On 28 November 2016, Gurdev Kaur, a 72-year-old Dalit woman from Jhaloor, a village in south Punjab, was cremated. She died as a result of injuries sustained during an attack on 5 October. Against the backdrop of a long-standing dispute over agricultural land in the village, the Jutt Sikhs of Jhaloor had mounted a brutal assault on Dalit villagers. They had beaten up members of the community, and vandalised the latter’s homes—breaking windows, household appliances, and water pipes—and even injured cattle and pets. The Jutts had groped, molested, and beaten up Dalit women. Over 40 Dalits were severely wounded: nine had suffered head injuries; one villager’s arm was broken, while another’s jaw was dislocated. During the onslaught, Gurdev’s leg was broken and nearly hacked off, and multiple bones were crushed. She succumbed to her injuries on 11 November. Since the attack, Jhaloor has become the epicentre of a burgeoning mass movement. At her funeral, Gurdev’s body was wrapped in a red flag—an allusion to communist ideals—and flags bearing the insignias of the Zameen Prapti Sangarsh Committee (ZPSC) and the Bhartiya Kisan Unions—informal, left-oriented coalitions of landless labourers and marginalised farmers in Punjab. Thousands attended her cremation, and swore to continue the movement in her name.
On 11 October 2016—the day Dussehra was celebrated this year—my wife Lakshmi and I drove down to Jhaloor. We reached the village at about 3 pm. Upon our arrival, we enquired about the attack at a tea shop called Sonu Sweets. The shop was located next to a rest house named Ravidas Dharamsala, in the vehda, the Dalit section of the village. Within a few minutes, a group of nearly 40 men and women from the community had gathered around us. One of the men suggested that we move into the closed courtyard of a nearby house. I later found out this was because we stood at the site of the attack. The men and women were nervous because we were in plain view of members of the police, many of whom were milling about the rest house in the aftermath of the attack.
Once we reached the courtyard, the men told me that their community was being subjected to an informal social boycott: the Jutts had refused to buy milk from the Dalits, leaving the latter unable to procure fodder for their cattle. The Jutts also forbade doctors from treating those who had been wounded in the attack. The Dalit villagers said that their milk and food supplies were fast depleting. Fearing another attack, several families belonging to the community had locked their homes and fled Jhaloor, while many others had sent their young daughters away to relatives in other villages. A few farmers with small land holdings, who had supported the Dalits in their clash against the Jutts, had left as well.
Over the next hour, the men told me what had transpired on the day of the attack. Meanwhile, Lakshmi went into another house. There, she met several women from the gathering, one after another. Later, she told me, “Each woman took me indoors and stripped to show me big marks on their bodies—purple and blue blood-clots under their breasts, on their backs, buttocks, and inner thighs.” The women told Lakshmi that their husbands were in jail, they did not have medicine to treat themselves, or buy milk for their children. They had not spoken about their wounds, one of the women added to Lakshmi, because they were ashamed.