Friday, February 17, 2012

Lathore Dalit Atrocities

In the village of Lathore, Balangir district of Odisha, on the 22nd of January, 45 houses of Dalit families were burnt down and looted by Meher-Agarwal-RSS gangs in the area. A Students for Resistance (SFR) fact-finding team from Delhi visited the location of the mass burning and found in their preliminary report evidence of the collusion of the district administration in the atrocities. The District Magistrate (DM) and police were informed beforehand of the assault and mass gutting and anticipated around 500 perpetrators in the area. The DM called local workers before and in the middle of the raging fires to ask them to organize a "relief camp" in a nearby school. The perpetrators forcibly entered the houses, looted them and then set 45 of them ablaze. The local media and the administration cited the stealing of a shirt by a Dalit boy from Bharat Meher's shop as the precipitating cause of the attacks. As the SFR report states, this is reminiscent of the Mirchpur atrocity, in which two Dalit boys were set afire because their dog barked at some Jat youths passing by. The fact that the media and administration could even cite these mindless charges as the causes of these attacks betrays a botched sense of justice and acute caste-discrimination. A local Dalit journalist in Lathore, whose house was also gutted, recently published a report on the black market in the district, targeting the illicit liquor, kerosene, forest wood, public distribution items (wheat, rice, etc.) businesses of the local mafia.

On being asked questions, the DM, AK Dey, threatened the SFR team, but he also betrayed two significant pieces of information. He admitted that the local police were present at the scene of the crime and did not do anything to intervene, for which he provided two reasons - they didn't have the resources and they were engaged in combing operations against the Maoists. (As it happens, in this district, there are scores of highly-equipped paramilitary forces, stationed there for the sole purpose of conducting these so-called combing operations.) Secondly, he stated that the administration couldn't register cases against the accused under the SC/ST Act because the mass burning had "nothing to do with caste". In addition, he said that they couldn't do anything about it at the moment because of the elections around the corner. The government released a compensation of 1L for 38 families, but the administration said they couldn't take on the responsibility of rebuilding their houses (unlike in natural calamities). A "peace committee" recommended the immediate arrest of the accused and the seizure of their properties within seven days, but no action was taken against them.

At the moment, 193 people are living in the four rooms of the relief camp on inadequate rations, unable to rebuild their lives. Most of them were relatively well-off Dalits with jobs, businesses and concrete houses before the carnage. One of them, a girl who in a widely-reported case in 2005 fought for the right to enter a temple in the area, said that they would wait to fight their collective battle through constitutional means, failing which they wouldn't hesitate to join the Maoists.

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