It was not caste, it was not class. It was not Hindu vs Muslim, nor was it migrant vs local.
This violent conflict was based on only one factor—gender, undiluted by any other consideration.
At the centre of it were not adult women, often accused of having an axe to grind, but girls aged 10-14, unaware of what they had provoked and why. Speaking to a television channel, their voices were childlike and innocent.
Had the violence not resulted in some of them having to be referred to a hospital outside their village, the incident may not even have made news. Even after it did, no FIR was registered till the local MP intervened. And after that only one accused was arrested.
It took the Supreme Court’s scathing observations on the incident to make the police arrest the remaining eight accused.
Have the accused got bail, though the charges included attempt to murder? Have the girls recovered? Are they back at school and safe?
No answers are forthcoming because the media seems to have forgotten the savage assault on 34 schoolgirls that took place earlier this month on the playground of a residential girls’ school in Bihar’s Supaul district. The assault included pulling out clumps of their hair and beating them with rods.
All this because they dared to manhandle some boys. Fed up of boys from the adjacent school writing obscene graffiti on their school walls, the girls confronted them. The boys’ response was to abuse them.
This led to the girls slapping them. In retaliation, the boys got their parents—mothers included—to beat up the girls. Had the girls not raised their hands against the boys, the incident would have remained unknown. Like they’ve been doing all along, the girls could have continued to keep quiet—at the vulgar slogans on their school wall, at the lewd comments passed at them. After all, they have been complaining about such behaviour for a long time. Who cared?
Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas are meant for girls below the poverty line, as well as Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Muslim girls. Most of those assaulted are Mahadalits, at the bottom of the Scheduled Caste hierarchy. The fathers of most have migrated to other states for work; their mothers and grandparents eke out a humble existence in the village.
No one in authority loses sleep over girls from such backgrounds. The school didn’t even have a guard.
What’s interesting is that the boys are not from some powerful caste as is mostly the case. They too belong to the same Mahadalit caste.
Which government school administrator cares about what such children are up to? As the DM said in a bemused tone to an indignant TV anchor: “This is a natural phenomenon. Boys and girls fight. Parents’ sensitivities get hurt.”
But for the girls, this wasn’t a “natural phenomenon”. Their sensitivities were hurt, and hurt repeatedly. One can imagine their joy at being told to handle the boys themselves, after they informed the principal that they had caught the latter scribbling vulgar slogans on their school wall.
The DM was wrong about the parents’ reaction too. Parents do not come with weapons to take revenge on their sons’ classmates after routine fights among boys. This time, the audacity of girls raising their hands against their precious sons was too much to tolerate. That one act shook the foundations of their family structure. All traditional Indian families are based on the premise that fathers and sons rule.
No wonder the administration was reluctant to act. On TV, the DM stressed the fact that the girls had beaten up the boys. The police took pains to check school certificates to ensure “no innocent” was caught; they said on TV that they would first question the women named in the FIR, and only then arrest them.
Imagine policemen at the thana level being so considerate towards Dalits, specially those accused of assault!
But when the accusers are Dalit school girls, this too can happen. Not even the girls’ Mahadalit status—the caste got this label from Chief Minister Nitish Kumar who has implemented many welfare measures targeted only at Mahadalits—could ensure that their complaints were taken seriously. The chief minister’s silence on the assault has been deafening.
Supaul is among Bihar’s three most backward districts. Its sex ratio, infant mortality, fertility, female literacy and female employment rates are abysmal, as are its economic indicators. A 2015-16 study of the district submitted to the National Commission for Women found that for parents, daughters’ safety was the main worry in sending them to school, and the main reason for marrying them off between the ages of 16-18. But 43 per cent of adolescent girls interviewed wanted to study further. Around 59 per cent of them valued education because it gave them a feeling of “self-dependence”.
It was this feeling that the girls were displaying when they manhandled their male abusers. Who will ensure that this sense of dignity remains intact after the physical and mental injuries they suffered? Will their families, who have spent beyond their means on their medical treatment, and who fear further retaliatory attacks, sustain this feeling in them? Will their teachers?
By keeping the spotlight on them, the media might be able to force the authorities to ensure this feeling of self-dependence never leaves them.
Freelance journalist based in Mumbai