Punjab is presently grappling with a shameful incident of the gruesome killing of a Dalit man named Jagmail Singh due to atrocity committed by some upper class residents of his own village, Changaliwala. The inhumane act is a sad narrative of the existing social structure of Punjab, especially so, at a time when the 550th Birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev Ji is being celebrated with great reverence the world over. Those who consider themselves to be the disciples of Guru Nanak Dev Ji are responsible for this brutal and merciless act, triggered due to a caste divide.
Jagmail Singh was a very poor, partially retarded Dalit with some severe mental issues. His family has been residing in Village Changaliwala for generations and has been very close to the family of Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, a senior leader of the Congress party and a former Chief Minister of Punjab, who belongs to this village. The men of the family have worked for the Bhattal family in various capacities; even Jagmail worked as a driver with the family for some time. He, probably, had to leave because of his mental condition. After leaving service with the Bhattal family he started working as a casual labourer in and around the village. The family was living in abject poverty and penury.
The prime accused identified as Amarjeet Singh, his son Rinku and accomplices in crime Binder Singh (alias Bita) and Lakhvir Singh (alias Lakhi) have also been living in the same village for generations. Amarjeet is a powerful and rich landlord. The family is related by blood to the Bhattal family, a far off connection but a connection none the less.
The trigger to the act is very innocuous and frivolous. Jagmail had done some labour work for a local named Laadi for which he was not paid the promised very small amount of Rs. 200/-. On October, 27, while Diwali was being celebrated, Jagmail knocked the doors of the house of Amarjeet Singh, since Laadi was also celebrating Diwali there. Some loud words were spoken before the family of Jagmail whisked him away. Later in the night, Rinku along with an accomplice came to the house of Jagmail and thrashed him badly. The next day, Jagmail filed a Police complaint. On November, 6, the matter was resolved by facilitation of a compromise through the Police wherein the perpetrators agreed to pay Rs. 4000/- to Jagmail for treatment purposes.
The money was not paid. The next day Jagmail went to the fields of the accused and demanded the same. Later the accused went to the house of Jagmail and took him away on a motorcycle with the pretext of getting him treated. Instead, Jagmail was taken to the house of Amarjeet Singh tied to a pole and mercilessly beaten up with iron rods and clubs. His legs were particularly targeted, he was forced to drink urine and his flesh was torn off with a clipper. The Dalit neighbours of the family went to the house of Amarjeet and pleaded with him to release Jagmail but to no avail, they were threatened too. The criminals then threw the badly injured Jagmail outside the Gurdwara from where he was picked up by his family. The panic stricken family remained immobilised for two days; neither was Jagmail taken to the hospital and nor was a Police complaint lodged. In any case, the poor people had no money for medical treatment. On November, 9, with the assistance of some relatives and friends, Jagmail was taken to the Lehra Civil Hospital for treatment; the Hospital failed to diagnose the gravity of the wounds and sent him back home with medication. Lack of timely treatment led to onset of Gangrene.
The police finally got worried and recorded his statement on November, 10. In his statement Jagmail mentioned that apart from being brutally tortured he was also forced to drink Urine. The Police still failed to register an FIR. On November, 13, Jagmail was taken to Patiala’s Rajindra Hospital in a semi-conscious state; Police registered the FIR only after this criticality and arrested the four perpetrators of the heinous act on November, 14. By that time it was too late for Jagmail. His legs were amputated but that did not stop the spread of the Gangrene and he died in PGI, Chandigarh on November, 16.
The case would have been brushed under the carpet but for the fact that and a nephew of Jagmail, Gurdeep Singh, worked with a social organisation, the Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee. It was this organisation that raised a voice to get justice for Jagmail and his family. The family refused to cremate the body till such time that the criminals were not brought to justice and adequate compensation not given. Soon some Left organisations opened a front against the government. Media picked up the story which was reason enough for politicians of all hues to jump in with their personal and party agendas.
While the family was demanding a compensation of Rs 50 Lakh along with a job for the widow and other facilities, the Government offered Rs 20 lakh compensation, Rs 1.25 lakh for repair of the house, funding education of the three children and a Group-D government job for the widow after relaxing qualification criteria. The compensation package has been accepted by the family and the body of Jagmail was cremated on November, 19 at his native village.
Before carrying out a detailed analysis of the case, it is necessary to dwell on the background of the four sadistic criminals who were involved in this brutal act. The history of brutality against the Dalit community by the family of Amarjeet Singh has been narrated detail in a well researched article titled, “Changaliwala rises against oppression” written by Vishav Bharti and carried in the Tribune newspaper. The article speaks of a time about six/seven decades back when one Gurvinder Singh of the same village was known for extreme brutality against the down trodden Dalits. He committed untold atrocities that epitomised the worst form of feudal oppression. Gurvinder drew his power from his proximity with the Police whom he was forever ready to help. He was killed in April, 1971, an ambush by a Dalit, Shamsher Singh Sheri and his associates. Sheri ran away and became a senior member of the CPI (M). Amarjeet Singh and Rinku are the son and grandson of Gurvinder respectively.
It, therefore, is not difficult to fathom as to where they get their feudal attitude, their huge ego and inherent brutality from. It has been nurtured in their family for generations on end. It is also interesting to note here that Gurvinder’s father was the brother of Rajindar Kaur Bhattal’s father-in-law, there is a natural possibility that blood would rate higher than the loyalty of the poor Dalit family.
There is another story to this unfortunate episode that needs to be told before any analysis is attempted. The father-son duo of Amarjeet and Rinku, four years ago, attacked Gurtej Singh, the real and elder brother of Jagmail Singh, broke his arm and left him to die all because of an altercation over a very a minor issue. Gurtej did not have the means to get his arm repaired medically. It presently is in a grotesque, deformed condition and hardly working. At that stage also the family did not pursue the case since they did not wish to get into conflict with the powerful family.
On the basis of the foregoing a number of points emerge that had a role to play in the build-up of this very unfortunate incident.
It is very apparent that there exists a huge caste divide in Punjab that is being carried from generation to generation. Land owning families continue to hold a feudal attitude and do not hesitate from repressive practices against Dalits. This is happening despite the Indian Constitution guaranteeing equality to all citizens and despite human equality being the bedrock of the Sikh religion as taught by none other than Guru Nanak Dev Ji.
Historically, right up to the time of British rule in India, upper classes have been subjugating the lower classes due to patronage provided by Monarchs and rulers. Now, the rulers have been replaced by the politicians, the police and the bureaucracy. The upper classes simply pander to the “new rulers” and go about with their atrocious activities with no fear whatsoever.
The Dalits and the lower classes continue to live in fear. If the family of Jagmail had raised their voice when Gurvinder was creating havoc, or at least when Rinku broke the arm of Gurtej Singh, then things would not have reached the stage where Jagmail lost his life.
The fact that the family of Jagmail was once close to the family of Rajinder Kaur Bhattal and is no longer so points to a break down in the close relationship between the Dalits and the landowners in whose houses and fields the former worked. It is so because the physical work has been taken over by transitory labour coming from other parts of the country that is cheaper and easier to handle. This has left the ethnic Dalit population in a dire state, leading to a situation of conflict.
The silver lining is the indication, through a survey, that what has happened in Village Changaliwala is an exception, not a rule. In most areas all communities are living in harmony. The situation is not hopeless and a little bit of honest work will bring about a turn around.
What is critical, however, is the complete and shameful break down of the administrative machinery. There are so many pointers in the direction.
When Jagmail was first beaten, instead of arresting Rinku, the Police mediated a compromise; this was obviously done to protect Rinku who belongs to a rich and powerful family.
In the second instance too, the police failed to register a timely FIR and get medical check-up of the victim done as per prescribed norms. If this had happened, Jagmail could have been saved.
The very frivolous manner in which doctors of Civil Hospital, Lehra, dealt with the case is a clear example of incompetence and lack of interest, especially when dealing with the members of the marginalised society. If the doctors of the hospital had done their job Jagmail could have been saved.
Now that the case has received massive media attention, it is quite certain that the criminals will be tried by law, but here too there are many loop holes that may get them off scot free or with punishment of a degree much less than what they deserve. They will come back to the village with a vengeance and wreck havoc all over again.
There is a need to bring about far reaching changes in society for which government, civil society and religious institutions need to work in concert. Civil society needs to intervene to bring in the right balance. The collapse of the Police and administration which are rotting under the weight of rampant corruption and mismanagement needs to be checked at a war footing. In case action is not taken immediately, then this exception will definitely become a rule.
(The writer is associated with Centre for Socio-cultural Studies, Punjab)