Barmer/Jaisalmer/Pali/Jodhpur: On a cold rainy morning, policemen in Pali, Rajasthan, huddled around a laptop in a congested room, zoomed into the video of an eight-month-old pregnant Dalit woman and her mother being beaten by a group of Rajput men in Sirana village. The son, Ashok Meghwal, 27, did not want to be a helpless spectator to the beating. He took out his Chinese Redmi Note phone and shot a video of the scene. But he didn’t stop at just that. He made it go viral on Twitter in early 2021.
Ashok then travelled 45 kilometres to reach the district headquarters to hand over the video proof to the police because the village did not have good internet connectivity.
The smartphone video has become the latest weapon in the centuries-old caste war in Rajasthan. It is being used by Dalits to shine a light on atrocities committed on them by dominant castes who continue to oppress those lower down in the hierarchy. Tech-savvy Dalit youth are using their newfound, hand-held power to inform the law and order bureaucracy, even in the most remote villages. But virality is crucial. The police investigation only picked up momentum when Director General of Police (DGP) Mohan Lal Lather intervened after the video gained thousands of views.
A year after the horrific incident in his village, Ashok Meghwal and two other eyewitnesses sat down with the police for hours in the circle officer (CO) Gramin’s room. They played-paused-played the video to identify the accused. The men beat the pregnant woman with sticks and bricks in the video, while her mother asks for mercy with folded hands as she herself bled from the head.
Ashok, a first-generation learner who holds BA, BEd and MA degrees, wasn’t nervous. He had all the evidence he needed — all three minutes of it.
Law and the new social order
The police and administration officials are grappling to make sense of this new phenomenon.
“Everyone has a phone and a motorcycle now. But not every video is correct. It is often used as a way to instigate the other community,” says additional superintendent of police (ASP) Devender Kumar Sharma, who is now heading the investigation.
Another police officer added that with every segment of society getting access to jobs, a decent lifestyle and dignified life, the centuries-old feudal system in Rajasthan is getting disrupted. Technology is a great equaliser.
“The videos going viral is a result of this conflict,” he said.
Pali District Magistrate Ansh Deep says that when eyewitnesses turn hostile in cases of atrocities on Dalits, the video becomes substantial evidence.
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Cellphone in the hands of castes
Mobile phone videos are being used not just by Dalits but also powerful Rajput villagers. But for an entirely different goal.
A few months after Ashok Meghwal’s incident, another video went viral. Around 300 kilometres away from Pali, in the bordering village called Girab, young Rajput boys went to a Meghwal graveyard.
They jumped on the dead bodies, removed the dead’s clothes and put animal bones in the graves. One of the Rajput boys was assigned the ‘duty’ of recording the whole act. The next day, the boys put these videos as their WhatsApp status and also sent them to the people belonging to the Meghwal community.
Damu Ram, 31, who was the first to receive the video, was agitated because his own grandfather and great grandfather were buried there.
“When I saw them beating the dead, I sent the video to members of my community,” Ram said. Some Dalits uploaded it on Facebook and Twitter, tagging Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gahlot, the state DGP and SC-ST Commission. The Superintendent of Police then took cognisance, registered an FIR and made a few arrests.
“We’ve had casteism before but this is the first time when even the dead have not been spared in an effort to insult us,” said Prahlad Ram, 40, a Dalit activist from Pali.
Dalits and handheld power goes viral
Back at the Pali SP’s office, a restless Ashok scrolls through Twitter profiles of professor and author Dilip Mandal and Ambedkarite journalist Sumit Chauhan in between switching to Dainik Bhaskar’s app and WhatsApp groups. His case was attached to additional SP Devender Kumar Sharma by the DGP after it made national headlines. Ashok tracks cases of atrocities on Dalits in Jodhpur and Pali districts published in the Hindi daily. He has an Instagram account, but he rarely uses it.
“That day, I realised the value of Twitter. Earlier, I used to pass time on WhatsApp and Facebook. That day I did not upload it on Facebook or WhatsApp, I used Twitter. If it had not been tweeted, my case would not have even been registered,” he told ThePrint.
Meghwal could not have made the video go viral without the help of Dalit social media influencers.
Hansraj Meena, founder of Tribal Army, has emerged as a powerful voice. The Karauli-born activist knows how to trend an issue on Twitter. “In 2019, I observed that political parties and governments were using social media for their propaganda and governance. That is the time I started bringing such cases to the Twitter ecosystem,” he said. He has around 4,40,000 followers and the Tribal Army has 1,30,000.
“At least now these cases are in public domain. Earlier they would remain invisible,” he said. “Of 100 cases that I post information on, at least 40 per cent of them get noticed by the states. Then I pursue the cases and tell people to meet the SDMs and DMs for further follow-up.”
Kishan Meghwal, a lawyer who has been practising in Jodhpur High Court and is a member of Dalit Soshan Mukti Manch, takes up several cases of atrocities. “I have taken up at least half a dozen such cases in the past one year — a case where a screwdriver dipped in petrol was inserted in the rectum of a Dalit man, a Dalit woman gangraped and the act was filmed, a Dalit man tied to a tree and beaten black and blue for growing a moustache, and another Dalit man humiliated for riding a Bullet bike. The viral video helps us, it indicates that such an atrocity has happened. Earlier, it was impossible to even convince the police,” he says.
Sitting in his chamber reading the Constitution, proudly sporting his moustache and wearing a cap, Kishan says that when he saw young men being beaten in villages for growing moustaches, he changed his look to this.
“They can mock me, but they can’t beat me.”
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New technology, old hierarchies
Even as social media platforms have empowered members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to highlight the atrocities against them, some activists like Bhanwar Meghwanshi say that it has also pushed them into shame.
Dominant castes are also using phone videos to intimidate those from the oppressed castes. For example, in the Thanagazi gangrape case in Alwar in 2019, the rapists recorded videos to shame the survivor and her husband into silence. Similarly, in Bhilwara, where a young Dalit boy was tied to a tree and beaten up on suspicion of stealing a goat, the accused uploaded the video on the internet and the victim disappeared. When the video went viral on Twitter and Facebook, the police registered an FIR and managed to track the boy down. Activists and the police only come to know about the incident when the video has become viral on social media. By then, the victim has been named and shamed.
Despite the odds, this is one war that the Dalits are winning. It is transforming their attitudes, and making them visible in a landscape that otherwise routinely ignores them.
Ashok knows the power of both social media and education. “We are the first family from SC community in our village who have invested in education. The rest are uneducated and don’t have any job,” he explains. Ashok’s father Mange Lal, 57, could only study till Class 9, and has started working as a security guard in a coaching centre after the family recently relocated to Jodhpur after constant threats from the dominant Rajput community. Ashok’s sister is pursuing BEd after BSc. His elder brother works in a private bank.
At the Barmer collector’s office, a few Rajput elders sit on chairs, as do Meghwals from another block. Both groups are here to meet the collector. This equality was unthinkable even a few years ago.
IIT Roorkee graduate Suresh Jogesh, now a social activist, says young Dalits have become assertive. “They are on Facebook and if some official misbehaves, they simply open their Facebook accounts and stream the whole episode,” he says.
Not all violence go viral. The contrast is glaring.
A day before the incident in Girab, in Barmer’s Chohtan block, a Dalit father and his son were attacked by dominant castes. The Gohad-Ka-Tala village comprises 75 per cent Dalits. The Meghwal-Rajput conflict had flared up over an old liquor issue.
“My son Ramesh was taken to an unknown place and forced to drink their urine,” says Raichand Meghwal. Even six months on, despite his association with the Bhim Army, he sounds helpless: “No one recorded what was happening. Even the Dalits stood there as mute spectators. They had mobiles with them but none of them had the courage to record it. All the accused are now out on bail. The case will drag on for years.”
Invisible in public, suffering in private
Technology is correcting a deep imbalance in the representation of castes in Rajasthan. Across Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Barmer and Pali districts, the absence of Dalits in public domain is quite glaring. Shops, posters and billboards with Karni Sena, Rajputana and other such names abound. Dominant castes are commonly addressed as Banna and Hukum, while Dalits are given humiliating monickers — Ashok is called Ashokiya, while Mange Lal becomes Mangya. Dr B.R. Ambedkar would be called ‘Bhimta’ by the dominant castes, but Dalits can’t comment on the Karni Sena. Right from the clothes to the local folklore to the construction of houses, everything brings out the caste contrast between the dominant castes and Dalits.
So, Dalits are turning their physical absence into a digital presence. In their WhatsApp groups, they celebrate Babasaheb Ambedkar, their identity and the rights that the Constitution has given. Not all of their videos are about atrocities. Their Instagram accounts feature them riding motorcycles, chilling and celebrating their heroes.
Ramdev Meghwal, an LLB pass-out from JNV, Jodhpur said: “I am part of so many groups that also have people from other castes. I deliberately send Ambedkar’s birthday greeting amid their jokes and caste slurs such as Dedh and Chamar.”
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Lockdown intensifies caste tensions
Rajasthan reported 7,017 cases of atrocities against Scheduled Castes in 2020, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. In 2019, the state reported 6,794 such cases and in 2018, the number stood at 4,607. From 2018 to 2020, the state saw a rise of almost 52 per cent.
Bhanwar Meghwanshi, an activist and a powerful social media voice, says the numbers indicate that while there was a global pandemic, Rajasthan was facing another pandemic — of caste atrocities.
According to the 2011 Census, Scheduled Castes in Rajasthan, comprising several castes such as Meghwal, Valmiki, Jatav, Bairwa, Khatik, Koli, and Sargara, are 17.83 per cent of the total population while dominant castes such as Rajputs and Brahmins comprise 9 per cent and 7 per cent. The nature of caste conflicts varies. In western Rajasthan, the main conflict is between Meghwals and Rajputs along with dominant OBCs. Pali, Barmer, Jalore, Sirohi and Nagaur remain the epicentre of the viral videos of caste atrocities. With migrant workers returning to their villages, tensions between castes worsened during the lockdown.
But the rising tensions have been accompanied by better organisation as a community as well as improved access to the district administration. The emergence of groups like Bhim Army helps.
As Harish Meghwal, district president of Bhim Army in Jaisalmer, says: “We send the videos to the SP and DM. At least they know about the incident. My father or grandfather did not even have the confidence to approach the authorities. Access to the SP and DM gives us a lot of courage.”
But improved recording of cases does not mean better policing. Data accessed by ThePrint from the Rajasthan Police shows that the authorities failed to file chargesheets in around 50 per cent of the cases. In 2021, the state filed chargesheets in 3,087 cases against the total number of 7,524 cases registered under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. In 2020, out of total 7,017 cases, the state police filed chargesheets in only 2,929 cases. In 2019, out of a total of 6,794 cases, the state police filed chargesheets in only 2,919 cases.
DGP Mohan Lal Lather explains this, saying earlier, Dalits would not even register their grievances. “With the state’s new policy about FIRs, we are seeing them come forward.” But videos are not always enough evidence, say police officers. ADG law and order, Ravi Prakash, says identifying the location, accused and victims is a detailed process.
“Since 2019, we have also started training our constables with a mandatory course and exam so that we have more investigating officers in the police department,” Prakash says. New ways of presenting evidence require new case-solving techniques.
In this two-part series, ThePrint examines new forms of social and economic assertion by Dalit communities.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)