Beyond the priestly call
A mass rape and after

A. J. Philip


ST. XAVIER'S is one of the oldest schools of Patna. Its first principal was Fr Marshall Moran, a Jesuit from the United States. Stories abound about the greatness of the priest. When in the wake of the Partition, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru toured the riot-affected areas of Central Bihar, it was Fr Moran who drove him around in his own jeep. One of his students belonged to the royal house of Nepal. It was this connection that helped him to establish another school -- also named St. Xavier's -- at Godavari in Kathmandu. Even now it is the only Catholic institution in the Himalayan Kingdom. He was an expert ham radio operator.

Fr Moran loved his adopted country so much that he willed that his body be cremated, and not buried as is the common Christian practice. A small group of old boys of St. Xaviers and his Jesuit colleagues were present at the Electric crematorium at Nigambodh in Delhi to witness the first-ever cremation of a Catholic priest in India. I remember writing a small diary item on the event in The Hindustan Times in Delhi where I was employed those days.

An young priest guided me to the reception where in the dark room, the receptionist searched all over the place -- his purse, his pockets, the telephone directory, the table and under the telephone instrument -- and finally found a visiting card of the Bihar Dalit Vikas Samiti (BDVS). I noted down the telephone numbers and returned the card to the receptionist who, to ward off a possible request, suggested that I make the call from a public "telephone booth just across the next building." "Dr Jose Kananaikil is not in town. Who is speaking please?" asked the person who picked up the phone. I could make out from the voice that at the other end was Dr Josey Kunnunkal. He had sent me an e-mail message just before he left the Indian Social Institute in New Delhi and joined the BDVS as Dr Kananaikil's deputy. "Come straightaway and join us for lunch" he said after giving me elaborate direction to reach the place.

I called my friend and Statesman correspondent Nalin Verma and told him about the programme. "The BDVS office is at Rukunpura? It's very close to my house", he said. Though Nalin offered to pick me up from the A.N. Sinha Institute, I told him to meet me, instead, at the BDVS after about one hour. I hired a rickshaw and started for Rukunpura. It was a new place for me. The rickshawpuller initially claimed that he knew the place well but as we moved, it was apparent he was as clueless as I was. Dr Kunnunkal's directions were quite helpful. All that I had to do was to move on Bailey Road, past the Income Tax office, the Patna Women's College, the High Court, the Botanical Garden and the Indira Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences. By Delhi standards the distance might not have been much but for the rickshawpuller, it was quite a tough assignment. He was puffing and panting when we reached Singh Petrol Pump. We stopped there to look for the BDVS signboard. Yes, it was there, just a few metres after the Pump. From there we took a narrow road to reach a new, incomplete, two-storied building. The sign board hanging from the parapet made sure that we had reached the right place.

As soon as I got down from the rickshaw, Dr Kunnunkal came out to receive me. "Welcome to BDVS" he said holding a tobacoless pipe. "This is a new building we bought. We shifted our office to this place some five-six months ago. I and Dr Kananaikil stay here". He led me to his room where Nalin was already waiting for me. Working on the computer in the well-appointed room was a smart youngman. "He is Mr Ranjan Kamath. An excellent photographer, film maker, artist, and driver, all rolled into one." Distracted a bit by my intrusion, he turned to me and said "Hello".

"I would like to meet you after some time", I told Mr Kamath. "That's no problem. He stays with us", assured Dr Kunnankal. He asked me about the purpose of my visit as he readied himself to tell me the story of BDVS. Perhaps, he was not aware that as a friend of Dr Kananaikil, I had been keenly watching the progress of the Samiti since it was set up in 1982 with 11 volunteers at Barh, a small station on the Patna-Kolkata mainline. Today, the Samiti has one lakh member families and works through its 14 independent centres in 12 districts of Bihar. A phenomenal growth by any standards.

"We are not a funding agency. We want the Dalits to raise their voice and ask for their rights. Unlike the tribals, Dalits don't have the concept of a society. That makes our task all the more difficult. But we are on the right track as our Dalit Diwas celebrations this year bear out", said bespectacled Dr Kunnunkal, who has a striking resemblance to Dr Jagannath Mishra. As he mentioned Dalit Diwas, I remembered one such celebration I attended at Gandhi Maidan over a decade ago. "It has always been a big event for the Samiti. This time over a lakh of people attended the night-long programme.

We invited Laloo Yadav for the function. He said he would be able to come for only five minutes as the Vidhan Sabha was debating the confidence motion moved by Chief Minister Rabri Devi. Do you know what happened? Laloo Yadav stayed on for one and a half hours", said Dr Kunnunkal, who had a glow on his face as he recounted the details of the celebrations. "Laloo Yadav was sitting beside me on the dais. A little before he was due to speak, he asked for a pen. I offered him a pen. No, he wanted a fountain pen. Nobody on the stage had a fountain pen. Somehow, we managed to procure one for him. We didn't know what he wanted to do with it. That is till he began his speech," he continued excitedly.

"Laloo Yadav in his speech demonstrated to the people how the Dalits were a suppressed lot and were not allowed to grow to their full potential. He said that the cap of the pen represented the powerful class. The important part of the pen was the Dalits who toiled for an identity of their own. The cap at the back pushed them to work and work but when the Dalits began to achieve their own identity, the cap came to the front and covered them. Naturally, the Dalits felt frustrated and suppressed. The speech was a hit with the audience who lapped up every word of what Laloo Yadav said. Laloo was so impressed that he announced a donation of 50 sacks of churra (rice flakes), gur (jaggery) and sattu (roasted gram powder).

"Since the participants themselves had to make arrangements for their food, the donation came as a godsend. They all thanked Laloo Yadav for their dinner". Dr Kunnunkal was in no mood to end his story.

"Did Laloo Yadav pay for the food material?" My curiosity was aroused. For a moment Dr Kunnunkal was speechless. He summoned up courage and told me in a low voice, "After the dinner was over, somebody from the government brought to me a bill for Rs 23,000. I refused to accept it and asked the person concerned, "Did you not hear Laloo Yadav say that it was his personal donation? Please send the bill to 1, Anne Marg."

"Tell me, what happened finally?" I was a little impatient. "The District Magistrate, Mr Amit Khare sorted out the matter. He is an old student of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and I knew him from those days.

Now, tell me, Dr Kunnunkal, how you got involved in this?" I asked. He took out his glass, paused, ran his fingers through his hair and said, "I was born at Thumboli in Alappuzha district in Kerala to Dr V. Kuruvila and Mariamma Kuruvila. I did my M.A. from Layola College, Chennai. I joined the Society later than most of my colleagues. For my Ph.D, I sought to probe the "Dalit psyche". I call my study a journey in search of untouchability."

I recalled it was a similar research work that led to the setting up of the Samiti. The reference here is to Dr Jose Kananaikil, who did his Ph.D from Chicago University. The subject of his thesis was the condition of the Scheduled Caste people. For his field work, he chose Barh. The research brought him closer to the poorest of the poor and he felt the need to do something for the amelioration of their condition. Thus were the seeds of the Samiti sown 18 years ago. Dr Kananikil toured the whole Barh subdivision and organised hundreds of meetings of Dalits. Through such meetings, he sought to instil in them a sense of belonging to one another. His pioneering effort caught the attention of a dozen or so youngmen who sat together with the young Jesuit priest and gave shape to the Samiti. They fanned out into the villages to conscientise the people about the need to stand united to face the oppressors.

While the movement started spreading its tentacles, the landlords who could not have been amused by the goings-on came down heavily on the Samiti volunteers. Mad with anger, they caught Ram Swaroop Das, a Samiti sympathiser and blinded him. Instead of coming to the rescue of the hapless youth, who was implicated in a trumped up case, the police kept him in their custody for a whole day without giving him any first aid. They did not raise a finger against the perpetrators of the crime. For the Samiti, the moment of action had come. The Samiti took up Das' case by knocking at the doors of the judiciary. Their persistent efforts bore fruit as the police was constrained to release Das and take action against those who tortured him. "The case ended in the conviction of the guilty", said Dr Kunnunkal. The success of the Samiti sent shockwaves down the spines of the landed gentry who realised that the BDVS could not be taken for granted. The Samiti office on Church Road in the heart of Barh became a terror for the landlords who knew that if they harassed the Dalits, they would not go unchallenged. The Samiti set up a legal aid cell with a public-spirited lawyer from Barh as its adviser to help the poor in matters of litigation.

Small wonder that the Samiti's popularity spread throughout Barh subdivision and its adjoining areas. Thus, the BDVS became a mass movement. "In the Babubigha rape case also, the guilty were punished", said Dr Kunnunkal. As soon as he mentioned 'Babubigha', I recalled the visit I made to that village nestling on the Nalanda-Munger border in Central Bihar in the mid-eighties. Its inhabitants were Scheduled Castes belonging to two of the lowest of low communities, Chamars and Beldaars. They were a source of cheap labour to the rich farmers of the neighbouring villages. Such was their condition that even after working from dawn to dusk, they could barely manage to make both ends meet. They accepted without a murmer whatever the landlords gave them as wages. They bore their misfortune with equanimity. Whenever they got some spare time, they sung aloud to the accompaniment of their rustic musical instruments. In those rare moments, they forgot all their miseries. But music was not a passion or entertainment alone for them; it was an avocation that fetched them a few rupees during festivals and marriage seasons. Like their labour, their music too was available for a song. Although the seasonal orchestral job took them far and near, it did precious little to make their life more comfortable.

Though belated, the tide of consciousness reached these hapless people. The harbinger of this awareness was Rampirat Das, a literate, who urged the people of Babubigha to hang together and demand fair wages. The villagers realised that there was sense in what he said. They decided to follow him.

Soon enough, an occasion came when their determination was put to a severe test. A notorious landlord of a nearby village came to book the band party for a night-long session at his house in connection with a marriage. This time, he found the villagers cool in their response. They demanded a fair wage. More than the amount they asked for, what infuriated the landlord was their audacity to demand a remuneration. "I will teach you a lesson", he was heard saying when he left the village.

Little did the Dalits of Babubigha know what was in store for them. One night in mid-1983 when they were all asleep in their thatched houses, a gang of desperadoes descended on the village. Said Parvati Kumari, who was just 14 when the incident occurred: "We woke up hearing a bomb blast. Before we could realise what was happening the goondas mercilessly beat up the men who ran helter-skelter in the darkness." The terrorised women were gagged and raped. Continued Parvati: "A torch was focused on me. I screamed in terror. They gagged me and started tearing my clothes. I have no recollection of what happened afterwards. When I returned to senses, I was in the hospital."

She symbolised the horrendous tragedy that struck the people of Babubigha on that cursed night. It was a year after the tragedy that I visited the village. Tears rolled down the eyes of Parvati's father, Pyarelal Das, as he recounted the horrible events of that night. He could never recover from the shock he got when he saw his teenage daughter being raped. Altogether seven women were raped that day. One of them who was pregnant had a miscarriage as a result of the mass rape.

Their misfortune was confounded when the official machinery failed to come to their rescue or help heal their wounds. The police refused to register a case of rape. Not only that, the district administration worked overtime to ensure that the media in Patna never got the news. But the villagers persisted in their efforts to seek justice. Finally, the incident hit the headlines in the Press when Dr Kananikil filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court against the police and the government for contravention of Articles 14, 10(1) (e) and 21 of the Constitution by refusing to register cases of mass rape and assault of the Dalits. The apex court telegraphically ordered the district judge of Nalanda to verify the allegations and submit a report.

The report confirmed the incident of mass rape. The writ petition had mentioned how these Harijans were being denied their dues and how the landlords had been thwarting their attempts to get a piece of land where they could live peacefully. The Supreme Court gave specific orders to the government to allot land and build houses for them. In compliance with the court's orders, the government allotted land to each of the victims and built pucca tiled houses for them. A nationalised bank came forward to help them buy new musical instruments. Once again, music returned to their lives.

The successful culmination of the writ petition had a profound impact on the profile of the BDVS. It became an effective organ against the oppressors. "Do such incidents happen these days?" I asked Dr Kunnunkal. He opened the drawers, took out the latest issue of 'Jeevan Dhara', the quarterly newsletter of the Samiti, which he himself edits and pushed it over the table to me.

The lead story, headlined "Dalit society cries for justice", said: "It is natural that those who hold power would hate to lose it. The Dalits who are coming up in the economic and social circles are realising this more acutely today. They find that they would not get the freedom to walk in dignity. They are being targeted by the powerful classes. BDVS has always turned to the judiciary right from the beginning and we have had favourable verdicts for our people. As our Director, Dr Jose Kanananikil says: Justice will not be given but it has to be snatched. We give below a taste of the atrocities that are going on on our people."

Sub-titled "No temple entry" the report that followed said, "Rameshwar Das, Phulwa Devi, Dumpa Kumari and others were prevented at Kunta, Deoghar, from entering the temple for worship. The powerful group of Mandals beat them up badly when they were worshipping. Then the Mandals rushed to the police station and filed a case against the Dalits. When the people who were beaten up went to the station to file their case, the station-in-charge refused to register their case and he reprimanded the people. He referred them to the hospital saying that these were minor ailments like stomach-ache, headache etc. He also filed cases under sections 147, 148, 149, 309, 323, 234, 337 against them..."

The newsletter listed several incidents of atrocities against the Dalits. "But don't get confused. We are not just a legal aid body", said Dr Kunnunkal who described the efforts the Samiti has been making to popularise education among the Dalits, inculcating the saving habit among them and weaning them away from liquor. Deserving women are given loans to find gainful self-employment."

The success of the Samiti has attracted the attention of politicians like Rambilas Paswan and Laloo Yadav. "We steer clear of politics although we have good relations with politicians. But we will not let them hijack the Samiti for their petty political ends" said Dr Kunnunkal with all the vehemence at his command. There were occasions when their relations with politicians raised eyebrows. "Please don't quote me. Recently the police chief K.A. Jacob called me seeking information about the Maoist Communist Centre cadres. He got information that we had good relations with them. I told him it was not my job to pass on information to the police. Probably, he did not like my bluntness", said Dr Kunnunkal looking at his watch. "Now we will talk after the lunch". He led me to the dining hall on the first floor.

The lunch consisted of rice, dal, pappad and cauliflower curry supplemented by an assortment of pickles to be washed down with hot jeera water. "Are there any charges of conversion against you?" Dr Kunnunkal laughed for a few seconds and said, "Everybody knows that we are Christians but nobody has made that charge against us. Why should they? We are not in the business of conversion. Nor are we under the church's control. We are a secular group working for a secular cause." That said it all.

Excerpts from a soon to be released book by the author, who can be reached at