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New Delhi: Away from the media spotlight, ignored by politicians making a beeline to Badaun in Uttar Pradesh where two teenage girls were raped and their bodies then strung up from a tree, causing nationwide outrage, a small group of Dalits from Bhagana village in Haryana waits patiently for justice for the rape of four teenage girls in March this year.

“The land is theirs, the judiciary belongs to them, they have the money, and they are the government. All we had was dignity, and they stripped us of even that," says Veermati, the mother of one of the girls.

Squatting with a group of sunburnt women under a canvas tent in Jantar Mantar, with men milling around, some trying to fix the banners, others discussing which influential person to meet next, Veermati is part of a group of Dalits from Hisar district’s Bhagana that is determined to stay in Delhi until they get justice for the girls who, they say, were raped by upper-caste men from their own village.

On the night of 23 March, Veermati says her daughter was one of four girls aged 13-, 15-, 17- and 18-year-olds who had stepped out, like the girls in Badaun, to urinate in the open. A white car stopped, with five men in it. The men dragged the girls inside the car.

“They put a piece of cloth on our mouths and we lost consciousness. That’s all I remember," says the 18-year-old. The rest she says is a blur. “I could see they were doing this to me but that’s all I remember," she says. The girls were then dumped at Bhatinda railway station, nearly 170km away.

When the family finally found the girls, complaints were filed with the police and medical tests carried out. But the medico-legal certificates were not provided to them till 15 April, the families say.

The group filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking compensation of 1 crore for each victim, and asking that the Central Bureau of Investigation take over the case.

The incident is the latest in a series of gang-rapes in Haryana that received national media attention in late 2012, prompting even a visit to the state by Congress party president Sonia Gandhi.

The upper castes in Haryana have been using rape as a “potent tool of war", says senior advocate Colin Gonsalves who is representing the girls in the Punjab and Haryana high court.

Even though the number of atrocities against Dalits has declined in most states from 33,426 in 2009 to 32,569 in 2010, according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) figures, there has been a rise in such crimes in Haryana where it increased by 35% between 2008 and 2011.

With a population of 25 million (2011 Census), 19.35% of whom are Dalits, Haryana has witnessed a spate of Jat-Dalit conflicts in places such as Mirchpur, Harsola, Dulina and Gohana.

Behind the March rapes lies a story of simmering caste tension and conflict and the daily humiliation heaped upon Dalits by the dominant community. In Bhagana village, tensions began between the Jats and Dalits when in 2011 the gram sabha decided to distribute 280 acres of land, including common village land, among the villagers. Since the distribution of the common land was in proportion to the land already owned and since the Dalits are predominantly landless, they ended up with less than 100 square yards each, say the protestors.

In February 2012, the protestors say, the Jat community claimed a playground that the Dalits had been using. This was followed by incidents of sexual harassment and molestation by the upper castes.

“We were denied basic amenities and our girls were teased every now and then," says Veermati.

In May, 70 Dalit families from Bhagana started protesting outside the district magistrate’s office in Hisar against the unfair appropriation of their common land. As retaliation, the Jats, aided by khap panchayats, declared a social and economic boycott against the Dalits, many of whom are landless labourers and dependent on the upper castes for work.

The Dalits were denied access to public transport, water, playgrounds and even doctors. This led to more families joining the protest. The community complained to the village panchayat and police. There were minor incidents where women were harassed or teased, but things became worse when on 23 March the four girls were picked up and raped.

“The police kept telling us there are so many cases and how can they file so many FIRs (first information reports)," says 28-year-old Jagdish Kajla, a Dalit farmer.

The protestors say they cannot go back to their homes in Bhagana. “We have been humiliated. Who will marry our daughters now?" says 65-year-old Shanti. “All we hope is that we get justice."

The group is demanding action against the accused rapists who have been arrested. They want compensation for the victims and the removal of the social boycott imposed by khap leaders.

Around 80.6% cases of atrocity against Scheduled Castes were pending in courts during 2008-10, reveals NCRB data. For 2012, Haryana figured among the worst seven states with a poor conviction rate in crimes against Dalits.

“All the institutions of justice are in Delhi—the government, the Supreme Court, the public. Nirbhaya (the medical student who died following a brutal gang-rape on 16 December 2012) got justice here. We will too," says Virender Singh Bhagoria, a potter by caste, who is leading the Dalits and is a member of Bhagana Kaand Sangharsh Samiti, formed after the 2012 social boycott.

“What is unfortunate is that for the public, the severity of any crime is determined by the caste of the victim," he says.

Veermati says she will not stop protesting until her daughter’s rapists are punished. “Doesn’t the same blood flow in the veins of every human being?" she asks. It’s a question many Dalits in Haryana ask.

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