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A Dalit student in Delhi? Hide your surname - Brutal assault by upper-caste landlord on research scholar blows lid off capital's can of worms

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ANANYA SENGUPTA   |   Delhi   |   Published 06.05.08, 12:00 AM

New Delhi, May 5: Kanaklata had been fighting to keep her Dalit identity in the dark since moving to the capital eight years ago.

She lost her battle on Saturday when she, her siblings and a friend were brutally beaten up by her landlord and his wife because they did not like their caste.

Kanaklata’s last name is Rani, but the 30-year-old doing her MPhil in Hindi literature from Delhi University had to keep it under wraps to get a roof over her head.

“We hid the fact that we were Dalits because we knew that if we reveal our caste, there won’t be a street in Delhi where people will let us stay. Initially, we hadn’t taken the trouble of hiding our caste, but when for months we didn’t get a place to stay, we decided we had no other option,” Kanaklata said.

Om Prakash Grover, in whose house the girls had rented a room, used to treat them like “family”, recalled Kanaklata.

But things changed dramatically five days ago when the Grovers got to know from another tenant about Kanaklata’s caste.

“They disconnected our electricity and water supplies. When we objected, they started beating us up,” Kanaklata said.

Bite and scratch marks on her body stand testimony to the assault.

The person who squealed on Kanaklata is an IAS aspirant who fled the city as soon as she went to police.

“They are all literate people. You at least expect them to understand these sensitive issues; it’s a pity they didn’t. But we aren’t surprised. There are thousands of Dalit students in Delhi who do not reveal their last names even to their closest friends. Just say your surname is Rani or Kumari and you are branded Dalits and untouchables,” said Geeta, Kanaklata’s 25-year-old sister.

Kanaklata has moved with her siblings — she has a third sister, Manorama, and two brothers, Bhushan and Vijay — to a cramped room in Brahmanand Colony, close to their earlier house in Mukherjeenagar.

The family hails from Deora district in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Manorama, 29, is a schoolteacher and Bhushan is doing his masters in computer application from Amity University.

Dalits comprise almost 17 per cent of Delhi’s population, out of whom almost five lakh are students. Most of them stay in areas like Mukherjeenagar and Brahmanand Colony, only 2km from Delhi University.

Almost all of these students — a large chunk is from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh — dream of joining the civil services.

“We are all highly qualified. We are schedule tribes not by choice, but by birth. We can’t do anything about it,” said Kanaklata.

“These people (the landlord and his wife), whom we once shared food with, said things like ‘first, you are Biharis and then you are chamars, you have made our house impure’. For the past three days, we didn’t have water to either cook or drink. When we were being beaten up, not one person in the neighbourhood came to our rescue,” she added.

Ashok Bharti, the chairperson of the National Conference of Dalit Organisations, said the incident was just the tip of the iceberg.

“Twenty-five lakh Dalits stay in Delhi, out of whom, every five is a student. It’s a fact that if these students reveal that they belong to lower castes, they will not be able to find accommodation in the city. It takes a lot of time and energy for a Dalit to even buy land here. These girls got away with hiding their caste as they didn’t look like the stereotypical picture of Dalits that most people have in their minds — poor, badly dressed and uneducated,” said Bharti.

Most Dalit students in the capital admit to facing harassment because of their caste.

“I remember overhearing two teachers in my college discuss why a Dalit needs to study — they were laughing over the fact that if all Dalits start getting educated, who would clean their toilets and drag their rickshaws. This is what we have to go through everyday in our lives,” said a student pursuing a degree in social work from Delhi University.

“Had it happened in a small town or a village, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, but something like this being so rampant in a place like Delhi is shocking.”

The police have not been of much help, not to Kanaklata and her family at least. They have refused to lodge an FIR and the siblings alleged that they were being “pressured” by the police to strike a compromise with their landlord.

The police said preliminary investigations had showed it was “merely a case of quarrel between the landlord and his tenants over water distribution” as the area was grappling with an acute water shortage. They couldn’t, however, explain why they had refused to lodge an FIR.

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