New Delhi and Bhagana, Haryana - At a protest site in the heart of India's capital, New Delhi, four gang-rape victims - the youngest of whom is 13 - drape dupattas (scarves) across their faces as they help other women cook for the fellow protesters.
About 90 Dalit families - formerly untouchables - from the nearby Haryana state have been camping at the Jantar Mantar for the past three weeks just a few hundred metres from India's parliament in the hope of putting pressure on politicians.
It was a consensual act. There was some chakkar [an illicit relationship] between one of the girls and an accused boy. It's all politics.
They are demanding action against the culprits and compensation to the victims - demands that they allege were ignored by the state government.
On Monday, the father of one the rape victims ate poison, accusing that his grievances were not being heard. He was admitted to a city hospital and is now out of danger.
The latest movement originated in Haryana's Hisar district west of New Delhi following the gang-rape of the Dalit girls from Bhagana village a month ago that many see as a backlash by dominant Jat castes against Dalits' assertion of their rights.
The members of this social group, mostly landless labourers, have long complained of discrimination at the hands of the Jat caste in a state considered an economic success.
Pictures from previous protests about violence against Dalits hang inside the tents, along with the portraits of Bhimrao Ambedkar, the celebrated Dalit campaigner and architect of India's constitution, and social reformer Jyotirao Phule, who advocated abolition of untouchability.
Villagers sit in a huddle with activists and well-wishers and discuss steps to confront official indifference towards the daily abuses many face.
India's home affairs minister, Sushilkumar Shinde - himself a Dalit - has told them that he understood their problems and that he would write to Haryana's chief minister, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, a Jat.
Yogendra Yadav, of the newly formed Aam Aadmi Party - who contested the parliamentary elections from the nearby Gurgaon seat in Haryana - visited the protesters and promised to take up their cause.
Dalit leader, Udit Raj, who aligned with the principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during the polls, also sent reassurances to the New Delhi camp - but the protesters want more than assurances.
"Get [the BJP leader] Narendra Modi to say this," said Dalit rights activist, Vedpal Singh Tanwar, a high caste Rajput.
Someone reminded the gathering about the success of protests following the gang-rape of a paramedic in 2012. They too plan a candle-light procession to demand the arrest of the village headman whose relatives they accuse of being involved in the gang-rape.
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When Al Jazeera visited the protesters' home in Bhagana village, it looked deserted: many Dalits had locked up their homes and left after intimidation by Jats.
In 2012, about 70 families fled the village following threats. Jats stopped them from using the village pond, encroached upon their playground, and boycotted their shops.
Those who leave face enormous challenges, with few technical skills to work in urban areas, and many end up living on the pavement and working in Hisar's informal economy.
A few men were assembled in a room smoking a waterpipe. One of them, Rohit Bokda, volunteered to show Al Jazeera around.
Less than 100 metres outside the village, Rohit pointed to the place where the girls were kidnapped - a narrow road running through vast wheat-field - on March 24 this year. A white car had driven up and they were bundled into it and away.
He told Al Jazeera that the girls were fed "something" that knocked them unconscious - then gang raped somewhere in the fields.
Rohit and other villagers allege that the village head, Rakesh Panghal, knew what was going on and that his relatives were involved.
|Jats had erected a wall blocking the way to Dalit homes - since demolished by a court order [M Reyaz/Al Jazeera]
It's all politics
It is not the first case of Dalit women being harassed in the area. Rohit said he has even had fights with Jat youth about it.
Three months ago he had a fight with local Jats after her cousin was harassed. "They threw a brick at me," he said, while displaying the scar from the wound on his head.
A village panchayat or assembly was called to resolve the issue and decided that both parties should apologise to each other.
"We did," said Rohit. "But they never said sorry."
Inside the village, bricks lie scattered across a community space where Jats had erected a wall blocking the way to Dalit homes - since demolished by a court order.
A few minutes walk from Rohit's home is the playground where he and his friends used to play, now divided into small plots by the Jats - illustrating one of the methods used by upper caste communities to curb the freedom of this largely powerless community.
The village headman, Panghal, a Jat, lives on the "other side" of the village to Rohit's.
A young man of medium built, he sits in his front room playing cards, and denies the allegation that he was aware of the girls' kidnapping and his relatives were involved.
"It was a consensual act," he insisted. "There was some chakkar [an illicit relationship] between one of the girls and an accused boy. It's all politics."
Jats in Haryana, meanwhile, have been able to mobilise political support to gain Other Backward Class (OBC) status, an official category providing them benefits, including jobs and education.
|Unintended consequences: India's rape crisis
They are also economically powerful and, in Bhagana, their plots are on average three to four acres while the Dalits mostly remain landless and work as field labourers.
Dalits are increasingly rebelling against violence and discrimination but dominating upper castes have long resisted any assertion of their rights.
In 1997, a private militia of upper caste men massacred 58 Dalits in Laxmanpur Bathe village in eastern Bihar state, while a Dalit Sikh was attacked and badly mutilated in 2006 for protesting against the gang-rape of his daughter in Punjab.
That same year in western Maharashtra state's Khairlanji district, four members of a Dalit family were killed, two of them allegedly gang raped. In 2010 in Mirchpur, Haryana, villagers burned down Dalit homes.
The most recent figures indicated that there were 32,569 acts of violence against Dalits in 2010, yet the daily humiliations they face remain low on the national agenda and most cases of violence against them go unnoticed and never reach the courts.
Moreover, the national conviction rate of 24 percent means that most of the accused escape punishment. In Haryana, just eight out of 100 such cases results in convictions.
Back in New Delhi, the protest goes on. Speakers rise and appeal passionately to their audience as they prepare for their candle-light procession.
India is a free country. Everyone is free. Why should we remain slaves?
"Haryana has become the rape capital," said one of the protesters.
The gathering of 200 people is then told that their march planned at a park in a nearby shopping district, Connaught Place, has been banned by the police.
So the candle-light procession goes in the opposite direction - towards India Gate, scene of one of the biggest protests following the New Delhi gang-rape case of 2012.
A barricade is thrown up to stop the march, barely a hundred metre from the camp.
The protesters turn back within minutes and return to where they had started out as their candles flicker in the hot summer wind.
Rohit too is part of the protest. He waves his hands in the air. "India is a free country. Everyone is free. Why should we remain slaves?"
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Source: Al Jazeera