“Have you met that Dalit, your school classmate, recently?” Chandan Sharma asked his son Sunder.
“No. You told me to keep away from him,” Sunder replied.
Chandan looked at his wife Nalini seated on the sofa across from him in the living room. She looked down, shaking her head.
“Sit down and listen carefully,” Chandan instructed.
Sunder sat down on the sofa, next to his mother, a bit confused about the reason for his father asking him to meet him so early in the morning.
“Your friend, the Dalit person has been posted as session judge in the court here, he is —” Chandan was stopped by Sunder before he could complete his sentence.
“Yes I know that. I was informed by Vishnu on WhatsApp, and his name is Raj Kumar,” Sunder said.
“This person is now going to decide our court case. A Dalit judging and sentencing a Brahmin, what a paradox? I want you to meet him and persuade him to dismiss the case or give very lenient punishment,” Chandan said.
“What? What are you asking me to do? It is impossible,” Sunder cried out in astonishment.
“When I had instructed you not to meet him, you told me that he is your very close friend,” Chandan said, reminding him.
“How can I even talk to him about this case? I was present when Ramu Kaka lynched Rehmat by tying his neck with a rope and throwing his body over the bridge railing. I signed the police complaint along with my friends,” Sunder said.
“Why did you? He was your distant uncle. He served us so lovingly and faithfully. You did this even though he killed a non believer, a person from another religion. Sri Ram will never forgive you,” Nalini said and started weeping.
“Do not cry Nalini, we will save him and get him back,” Chandan said.
“It is your mistake. Why did you send him? You know that Rehmat would never part with the land,” Nalini said and wiped her eyes with the corner of her sari.
“Yes, he told us that he was going for your mission. But what is this land issue?” Sunder asked.
“I have been telling your father to forget about the land court case. The land belongs to Rehmat and your father wants it because he has to build a sugarcane factory there. Unnecessarily he has been fighting this case for the past ten years,” Nalini said.
“I was aware of this case. But you do not have to get someone killed to get it,” Sunder said looking at Chandan.
“I can not sleep most nights. I have this nightmare that your father is in jail for life. Witnesses have squealed in the court about his involvement,” Nalini said and sobbed.
“Stop crying. Nothing will happen to me, no one will squeal, they all are faithful and I have looked after them well,” Chandan said.
“Do something beta, speak to your friend. I am sure he will listen to you,” Nalini pleaded looking at Sunder.
“No mother, I just can not and will not,” Sunder said.
“Now listen ji, in your will leave everything, all our property, to Ramu’s son. Sunder should get nothing,” Nalini addressed Chandan and looked towards Sunde with disgust.
Chandan remained silent for a while. He was aware that Sunder was adamant and would not listen to them. He decided on a different approach.
“OK. Let us forget about the cae. Do not talk about the case with your friend. All you have to do is to invite him to our house. We will give you a printed invitation card in which he will be requested to attend the Havan and join us in the meals. Can you do that?” Chandan asked Sunder.
“Is it OK with you mother?” Sunder asked.
She looked towards her husband, who nodded.
“It is possible, I have to make a few sacrifices. I will have the house washed after they leave, do my penance by fasting for a week and offer Rs 5000 in the temple,” Nalini replied.
“OK, I will meet him. Have the card ready,” Sunder said, looking at his mother and shaking his head in frustration. He got up to leave but after taking a few steps he returned.
“Can I also call Feroz Ahmed my friend?” Sunder asked.
“Yes certainly. Call him, it will be good to have the District Magistrate too in our house,” Chandan said and looked at his wife whose face bore a painful look. Sunder left them, with a relieved feeling that he had no further concern about Ramu Kaka case.
A fortnight later his father handed him the two invitation cards. He called up Raj, who invited him to meet him at his residence for evening tea.
To his surprise he found Firoz and Pandey seated in the living room and sipping tea from their cups. He greeted them, shook hands and sat next to Feroz.
“Raj is on a phone call,” Feroz said.
“Nice to meet you both. I have come here to invite Raj for a function at our house,” Sunder said. Both Feroz and Pandey looked at him with surprise.
“I wanted to come and meet you too. Here is your invitation card,” he said and handed it to Feroz, who took it and read it.
“My father must have spoken to you about Havan,” Sunder said to Pandey.
“Yes, I will perform it,” Pandey replied.
“I would have loved to come and watch the Havan ceremony performed by Pandey, but sadly I will be out of station on that day. I am going to meet the Chief Secretary next week and will be away for four days,” Feroz said.
“I will inform my father,” Sunder told him.
“By the way, Sunder, there is another issue which I wanted to discuss with you in the presence of Pandey and Raj. Pandey is aware of it and I will tell you in Raj’s presence,” Feroz said.
They saw a lady enter the room holding a tray with a cup of tea and plate with biscuits. They stood up and Sunder greeted her with folded hands,
“Namaste Shalini Ji. You personally should not have taken this trouble,” Sunder said. Shalini was Raj’s wife and they had married a year back.
“No trouble at all. I am meeting you now after a year or so. You had come all the way to attend our marriage,” she said.
“Yes, that was a wonderful time I had. I can never forget it,” Sunder said.
“Raj will be here soon, he is talking to the District Judge,” she said.
“So how are you finding it here?” Sunder asked.
“It is too early to form any opinion. But to me every place is a good place,” She replied.
“Shalini ji, we are having a function at our house. I have the invitation card which I wanted to hand over to Raj. I did not know that Feroz and Pandey would be here. Raj could feel embarrassed in expressing his opinion on reading the card in their presence. There are various reasons, which you are not aware of. I will give you this card, please hand it over to Raj after I have left,” he told her. Shalini took the card and placed it in the table’s drawer.
“I will call Raj on the phone tomorrow morning,” Sunder said.
“Why not now?” Raj said with a smile on entering the room.
“Oh I forgot something at home, it is about that,” Sunder said quickly, rushing towards Raj and shaking his hand. Raj settled down on the sofa next to Pandey and picked up his cup of tea.
“I like my tea a bit cold,” he said and sipped it.
“I will leave you all to your school days, I have better things on my mind,” Shalini said with folded hands and left them.
“Nice to see you Sunder after a long time. Thank you for coming. It is your house and all of you are welcome any time. All you have to do is to give me an early warning so that when we meet we get something to drink and eat,” Raj said with a smile.
“That is fair! Now that the quorum is complete I think we can proceed with the agenda which Pandey and I are proposing,” Feroz said.
“Sure, go ahead,” Raj said looking at Sunder, who nodded.
Feroz cleared his throat and commenced the narrative. For the past twenty years in this village there has been a direct confrontation between the upper castes and the Dalits which very often leads to bloodshed and killings. So far more than 150 persons have lost their lives. The bone of contention is the illegal occupation by Dalits of two acres of land next to the Mandir. The Dalts had built temporary structures on this land when they were working as construction laborers for the multiplex buildings owned by private builders. The Dalits continue to stay in it as on date and refuse to vacate it. For political considerations none of the governments so far have evicted them or approached the courts.
The confrontation mainly takes place during festivals and the annual Ram Lila. The congregation averaging over thousands converge to pay their obeisance to Sri Ram ji.
Unruly and instigated elements taking advantage of the situation, attack Dalits and burn their temporary structures. This has been happening regularly and is more ferocious and vicious in the recent past. The politicians in and out of power look the other way as it is one of their votes catching goose. The police force remains inadequate in spite of many suggestions, proposals and requests to boost it up.
“So what have you both decided to do?” Raj asked.
“Presently the traditional caretaker of the Mandir is Pandey’s family and they have been looking after it since ages. The Government intervenes only when they find mismanagement and misappropriation of the offerings of money and jewelry. Rest all other religious and management decisions are with Pandey and his family,” Feroz said.
“My father is no more, however I have two elderly uncles and aunts. On Feroz’s suggestion I discussed with them and also with the Sarpanchs of the villages around our Mandir. I also spoke to the principals of the school and college. Most of them are upper caste and they have all agreed to allow the Dalits to offer their prayers in the Mandir,” Pandey said.
“What about the Zamindars, the Thakurs and our political leaders,” Sunder asked.
“Well it was not easy to convince them, especially considering that a Muslim is asking them. Most have agreed; those who had dissented I called them separately and with a bit of arm twisting, they have confirmed that they will not cause any problem. Let us hope that they do not. Incidentally, Sunder, I had requested your father to come to the meeting but he did not turn up” Feroz said.
“That is all fine. But what about the Dalits? Will they vacate the land?” Raj asked.
“I am working on it. Ram Prasad, the builder owns three acres of arid land next to the substation. He has agreed to hand over the land to the Trust formed by the Dalits in exchange that they will work only on his projects for next three years. They will be paid their normal wages. The Dalits can start shifting to the new land on the first of next month,” Feroz said.
“Looks good, let us hope and pray that it works,” Raj said.
“I need your help Raj to expedite cases against those who create obstructions and problems. I will ensure that the FIR’s and Chargesheets are expedited by the police. All such cases forwarded to your court should be heard immediately and appropriate punishments given. Sunder, your father is an influential politician. Please pursuade him and through him his party members. They should not make it a political issue,” Feroz pleaded.
“I will try, but it is going to be very difficult,” Sunder said.
“I think we have had a very useful discussion. Let us hope for the best,” Raj said.
They sat chatting for a while and dispersed in good humour cracking jokes targeted at Vishnu who was in Seattle working in Microsoft.
Sunder’s visit to Raj was unknown to his parents. He was worried, especially having learnt about the land dispute. So far no witness had come forward to mention his father’s involvement. For six years the case had dragged on and all the while Ramu Kaka languished in jail. He had kept away from the courthouse, though his parents were always present at each hearing. The very thought of Ramu Kaka disgusted him.
Next morning his mobile rang when he was having breakfast with his parents. The call was from Raj; he left the table and took the call in the living room. Raj greeted him and he returned it.
“Please thank your parents for the invitation, my prayers and best wishes for the ceremony,” Raj said.
“Will you attend it?” Sunder asked.
“No. Please make some suitable excuse,” Raj said.
“OK. Thanks I will. Bye,” Sunder said.
“Thank you. Bye,” Raj said and hung up.
Sunder returned and sat down to finish his breakfast.
“The call was from Raj. He is not coming?” Sunder said.
“Did you give him the card?” Nalini asked.
“Yes I gave it to his wife. He was not at home,” Sunder said.
“What reason did he give?” Chandan enquired.
“I did not ask,” Sunder said.
Chandan gave him a disgusted look and stopped eating.
“What about the District Magistrate? Is he coming?” Chandan growled.
“No he is not coming. He will be in Lucknow on that date,” Sunder replied.
Chandan remained sitting while others left the table. He was at a loss to understand his son’s generation. Their values were entirely different from his and his forefathers. To them traditions, rites and rituals were totally insignificant. He now had to plan differently before it was too late.
“Huzoor, the police inspector is here with his policemen. He wants to meet you,” his maid told him.
“Tell him to wait outside. I am coming,” Chandan said, showing astonishment.
He got up and after washing his mouth in the toilet and proceeded towards the entrance door.
“Namaste inspector saheb, did anyone from this house ask you to come?” Chandan asked.
The inspector saluted him, took out a piece of paper from his pants pocket and held it towards him.
“What is this?” He asked,
“Your arrest warrant Sir! You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law,” he said and took out the handcuffs. He asked a policeman to hold Chandan’s hand behind him while he handcuffed him. Before Chandan realised, he was pushed into the police jeep, which sped away.
The mobile phone kept ringing, it annoyed him although it was on the vibrator. Reluctantly he got up and looked at the table clock. It was 2 am, he picked up the phone, switched it, held it close to his ear and entered the living room.
“Yes, who is speaking?” He spoke in a low voice.
“Raj Vishnu here! I know it is two o’clock at night there. My wife is on her tenterhooks. Her sister has been ringing her every half an hour. I am extremely sorry for waking you up,” he said.
“What is the problem? Why are they so worried?” Raj asked.
“Why is Chandan Sharma arrested?” Vishnu asked.
“Oh that! The SHO came to me and requested me to sign the warrant of arrest,” Raj said.
“Why today? The case has been lingering for nearly six years,” Vishnu said.
“I do not know. The SHO showed me written statements from four witnesses. In each statement it is mentioned that the victim was murdered on the specific instructions given by Chandan Sharma to the accused. Based on this I signed the arrest warrant as per legal clauses,” Raj replied.
“When is the hearing?” Vishnu asked.
“Coming Monday, I intend to finish this case within a fortnight,” Raj said.
“Wishing you the best. I am sure the rule of law will prevail. Once again extremely sorry for waking you, good night,” Vishnu said.
The rule of law did prevail after a month.
Ramu Kaka was sentenced to death by hanging and Chandan Sharma was sentenced to life imprisonment.