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"My baby girl was born on the streets because upper-caste men blocked the roads," Rajabai, a 25-year-old Dalit woman in Chhatarpur district's Sisolar village in Madhya Pradesh, alleges to The Quint.
At about 11 am on 2 November, a group of Dalit women in Sisolar village surrounded Rajabai to deliver her baby in the middle of the government-built road.
The ambulance couldn't reach her home because the entrance to the road, which comes till her doorstep, is blocked using iron gates, allegedly installed by upper-caste men, including a former sarpanch from an OBC (Other Backward Classes) community. Her family tried to transport her on a cot till the ambulance, but she couldn't bear the jolts.
"I sensed that I was in labour. So, my husband called for an ambulance around 9 am [on 2 November]. But it couldn't reach our house despite a government-built road which allows access for the vehicle. Who cares about a Dalit child and her mother anyway?" Rajabai tells The Quint.
Although Rajabai and her daughter Guddi are in good health, she believes she dodged a bullet.
Located around 100 kilometres from the district headquarters, Sisolar is a Dalit-dominated village. Of the total 800-something voters, over 50 percent of them are Dalits, followed by OBCs and general category voters.
But Sisolar is not the only village in Chhatarpur district – one of the six districts in the Bundelkhand region spread across Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh – where caste segregation is palpable. It is felt, seen, and experienced by a large section of people.
And yet, time and again, it fails to become a poll issue during the state Assembly elections.
'Gates Are Against the Rules, Deny Even Basic Rights'
The entrance to Sisolar boasts of houses of upper-caste Brahmin Thakurs, followed by those of OBCs. The Dalit settlement is situated at the rear end of the village.
The village layout intersects Dalit settlements, and yet, their access is obstructed using iron gates, isolating the community.
Within the village, there are four entry points, of which three are equipped with large iron gates installed approximately 5-7 years ago. According to locals, makeshift barricades existed before the installation of these gates, primarily constructed from bamboo.
The fourth entrance remains accessible through a footpath along the ridges of the fields that became viable over the years due to regular usage.
The village may offer basic amenities to the Dalit community, but it fails to address or even acknowledge the issue of caste segregation.
Devendra Choudhary, Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) of Lavkushnagar, Chhatarpur district, acknowledges the issue of the gates.
"We have information about the gates being installed on the village roads in Sisolar, and we will take action if we receive a complaint from the villagers," he notes.
Villagers, including the incumbent Sarpanch Arvind Tiwari, however, claim that they have sought help from various government officers but to no avail.
"Some powerful upper-caste men have installed these gates. We have sought help from the Tehsildar, SDM, and other officials multiple times but we got no relief. This is totally against the rules, the laws, and even basic rights and human dignity."Arvind Tiwari
The Quint tried speaking to upper-caste men, including Sughar Singh, who allegedly blocked off Dalit settlements on one side and the main road on the other with two red iron gates. We also tried reaching out to the former OBC Sarpanch, Somprakash Shirvas, but got no response after knocking on their doors on 10 November.
'Many Guddis Will Be Born on Roads'
Although the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has been at the helm of decision-making in Madhya Pradesh for 18 years (not including the 15-month stint of the Kamal Nath-led Congress government that was toppled in 2020), locals allege that the issue of atrocities against Dalits has garnered little to no attention from the government.
"This is Shivraj Singh Chouhan's fourth term as the chief minister. But what has his government done for Dalits and to keep them safe from caste discrimination? Until the politicians decide to talk about it, there won't be any change. Many Guddis will be born on the roads – and thousands of us will die due to the lack of basic rights."A villager in Chhatarpur
Back in January 2023, 53-year-old school teacher Kamtu Ahirwar suffered a heart attack and couldn't get to the hospital on time. The reason? The private vehicle that his family had arranged for his transportation to the hospital couldn't get to his house. He, too, was carried on a cot to the main road – and a half-hour delay in getting him to the hospital allegedly cost him his life.
"My uncle suffered a heart attack in January. I rushed to his home, held him, and called a private vehicle to take him to Uttar Pradesh's Banda because that's where the nearest hospital with better treatment is located. However, the vehicle couldn't enter the village. It was around 500 metres from my uncle's home to the main road. It took us around 30 minutes to arrange people, get the cot, and carry him to the vehicle."Rajendra Ahirwar
"He had lost consciousness. By the time we were able to reach the hospital, he was dead. The doctors said that they could have saved him about half an hour ago. See, that's the level of agony a Dalit has to go through," the 31-year-old tells The Quint.
Casteism Paralyses Bundelkhand Region
Almost 270 km away, in the Barodiya Naunagir village of Sagar district's Khurai constituency – which is also the constituency of BJP MLA and Minister for Urban Development and Housing of Madhya Pradesh Bhupendra Singh – Asha (name changed to protect identity), a Dalit woman, fears for her family's safety.
Earlier in August 2023, her 18-year-old brother and her family were allegedly thrashed – and their house vandalised – for purportedly refusing to settle a 2019 sexual harassment case filed by her against a few upper-caste men, who allegedly had ties to Singh. Denying the association with the accused, Singh had claimed that the Congress was "politicising the issue."
Although the district police arrested 13 men for the murder of her 18-year-old brother and imposed relevant sections of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, Asha says she wants a change in the regime so that she can get justice.
"We were being continuously threatened to retract the complaint... For almost two years, I told many officials that we were being pressured, but nobody listened. In August, those same men, emboldened by their political backing and our hopelessness, killed my brother and stripped my mother naked."Asha
The survivor's 50-year-old father is a daily wage labourer, while their mother is a homemaker. The deceased boy was the youngest of four children, survived by his two brothers and a sister. While the deceased's two elder brothers also work as labourers, she is pursuing her graduation.
The data from the state back the real-life incidents.
In 2021 – the last year for which the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) had published its report – Madhya Pradesh reported the highest crime rate of 63.6 against SCs in the country, surpassing the national average of 25.3. The figures for 2020 and 2019 were 60.8 and 46.7, respectively.
The data also suggest that there has been a rise in the number of crimes against Dalits. In 2019, the state documented 5,300 cases of atrocities against Dalits – a number that increased to 6,899 in 2020 and further rose to 7,214 in 2021.
On a national scale, the crime rate against SCs stood at 25 in 2020 and 22.8 in 2019.
"I truly believe that if it was any other party than the BJP, we wouldn't have to face all this. There would have been strict action against the culprits and my brother wouldn't have been killed."Asha
Congress, BJP Avoid Discussion on Caste Atrocities
Speaking to The Quint, a BJP leader canvassing in Chhatarpur, says no party wants to "lose votes" by talking about caste discrimination.
"In Bundelkhand, caste discrimination is something that no party wants to talk about. All of us behave like it doesn't exist. We instead try to talk about education, employment, and development. Although the outburst due to caste discrimination hasn't happened yet in the recent past, as most times, a majority of Dalits migrate to other places, it is an impending tornado that will cause massive destruction if it persists. At present, we don't want to lose votes."BJP leader
Congress leaders in Bundelkhand share a similar view of deliberately staying away issues of caste discrimination and focusing on the developmental agenda "to avoid any conflict and potential loss of votes".
Their stance is despite Dalits constituting approximately 16 percent of the state's population, with significant influence in the Bundelkhand and the Gwalior-Chambal region.
Even as the opposition Congress consistently criticises the BJP in response to reported atrocities against Dalits, the party has failed to integrate this issue into its election campaign.
Except for a promise to review the implementation of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 in the state, along with appointing an officer of the rank of additional superintendent of police to investigate cases of atrocities, the focus has largely been on general concerns such as corruption, unemployment, cash-based schemes, subsidised gas cylinders, and electricity.
(with inputs from Jai Prakash)