(Slightly expanded version of a piece in Wire.in)
Kusmi Devi is an agricultural labourer from Bihar’s most oppressed Mahadalit Musahar community. She sent her daughter Dika to school, determined that Dika must not slave in the fields as her mother and foremothers had done. 16-year-old Dika studied in the Ambedkar Residential Girls’ School in Hajipur (Vaishali), one of the schools run by the Bihar Government for Dalit children. But Dika was killed – on the very premises of the school – in mysterious circumstances.
Testimonies of Dika’s mother and hostel mates raise questions about the role and responsibility of the School authorities in the murder. They also raise questions about the conditions inside such schools – conditions in which the students and their parents are not seen as deserving of dignity and rights. Was Dika killed to cover up sexual harassment? Are the Bihar police authorities seeking to hush up the matter?
On 6 January, Dika made a call to Kusmi, saying she was not well. Kusmi went, packing some homemade sweet sevai and phulki for her daughter. Dika, on meeting her, said, “Mai re, I want to tell you something but you’ll feel very bad. Please just take me home, I’m feeling very upset.” On being pressed by Kusmi to tell her what the matter was, Dika said that a teacher in the school called her into his office and offered to give her better marks if she what Dika called ‘wrong things’ with her. Shocked by this, Kusmi wanted to complain, but Dika stopped her, saying that the teachers would beat her later if a complaint was made. Kusmi then tried to take Dika home on another pretext. She told a teacher, “Dika is weak in maths, please let me take her home for a couple of months to get her special coaching in maths.” To Kusmi’s shock, the teacher roughed her up and threw her out, asking her, “Do you think your daughter is the only child in the school? Get out of the gate and don’t try to come back.” He flung her bag with the sevai-phulki across the office room. Kusmi, in tears outside the school gate, and full of fear for her daughter’s well-being, left.
Dika called her again in the evening. The conversation between mother and daughter took the form mother-daughter conversations often do, in which sharp anxieties and deep love are expressed in the seemingly everyday query, “What are you having for dinner?” that both asked each other. Dika told mother there was khichdi-chokha for dinner and she planned to eat and sleep, and Kusmi said she had made marsatka (wet rice) and bhujiya. That was the last time Kusmi ever heard her daughter’s voice.
The next morning, a vikas mitra (development volunteer) in her village told her that Dika was dead. As Kusmi says, “None of the teachers or the school guards called me – why did the school authorities not inform me, as was their duty?” Kusmi and her family rushed to the hostel, to find Dika’s body lying in a drain. The clothes, they say, were tattered, the body was covered with injuries all over, the mouth and nose were full of mud and dust. There appeared to be knife injuries on the face and hands and private parts. Kusmi said she could see Dika’s underwear stuffed into her body – when pulled out, congealed blood came out from her private parts. The police and teachers present had been keen to take the body away, but Dika’s schoolmates had forced them to wait for Dika’s family members to arrive.
Kajal, a young school mate of Dika’s, says, “There was uproar in the morning that something has happened to Dika. We saw Dika lying in a pool of blood. The two night guards Sanju Devi and Kaiser would not stop and help us with the body, no matter how much our seniors tried to call out to them for help. They just ran away and switched off their phones. When the Principal Indu Devi came, she wanted the body taken away for post mortem, but we didn’t allow them to take away the body till Dika’s parents arrived.”
Kusmi suspects that her daughter was raped before she was killed. The SP has been quoted in papers admitting that there was bleeding from the private parts that in the civil surgeon’s opinion this could have been caused by “injury from a sharp object” and that a “wooden cot was found at the spot.”
Kajal and her school friends are at the forefront of a sustained struggle for justice for Dika. According to Kajal, “Guards allow young men from the NGO that cooks food for the students, inside the school and hostel premises. If we protested this the guards would shout at us. Yet, if our brothers and fathers came to the school to meet us, the guards threatened to get them arrested and jailed! Women teachers as well as the Principal Indu Devi do not stay on the hostel premises at night?”
Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister of Bihar, brands himself as an ambassador of girls’ schooling and women’s empowerment, and brands his Government as a champion of social justice. Dika’s death exposes the reality behind the tall claims. What kind of social justice is it when a school girl – defying centuries-old caste and gender oppression to assert her right to study – is killed in a Government-run school after she refuses to cooperate with sexual harassment?
Admission to Kendriya Vidyalayas and Navodaya schools is difficult to obtain, so most Dalit students rely on the Ambedkar schools and hostels in the State, which are in a notorious state of neglect and disrepair. Dalit students have been raising demands for better upkeep and facilities, as well as basic human dignity in these schools for very long, without much response from the Nitish Kumar Government. A profile of CPI(ML) activist Manoj Manzil in the Wire last year had traced the struggles of Dalit students in Bihar for basic amenities like water and electricity in Ambedkar Avasiya Vidyalayas (Ambedkar Residential Schools) – struggles for which agitating Dalit schoolboys were expelled. Discussing an agitation against the death of a Dalit school student by electrocution in the Ambedkar hostel at Katira in Bhojpur, Manoj Manzil had explained, “He was electrocuted in the bathroom. But we don’t look at it as an accident. The Dalit hostels are in a bad shape, the wiring was faulty, and they don’t release funds to fix them.”
This hostel had been subjected to arson and vandalism by the Ranveer Sena following the death of Ranveer Sena chief Brahmeshwar Singh – violence which the Bihar police, with the approval of Nitish Kumar, allowed a free rein.
Even in Kendriya Vidyalayas, Dalit students in Bihar are subjected to the most blatant atrocities. Last October a viral video revealed upper caste students torturing and thrashing a Dalit student of a Kendriya Vidyalaya in Muzaffarpur (not far from Hajipur where Dika was killed).
The Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is silent on the shocking murder of Dika Kumari, which ought at the very least have prompted a thorough and impartial probe into the state of Ambedkar schools and hostels in Bihar. Ram Vilas Paswan, a Central Government Minister, is the MP from Hajipur where the murder took place. But he too is yet to speak on the murder.
Sexual harassment of the kind narrated by Dika to her mother is seldom an isolated instance. Complaints will come to light only if a safe climate is created for an impartial probe. The schools and hostels should also be surveyed for the facilities and basic amenities including water, electricity, hygiene and safety available to students. Another aspect of the probe should be the conduct of administrators, teachers and staff towards students and their parents: the kind of high-handedness to which Dika’s mother was subjected is also symptomatic of the caste and class discrimination and indignity meted out towards the poor who seek education and social mobility.
In an appeal issued to the people of Bihar, Kusmi Devi said, “I work in the fields with a trowel and a sickle. But I wanted my daughter to study. I’m uneducated and poor but that did not stop my daughter Dika and I from dreaming of a future with dignity. That dream has been snatched from us. All I want is justice. I demand justice so that no other mother should be robbed so cruelly of her daughter.”
Incidents from Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and other states also indicate how vulnerable Dalit girls who pursue education are – inside educational institutions run by governments. Last year, 17 year-old Delta Meghwal was killed in her hostel in Barmer, Rajasthan following sexual violence by a teacher. In 2013, 15 adivasi schoolgirls were subjected to sexual assault for several months by staff in a government-run residential school in Kanker, Chhattisgarh. The girls’ complaints were ignored and suppressed for long before they came to light. But not much has changed since then: in September 2016, there was yet another case of molestation of adivasi schoolgirls in a government-run school in Kanker. Chhattisgarh tribal welfare department additional commissioner KP Dhruv indulged in victim blaming following this incident, claiming that the accused men were boyfriends whom the schoolgirls had invited over.
What we also need to ask is why protests on such issues attract so little attention in the national media. No one grudges the attention given by the media to the Bengaluru New Year’s eve molestation incident. But surely we must ask why the media fails entirely to cover massive protests following incidents of violence against Dalit or adivasi girls? There were protests following Delta Meghwal’s murder; adivasi school students blocked a National Highway in protest following the 2016 molestation in Kanker; students and women mostly from the poorest and most oppressed sections of rural Bihar are on the streets demanding Justice For Dika. But the images, news and footage of these protests are rarely if ever to be found in most of the national media, especially the electronic media that has such great power to shape the political and social discourse on gender and social justice.
In the demonstrations and marches in Bihar, Dika’s school and hostel mates have been most spirited and determined. The movement for Justice for Dika has decided that on Republic Day this year, memorial meetings for Dika will be held all over Bihar, and students of Ambedkar schools and hostels, as well as other schools and colleges will refuse to accept the sweets customarily distributed on the occasion. Republic Day marks day that the Indian Constitution came into force. What does it say of the state of the Republic when schools and colleges become killing fields for young girls like Dika Kumari in Bihar or Delta Meghwal in Rajasthan who dare to dream of education, dignity and equality?