By: Bani Bedi
In a house in Sarai Kaji in Meerut, some light has been brought back. Amar*, a 14-year-old boy, is back home after spending two months and 17 days in jail.
We sit in a room that opens into the backyard as Amar begins to tell us what happened to him. “I went to buy medicine for my mother on April 2, but the shop was closed. There was a big crowd around Chaudhary Charan Singh University. The police was running after them,” he narrates. “They asked me my jati, and when I told them I was a Dalit, they got hold of me and took me to the jail. I tried to tell them I don’t have a father and my mother is disabled. I cried and cried.”
On April 2, various Dalit groups had called for a nationwide Bharat Bandh to protest against a Supreme Court order they believed would dilute the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The bench removed restrictions on allowing anticipatory bail, and decreed that a public servant could be prosecuted only after permission from higher authorities.
During the protests, nine people lost their lives in clashes with the police in different parts of the country, and hundreds of protestors were detained in Uttar Pradesh.
“Can these children shoot guns? How can you ask little children their caste? How can you jail them without informing their families?” asks Amar’s mother. She sits in the corner of the room – she cannot stand or move her legs much. “We searched for him for three days. My young child, in jail for over two months – what will happen to his future?” She asks us to write a good report, a report which will get her family’s problem noticed.
The case against Amar is not over, and neither is the family’s distress. “I wish for a quick end to the case so that I can focus on my studies,” he says. “I had to miss a lot of school when I was in jail. I hope this doesn’t cause more trouble in my education.” His mother proudly tells us that he is a good student.
Nearby, in Kaliya Garhi, there is another distraught family. Fifteen-year-old Sagar* is still in jail. Though he is a minor, he is being tried as an adult.
Sagar’s father’s hands shake as he speaks to us. “I went to visit him in prison yesterday. He says to me, ‘Papa, please free me, please free me’.” His eyes well up and his voice wavers. “This government is really troubling us.” He does not say much more.
The Meerut superintendent of police (crime) tells us that the investigating officer has contacted Sagar’s family, but they have shown no proof that he is a juvenile. Sagar’s father disagreed – he says that no investigating officer has contacted him. Additionally, he says he has submitted proof of his son’s age to the court.
A few rooms away from Sagar’s house is the home of Akhil*, who was on his way home from his aunt’s house when he was arrested. He studies in Class 6.
Akhil has just come home from school, and sits next to his mother on the bed. He smiles throughout, except when someone mentions his time in jail. He says, “The police near the university asked me my jati, and when I told them I am a Jatav, they arrested me and hit me. In jail, the bigger children used to beat me up. I was made to work. I did jhadoo-poncha (sweeping and mopping).”
Akhil’s mother is relieved he is home. “I’m very, very happy he’s home. I barely ate for the two months and six days, while he was in jail. He used to just cry and say ‘Free me, free me’,” she says. “We don’t pay attention to the news, we had no clue there was a protest happening. Our priority has just been his studies. He was just coming back from his aunt’s house, and they picked him up. This government is terrible – why target our children?”
Akhil wants to become a doctor. His mother tells me he has been less focused on his schoolwork since he has been released from jail; she says he finds it difficult to concentrate. She asks me if I know when Sagar will be released. I tell her I don’t, but I am hopeful.
In Jai Bhim Nagar, we meet Aakash, who is pursuing a BA degree. He has just been released from jail after 115 days. As we enter his house, his mother’s glowing face greets us. She is by his side the entire time we are there, looking at him.
Aakash was out distributing invitation cards for his sister’s wedding with a friend, when he was stopped by the police on his way back from Saket Complex on April 2. “They asked us our jati. When I told them we were Jatav, they hit us and arrested us. In jail, we were badly beaten. My father came to the jail to tell them I was innocent, and they beat him up as well,” he says.
He tells us that there were people of different castes in jail with him, yet after telling the police they weren’t Dalits, they were released within a day or so. The local judge refused to grant Aakash bail, but the high court finally did.
Because of his exceptional academic performance, his photo has been displayed around Meerut and even in some other areas. He had to miss his final exams when he was in jail. He says this experience has made him more determined to fight against the repressive caste system. “The BJP wants us to go back thousands of years in time. This will not happen this time. Dalits, women, other groups – we are now awake and aware,” he says.
As we enter the area of Shergarhi, the streets become narrower and the houses, smaller. There is barely space to walk – dogs, motorcycles, carts and people crowd the lanes.
Brothers Surajpal and Madanpal were released from jail a day ago. Madanpal works as a lab technician. “I was working on April 2, the lab was short of staff. My brother came to give me lunch, and we saw the protest. The police asked us our caste and arrested us when we said we were Dalits. We even paid Rs 48,000 for police verification,” he said. They were refused bail for a long time.
We are talking on the terrace, there is not enough light inside the house for photos. Surajpal gestures towards me. “If madam wasn’t present, I would tell you the kind of abuse the police hurled at us when they were escorting us to jail. They also said that we don’t study and we will always be cleaning their shoes.”
Surajpal has two little daughters, both of whom peer over my shoulder at my notepad. They giggle and shy away every time I look at them. They keep looking at the sky, where children from different houses are flying kites. The kites are too close together, they keep getting entangled before they can get very high.
“They can do whatever they want to me,” Surajpal says. “But I live in constant fear for my daughters. What world will they grow up in? Why were we born Dalits?”
As we leave, he tells me I am like a sister to him. “My daughters, my wife – the women in my life – they are the most important to me. I cannot do much, yet if anyone ever hurts you, I promise to stand up for you.”
In Sobhapur, we meet Kunti. She narrates her story to us in her neighbour’s house – the electricity has gone out in hers. She went to give her husband food on April 2 and saw the police running after people. She rushed back home and began eating with her children. “The police arrived while I was eating,” she tells us. “They asked me my name and jati. When I told them I was a Harijan, they hit me a few times and arrested me. They made me work in jail.” She recalls with horror that they contemplated arresting her little children, yet eventually did not.
At the sun sets in Meerut, we meet 17-year-old Ankit*, who is in school. His family crowds the room in which we are talking. He tells us he has spent over four months in jail. “I was asked my jati by the police near Ghadrol, and they arrested me when I said I was a Dalit.” He says he is afraid that this experience will ruin his career.
He believes things have gotten worse for Dalits in the past few years. “Dalits have been in a terrible state since this government came to power,” he says.
While he talks, a large photo of Dr B.R. Ambedkar is behind him on the wall. It surrounds him.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of minors.