespassing with the intent to harm. On 2 October, a group of Jutts attacked the ZPSC leader Gurdas Singh’s family in Jhaloor and injured the son of Prakash Singh, a Dalit member of the village panchayat. They also beat up two other members of the community and vandalised their homes. The victims were hospitalised, but the police did not register a complaint against the Jutts.

On 5 October, the ZPSC organised a rally outside the office of the SDM in Lehra, a town nearly ten kilometres away from Jhaloor, to demand that the land be handed over to the Dalits in the village. Members of the community in Jhaloor and neighbouring villages attended the demonstration. According to Nirbhay, a Dalit man in his thirties who had stayed back in Jhaloor that day, at about 2 pm, while the protest was ongoing, the village gurdwara’s loudspeaker crackled. The repeated announcement was: “Jutts should gather with arms and reach the Lehra SDM office.”

About fifty Jutts—drunk and armed—arrived at the venue of the protest. Afraid that the Jutts would attack them, the Dalit villagers expressed their apprehension to the police. The police officials told AFDR that they had asked the group of Jutts to go back to Jhaloor. The tehsildar assured the villagers that the police would protect them, and arranged for a few policemen to escort the protestors back to the village. Four policemen—three constables and a station house officer (SHO)—escorted the seven vehicles that were ferrying the villagers back. However, the SHO did not continue beyond Moonak, a village located just before Jhaloor. Several villagers told me that the constables did not enter the village either. Nirbhay told me that the protestors, including those from other villages, had arrived in Jhaloor at about 4.30 pm. The announcement being made on the gurdwara’s speakers then changed. It now said: “The Dalits have killed Gurdeep Babban. A thousand Dalits are coming to the village,” and, “We must teach them a lesson.” Upon reaching Jhaloor, the Dalits saw around 250 drunken Jutt men, young and old, had climbed the rooftops of the houses around the Ravidas Dharamshala.

The men were armed with stones, bricks, scythes and rods. As the 200-odd Dalit women and men entered the village on their chhota hathis (a mini truck fashioned out of old motor parts), the Jutts launched an attack on them. They pelted stones on the unarmed villagers climbing down from the vehicles and broke seven chhota hathis. The Jutts broke open doors and windows, entered the houses and beat up whomever they could lay their hands on: women, children, cattle and domestic pets. They broke household objects and electric meters, cut open water tanks, and plucked out taps and pipes.

ZPSC members called the police but officials took more than an hour and a half to reach from Lehra—a journey that usually takes about fifteen minutes on a motorbike. Even after the policemen reached, they waited outside the village while the attack continued. ZPSC leader Balwinder Singh was specifically targeted. A group of Jutts entered through the roof of his house and beat up the members of his family. Gurdev Kaur, Balwinder’s mother, who was of frail health, was lying on a cot in her courtyard and was unable to move. The Jutts attacked her with axes, almost severing her leg. She went into shock and was later admitted to a hospital in Chandigarh.

The attackers, it seemed, were looking for Balwinder Singh’s brother, Balbir Singh, of the Panjab Farmers’ Union. They also ransacked the trunks in the house and stole Rs 30,000, which was kept aside for the newborn girl of the family. The Dalit women told Lakshmi [Karunakaran, the author’s partner] the Jutts uttered obscenities to women and stripped naked in front of them and asked, “Will you join the protest against us?”

Jaspreet Kaur, who worked as a sweeper in the village school, said that while the Jutts beat them, they repeatedly said that they wanted to put the Dalits “in their place.” She added that when the attack was ongoing, several Jutt women helped Jutt men identify the houses that belonged to Dalits. According to the ZPSC, over 100 Dalit villagers were trapped in Jhaloor. Late in the night, upon the SDM’s assurance, the men and women came out in groups of five and seven. The police took them to the hospital, but arrested several Dalits the next morning. Although close to forty people were injured and in need of medical attention, many did not go to the hospital for fear of being arrested. Some among those who were receiving medical care left the hospital without the doctor’s consent.

According to a police officer, eighty-six cases were registered after the attack. Of these, only eighteen were against the Jutts. On 6 October, the police took fifty to sixty Dalit men into custody and illegally detained them.

The Dalits, under the aegis of the Jhaloor Kand Jabar Virodhi Action Committee (a committee to protest the Jhaloor action), organised a massive rally on 21 October at Lehra Gaga, a set of twin towns near Jhaloor. Close to 5,000 people attended the demonstration. Members of the ZPSC, the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan) and the Panjab Khet Mazdur Union, which mobilises landless workers, among others, attended the protest to express their solidarity with the Dalits’ cause.

The silence from the political machinery in Panjab was astounding, but unsurprising, especially when one considers the relevance of Sangrur, the constituency in which Jhaloor falls. Various union leaders and villagers—both Jutt and Dalit—told me that Gurdeep Babban was Dhindsa’s man—referring to Parminder Singh Dhindsa, the minister for finance and planning in the Akali government in power then. Babban’s proximity to a prominent minister would explain the inadequate measures taken by the police to ensure the safety of the Dalits. Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, a former chief minister of Panjab and a member of the Congress, belongs to a village called Changali Wala—less than fifteen kilometres from Jhaloor. Several people told me that Bhattal had visited Jhaloor on 3 October, and expressed solidarity with the Jutts. She left without even meeting the Dalit villagers. Bhagwant Mann, a member of parliament who belonged to the AAP, was elected to the Lok Sabha from Sangrur in 2014. Mann, too, remained silent on the issue of panchayat land. On 7 October, Rajesh Bagga, the chairman of the Panjab Commission for Scheduled Castes, ordered an inquiry into the violence by constituting a committee comprising the Lehra Gaga SDM, the superintendent of police and the deputy superintendent of police. The ZPSC rejected the formation of the committee, alleging that Bagga had only met the Jutts who had instigated the attack, and that he went to meet those who were injured and being treated at the civil hospital, even though it had not admitted the Dalits.

Till date, the commission has not met any of those who were attacked. Gurdev Kaur died from her wounds and was cremated on 28 November. In her death, she became the face of the Dalit movement for land.

This is an edited excerpt from Amandeep Sandhu’s book Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines, published by Westland.