‘What’s My Fault?’: 12-Yr-Old Dalit Boy Recalls Meerut Jail Horror
“‘Sirji, please jaane do.’ Maine unse haath jodke bheek maangi (sir, please let me go. I begged them with folded hands).”
Meerut police responded to 12-year-old Abhishek Jatav's plea by allegedly slapping him twice and pushing him into a jeep where he joined other young boys. "As I tried to make sense of what just happened, everything fell silent, except for the buzz in my ears in the aftermath of the resounding slap.”
Abhishek was picked up, along with many members of the Dalit community, when the protest against the dilution of the ST/SC Act turned violent across India, including Meerut, on 2 April. In the ensuing violence, nine people died, including two in Uttar Pradesh. According to the office of the Superintendent of Police (city), Meerut, Ranvijay Singh, around 100 FIRs were filed and 92 were arrested.
As Abhishek left his 32-year-old aunt Laxmi's home in Mavana, Meerut, little did he know what awaited him. The driver of the tempo he was hitch-hiking with, had asked passengers to get off citing blocked roads. Abhishek got off as asked, and while he was walking home on a divider, he was allegedly stopped by furious policemen.
"I would not have let him go if I knew what was happening outside," Laxmi told The Quint.
Abhishek has been charged under Sections 147 (rioting), 148 (armed with deadly weapon), 120B (criminal conspiracy), 395 (dacoity), 307 (attempt to murder), act endangering safety of others (336) of the Indian Penal Code, and Section 7 of the Criminal Law (Amendment Act) and others.
"Look at my son, does it look like he attempted to murder someone? This government is not for the Dalit community. The police is not for the Dalit community," Abhishek’s mother, 32-year-old Sundari, said.
The first night in lockup, Abhishek didn't sleep at all. "After bringing me to the police station, they told me to stand in the corner as I was among the youngest there," he said.
People were brought in large numbers and repeatedly beaten up and abused – as Abhishek watched in horror, he said.
Abhishek's family searched one police station after another, hoping they would find him safe and alive. "We found him in the civil lines police station. When we asked the officers if we could meet him, the policemen said, 'He is here but we won't let you meet him. And if you don't go, we will keep you here too,’” his mother recalled with disdain.
They saw their son from a distance and helplessly left the station.
Wide-eyed, bereft of sleep and still comprehending what had happened after he got off the tempo, Abhishek found himself in a juvenile home the next morning.
"I couldn't sleep properly for several nights," Abhishek said. After getting bail on 8 June, he insisted on sleeping in the room with as many of his family members. "At nightfall there would be no electricity and they wouldn't even give us a candle," he said, remembering the nights spent at the juvenile home.
Juvenile homes only allow you to meet your family every Monday. "Everytime my mother came to meet me I would beg her to get me out," he says looking towards his mother. His mother, Sundari, says his behaviour has changed drastically after he spent time in jail. "He listens to everything we say. He doesn't talk rudely. It is heart-breaking that this had to come at the cost of him being in jail," she told The Quint.
What was once a bustling home in Kaliyagarhi, with the presence of Abhishek and his siblings, Sandhya and Harsh, today observes quietude. "Relatives would keep inquiring about him. He is my kid brother not some terrorist who they arrested and took away," Sandhya says.
While they felt lonely in a home frequented by concerned relatives, their brother Abhishek was allegedly being bullied by adults in the juvenile home. "They used to make us do jhadu poncha (sweeping and scrubbing floors) and clean the toilets. Even the day I was leaving, the big boys knew, so they told me I had to clean everything up," he said.
Abhishek getting bail wasn't an easy ride either, his mother recounts. "The first lawyer we went to wasn't working to get my child out. So we went to the Meerut Bar Association and switched to two other lawyers who helped us," she said.
In the Meerut Bar Association, replete with its betel-stained walls, we met Satish Kumar Rajwal and Satendra Kumar Singh sitting in a dimly lit room used as an office by lawyers and frequented by the relatives of those embroiled in a trial after being arrested during the protest on 2 April.
"Whenever the child came, for each hearing, he broke down. The kid didn't know what he was being punished for or why he was being kept in prison," Satendra Kumar said. He added that Abhishek should have been let out by the 5 or 6 April, but this extended stay in prison has instilled a fear of the administration in the child. "This is not justice," he said. Rajwal said the condition of his mother was visibly deteriorating with each hearing.
"Naseeb mein likha tha mere 12 saal bache ke liye jail ka khana?," (was my 12-year-old son destined to have jail food?) his mother asks, her voice trembling. Over the two months and five days that her son was lodged in jail, she says she repeatedly fell sick – ailing with high BP and anxiety.
The police, however, maintains that all arrests were founded. "The kids were arrested because they were present in the area of violence and there is video evidence against them," SP (City) Meerut Ranvijay Singh told The Quint.
Abhishek has only been granted bail. However, the case is far from over. The case will move to trial and there will be continued court visits, meetings with lawyers and multiple hearings. But after two months, his family brought out his forsaken carrom board, relieved it of dirt and brought it back to life with a generous dusting of powder.
The 12-year-old Dalit boy, with the support of his family, is now preparing himself for a prolonged battle at court.