One does not have to venture very far from Delhi on the 1,465 kilometre-long National Highway 2 to take the left turn leading to Sunped—a village in Haryana with around 400 households. Under ordinary circumstances, the only source of light at the entrance of the village, where I got off from my cab, would be the moon. But as I alighted, the flashing headlights of police vehicles and the torches of policemen illuminated the dark night. Very little about the evening of 20 October, I realised, was going to be ordinary.
That morning, as several news stories had reported, a Dalit family in the village had been set afire in their home. Two-year-old Vaibhav and nine-month-old Divya were declared dead as soon as they reached the Burns and Plastic division of Safdarjung hospital in Delhi. By the time I reached the hospital that afternoon, their father, Jitender, who had only received relatively minor burns on his hands, had been discharged; Rekha, their 23-year-old mother, was in the Intensive Care Unit. According to a nurse I spoke to at the hospital, she was recovering from “25 percent burns on her body.”
The incident was widely covered as a result of both the brutal nature of the assault, and because it was suspected to be an act of caste conflict. Many news stories about this attack termed it an act of revenge that was allegedly choreographed by the family’s upper-caste Rajput neighbours, in order to get back at the family for its role in a dispute over a mobile phone in October last year. However, this dispute did not take place in isolation, it had its roots in the economic and political rise of this Dalit family.
By the time I reached the village, at around 6.30 pm, the matter had gained political attention. Home Minister Rajnath Singh had called Manohar Lal Khattar, the chief minister of Haryana, to ensure security in the village. Security had duly been ensured: Sunped’s population is about 2300, but it seemed that there were at least half as many policemen milling about the town, with guns dangling from their shoulders.
Finding Jitender’s house proved to be an easy task. All I had to do was follow the news vans. The lane in which they lived was teeming with journalists, and recorders were beeping in every corner of the house. The first room I entered was that the family had been sleeping in the previous night. A television reporter was now speaking into the mic as the camera focused on the charred mattress. “This is where the innocent kids were sleeping last night when…” she began, against a background that had been manufactured, if it were possible, to look even more morbid than it was. No lights in the room were switched on. In the spacious backyard, I could see Jitender sleeping on a cot with bandaged hands.