Jammu Dalit sarpanch resigns after casteist abuse, threats for fighting corruption

Kamlesh had been fighting a battle to secure wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act for Dalit and Muslim workers who she said had not been paid their full dues. Courtesy Kamlesh Bhagat

On 18 July 2020, Kamlesh Bhagat, a Dalit sarpanch of Pochhal A-2 panchayat in the Kishtwar district of Jammu and Kashmir, resigned from her post. In several letters to district officials, the lieutenant governor, and the president of India, written prior to and post her resignation, she complained about rampant corruption in the local administration and caste-based discrimination. Since April, Kamlesh had been fighting a battle to secure wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, or MGNREGA, for Dalit and Muslim workers who she said had not been paid their full dues.

The MGNREGA guarantees 100 days of paid work in a financial year to rural workers, referred to as job card holders under the scheme. According to Kamlesh, Dalit and Muslim workers in four wards within her jurisdiction had been discriminated against because of their caste and religious identities. She said the junior engineer responsible for their payment was demanding a commission to release their full wages, and wrongfully marking the workers as absent. Kamlesh told me that when she complained about this corruption to senior officials, Suresh Sharma, the Kishtwar block development council chairman, insulted her with casteist abuses.

According to Kamlesh, the wages in Jammu and Kashmir under NREGA was Rs 189 per day of work for the financial year 2019-2020. She told me that Dalit and Muslim job card holders in four wards were assigned community work like the construction of cowsheds. She added that in addition to providing 100 days of labour for these projects, the workers also invested their own money for construction material and tools. “Apart from their Rs 18,900 dues for 100 days work under MGNERGA, the group head ended up spending nearly Rs 40,000 to Rs 50,000 for the assigned job from his pocket,” Kamlesh said, referring to one of the workers. “To everyone’s horror, they were paid Rs 4,000 or so per head.” Referring to Vijay Parihar, a junior engineer, Sheetal Sharma, the block development officer, and other members of the panchayat, she added, “The concerned JE falsely showed them to be absent for most of the days. I was even asked to sign on the fake or fraudulent bills by the Kishtwar BDO and some of the panches. I complained to the Kishtwar district development commissioner on 2 June in this regard.” Kamlesh added that on 15 April, she sent a memorandum “regarding the corrupt officials including the JE” to “various high ups, but to no avail.”  In the 15 April memorandum, Kamlesh wrote that the JE had paid the job card holders for only 20 to 30 days of work. She added that those who provided him a commission were paid for the full hundred days. 

Kamlesh noted that of the seven wards in Pochhal A-2, two wards are home to Rajput residents. She claimed that in those two wards Rs 14,000 was deposited against every job card holder’s account, while in the remaining wards where Dalit and Muslim residents live, workers received only around Rs 4,000 for 100 days of labour.

I spoke to several workers from the Pochhal A-2 panchayat who confirmed Kamlesh’s allegations. Uday Raj, a Dalit worker, is a resident of ward number three. “I constructed the work assigned to me taking a group of nine job card holders with me,” he said. “I spent nearly Rs 50,000 to Rs 55,000 on the work in addition to working for 100 days for which I was supposed to get Rs 18,900 but got just Rs 4,000 or so in my account.” He said the rest of the workers were also paid between Rs 4,000 and Rs 4,300.

Sanjay Shan, a resident of ward number four said that he along with Ritu Badyal, his wife, Sheela Devi, his mother, and Purni Devi, his aunt were all workers under the NREGA scheme. He claimed that they had spent three lakhs rupees on construction works and worked for 100 days, yet they got just a fraction of the money. He said they were six job card holders and the total money they got was Rs 35,000. Shan was anguished at what he described as a caste-based payment of wages.

Shah Nawaz Ahmed, a resident of ward number one told me he constructed a cow shed with the help of another worker, and spent a fortune from his savings. They were shocked to see a meagre Rs 4,000 in their accounts. “We were supposed to get more than Rs 18,000 against our 100 days labour work plus the amount spent on the cowshed,” Ahmed said.

These were the people that Kamlesh was fighting for. She told me that since April she had stopped signing on government files, telling the administration officials that she would only sign on paperwork once they released the full dues to the Dalit and Muslim workers.

On 10 May, Kamlesh filed a complaint at the Kishtwar police station against Parihar for “corrupt behaviour.” On 15 May, Kamlesh said that Suresh summoned her to his office. She added that two others—Sheetal and Parihar—were present in the office. “I was asked to withdraw all my complaints highlighting the corruption in the department, strike a compromise with the officials I named in my complaints and start signing on the files I had refused to sign,” Kamlesh told me. “I just asked them to pay the dues to workers before I abide by these orders.” Referring to Suresh, she added, “Following this, an angry Sharma pushed me.” Kamlesh said that she was pressurised to withdraw her complaint and when she refused, Suresh abused her using casteist slurs.

Usne mujhe bola, Chandal sarpanch, dafaa ho ja yahan se … nikal ja yahan se … chandal kahin ki,”—He told me, Chandal sarpanch, get lost from here … get out …you Chandal, Kamlesh said. Chandal is a caste among Dalits, who historically worked in cremation grounds. The word is often employed as a casteist slur by upper castes. “The whole office hearing these loud abuses came out, but nobody said a word,” Kamlesh told me. “I did not say anything and cried a lot after coming out of the office.”  Kamlesh added, “I have been so pressurised and insulted all these months. Following this, they brought a no confidence motion against me but I resigned before that.” She told me that she had faced caste discrimination ever since she was elected to the post in November 2019 and that no one took her seriously because she is Dalit. “I won as an independent candidate because of the social work I have been doing but the caste-based discrimination I had to suffer from the upper caste leaders and officials is unimaginable,” she said.

On 15 May, Kamlesh lodged a police complaint against Suresh, accusing him of using “unparliamentary and abusive language” against her. The “BDC chairman curse me of my caste,” she noted in the complaint, asking the police to register a first information report. Kamlesh said that on 11 June, 28 days after her complaint, an FIR was lodged against Suresh under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.  However, Kamlesh and her husband, Ajeet Bhagat, told me that the FIR is a mere eyewash, since no action has been taken against Suresh so far. Instead, Kamlesh said she began receiving threats from Suresh, Sheetal and Parihar. “They told me, ‘We will remove you as Sarpanch,’” Kamlesh said. She added that she also received life threats from other local politicians and officials. “They threatened that they will burn my house, murder my kids and kill me,” Kamlesh told me. Harmeet Singh, the Kishtwar senior superintendent of police did not respond to calls and a message seeking comment.

On 18 July, Kamlesh issued a memorandum and a press release informing the public about her resignation. In the press release, she wrote, “After bearing brunt of atrocities and hatred based discrimination by upper caste Hindus particularly towards Scheduled Castes and finding no safeguards from the caste based ruling elite … and also in view of sustained life threats to me and my family and ongoing brunt of caste based hatred and corruption in the system in JK (UT) in general and District Kishtwar in Particular, I am going to resign from my services as sarpanch today.” She told me that she also sent her resignation to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and “various other high ups.” Describing her resignation, Kamlesh said that she finally she succumbed to the pressure and the harassment aimed at muting her demand for the workers’ dues.

A month earlier, on 9 June, Alka Bhagat, Kamlesh’s daughter, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi detailing the impact of the harassment on her mother. “We belong to the Scheduled Caste which according to these ill mentality people is a sin and a crime,” Alka wrote. She noted the despite schemes to empower women such as “Stree Swabhiman” and “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao,” women are “harassed and discriminated against on the basis of sex and caste.” Referring to the rural development department, or RDD, Alka added, “For the last couple months my mother is continuously pressurized by the BDC chairman kishtwar namely Suresh Sharma, some panches and officials of the RDD department … for doing corrupt practices.” Noting Kamlesh’s subsequent police complaint, Alka further wrote, “For the last couple weeks BDC chairman and other officials are continuously harassing my mother that put a huge stress on my mother resulting in her cardiac disorder.” She added that it “put my whole family in a state of depression … as the inferiority we are facing from upper caste is unbearable.”

On 14 June, Kamlesh wrote a letter to Bashir Ahmed Khan, the advisor to the lieutenant governor of Jammu and Kashmir. In it, she similarly noted how she was being pressurised into abetting “corrupt practices.” She further noted that officials in the Kishtwar rural development department had managed to “produce a format of panchayat bills where the signature of the Sarpanch is excluded.” She added, “officials are busy in minting money from RDD kishtwar which are meant for the development and prosperity of the locality.”

I reached out to Suresh, Sheetal and Parihar for comment. Parihar denied the corruption charges. “Anybody can complain against anybody,” he said, adding that Kamlesh had complained against multiple officials. He said he had done the billing for work under MGNREGA “as per the progress of work on the ground.” He added that the panchayat budget was Rs 1.5 crores and claimed that he had disbursed Rs 24 lakhs from it for work under the MGNREGA scheme. Sheetal acknowledged that he had received a complaint against Parihar and said he had submitted a report on it to senior officials but refused to disclose the contents of the report. Suresh did not respond to calls and a message seeking comment.

I also to spoke to Sheetal Nanda, the commissioner secretary of the Jammu division of the rural development department, and Rajinder Singh Tara, the Kishtwar district magistrate. Nanda said she was not aware of the case and had not received Kamlesh’s complaint or resignation letter. Kamlesh contradicted Nanda, emphasising that she had marked letters to Nanda’s department and even messaged Nanda on WhatsApp. Tara noted that an FIR had been filed based on Kamlesh’s complaint against Suresh and said that the rest of the complaints regarding corruption are being looked into.

A day after she resigned, on 19 July, Kamlesh wrote a letter to Ram Nath Kovind, the president of India, detailing how she suffered at the hands of local politicians and officials. Demanding a high-level probe into the corruption in Kishtwar and the events leading to her resignation, she wrote, “Democracy has been murdered here.”

जतिंदर कौर तुड़ वरिष्ठ पत्रकार हैं और पिछले दो दशकों से इंडियन एक्सप्रेस, टाइम्स ऑफ इंडिया, हिंदुस्तान टाइम्स और डेक्कन क्रॉनिकल सहित विभिन्न राष्ट्रीय अखबारों में लिख रही हैं.