Wednesday, April 17, 2024
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Death of Dalit teen in U.P. | Murder in blue blood

The blue lights beckoned Somesh Kumar, 17, on his way back home after his Class 10 Mathematics paper. He followed the unmetalled road into Silai Baragaon village in Uttar Pradesh’s Rampur district. It was dusk and the sky in parts matched the deep blue of the poster erected at the centre of the park he and his community had collectively cleaned and christened Ambedkar Park, after Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the head of the drafting committee of India’s Constitution, who was a Dalit, and seen by the community as an emancipator. It had been inaugurated just a few weeks ago in the presence of village elders and the gram pradhan, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Ranjeet Kaur. Somesh’s house was just behind the safe space created by the village’s Jatav neighbourhood, where children played and women gathered.

There is an eerie silence in Silai Baragaon, punctuated only by the wails of Somesh’s mother, who has not spoken since the day her son died, February 27. 

There is an eerie silence in Silai Baragaon, punctuated only by the wails of Somesh’s mother, who has not spoken since the day her son died, February 27. 
| Photo Credit:
SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

But something was different. In addition to the blue and red of Ambedkar’s suit on the park’s board, there were blue and red lights bouncing off the walls around the park. Then, the yellow of a bulldozer. Soon, police uniforms. By the end of the evening, Somesh was dead, with a bullet through his head; two other boys had bullet injuries in their legs, and yellow police tape had cut the park off from the community that used it.

There is an eerie silence in Silai Baragaon, punctuated only by the wails of Somesh’s mother, who has not spoken since the day her son died, February 27. Every day, workers of the Bhim Army or the Azad Samaj Party, both Dalit political organisations, show up, promising to mobilise people to demand action against the 25 accused, including four police personnel from Baragaon chowki named in the FIR and two unnamed home guards. The now “moved-out” Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) has been named in the written police complaint by Somesh’s father.

Organisations like the Bhim Army, which have grown in prominence over the last decade, have consistently raised their voices against symbols of Dalit assertion in public spaces being targeted. In the past couple of years, at least six cases have been reported in Uttar Pradesh of statues of Ambedkar either being vandalised or defaced.

Organisations like the Bhim Army, which have grown in prominence over the last decade, have consistently raised their voices against symbols of Dalit assertion in public spaces being targeted.

Organisations like the Bhim Army, which have grown in prominence over the last decade, have consistently raised their voices against symbols of Dalit assertion in public spaces being targeted.
| Photo Credit:
SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

More than a name

A seemingly civic activity has brought a temporary standstill to the peace between the village’s dominant, landed Gangwar families that belong to the Kurmi community, an Other Backward Classes (OBC) group, and the Jatavs, a Scheduled Caste community, who live on the outskirts of the village and work mostly as daily wagers.

The Jatavs, sombre, describe the events of the day of the alleged murder as the culmination of an unravelling that began with the decision to clean up the plot of land in the middle of the colony of 30 to 40 houses. They say about a dozen policemen showed up at the park, led by the Tehsildar and the SDM, after a complaint of land grabbing was filed at the Milak police station.

“The SDM told the police to open fire and then the bullets came. Two police personnel from the Baragaon chowki were up on one of the roofs and no one saw it coming. The lathi charge was on and not one policewoman was present when we were being beaten up,” says Anita Kumar, 39, one of the women who rushed out to the park when she saw the police.

The Jatavs describe the events of the day of the alleged murder as the culmination of an unravelling that began with the decision to clean up the plot of land in the middle of the colony of 30 to 40 houses. 

The Jatavs describe the events of the day of the alleged murder as the culmination of an unravelling that began with the decision to clean up the plot of land in the middle of the colony of 30 to 40 houses. 
| Photo Credit:
SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

On the day of the incident, Mukesh Kumar, Somesh’s paternal uncle, says even the bulldozer brought in to uproot the Ambedkar board belonged to a Gangwar leader’s relative. “It was apparent whose side the police were on,” he says.

A day after the FIR was registered following Somesh’s killing, in which local Gangwar leaders were also named, the Milak police registered another FIR against unknown men and women, and Saranjeet, the gram pradhan’s son.

The FIR stated he had provoked the Jatav community to name the park after Ambedkar, and attack the police and district administration when they arrived to remove the board. It also said at the instigation of people from the gram pradhan’s office, the villagers had encroached upon the plot of land that belonged to the government, and illegally installed the board with Ambedkar’s picture on it in the dead of night.

After a string of gram pradhans from the Gangwar community, the BJP had fielded Kaur, a Sikh woman from a nearby village. Her term is set to expire sometime next year. Kaur and her son have been unreachable over the phone for several days now.

Tulsiram (name changed on request), a 60-year-old farmer from the Gangwar community, who lives off the around nine-acre farmland that has been with his family for generations, says, “The pradhan should have been more careful. How could she and her family appear to be taking the side of this community without even considering what we were feeling, or asking us even once? She is not even from our community.”

Members of the Bhim Army at the home of Somesh Kumar, the deceased Dalit boy.

Members of the Bhim Army at the home of Somesh Kumar, the deceased Dalit boy.
| Photo Credit:
SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

No man’s land

Until January 22, the day of the consecration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, the two-acre plot in Silai Badagaon’s Jatav neighbourhood had been a dumping ground for the villagers. “I remember the stench clearly,” says Mukesh.

As part of the countrywide cleanliness campaign run by State governments in the lead up to the Ram Temple consecration, Kaur and the villagers, mostly Jatavs in the area, started cleaning up the dumping ground. The district administration helped with earth movers to flatten the plot. Within days, the place was transformed into a meeting place for the community.

“By the end of January, we thought it had become a nice, clean space and we could name it after Babasaheb [Ambedkar]. We asked everyone in the village: the Gangwar families, the Muslims, and residents belonging to other castes. They said they were okay with it as the land was in our neighbourhood anyway. We went to the pradhan and the board was installed. We had our Ambedkar Park. It was a public event; the pradhan was there; we served everyone food, sweets,” Mukesh says, adding, “I guess there were some people there with whom this did not sit right.” He says there were Gangwar families too. “We celebrated till dusk that day.”

Until January 22, the day of the consecration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, the two-acre plot in Silai Badagaon’s Jatav neighbourhood had been a dumping ground for the villagers.

Until January 22, the day of the consecration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, the two-acre plot in Silai Badagaon’s Jatav neighbourhood had been a dumping ground for the villagers.
| Photo Credit:
SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

A fractured village

A crowd of Bhim Army supporters leaves Somesh’s inconsolable mother on her cot. Villagers — both Jatavs and Gangwars — say this is a first in their memory of a conflict between the two communities. Tulsiram says, “My neighbours are from the Jatav community. Their daughter ties rakhi on our wrists. We have always lived peacefully. Why would we have a problem with Ambedkar? But why did they not ask us? None of this would have happened had they just sought our permission once.”

In the Jatav neighbourhood, Anita says, “There is absolutely no history of any argument between the communities in this village. I married into this village and have been here for 15 years. Even before that, my in-laws and their parents have never seen anything like this. I don’t know what got into them. Maybe they just couldn’t let us have this one thing.”

Chiranji Lal, 60, could see only chaos as he returned from work on February 27. A daily wage labourer, like most Jatav men in Baragaon, he and his friends had heard the women screaming and seen the police personnel posted around the park when they left for work that morning.

“The children started showing us videos of what had happened, and we watched in horror,” he says, as a teenager whips out his smartphone, scrolling through the video library full of clips from that evening. In one, the then SDM, Aman Deol, shows up at the village amid heavy police presence, and women and children guarding the Ambedkar board on the field. “Get away; get away,” he is heard saying, as he approaches them in the park. In another video, shot by a teenager from between the cracks in the brick wall of his home, gunshots and police sirens can be heard. In the next, one of the boys is rushed into the house, with his leg bleeding profusely.

While the accused police personnel and the SDM have been removed from their positions, the FIRs registered on charges of land encroachment present a version of events that accuses the villagers of pelting stones and firing at the police personnel first. However, all eyewitnesses The Hindu spoke to denied the presence of any arms with any of the locals that day.

Rajesh Kumar, the new SDM, says, “Inquiries are under way. I have just been posted here, so more will be known once the probe is over.”

A Special Investigation Team has been constituted to probe into Somesh’s death, and a magisterial inquiry is under way. In addition to Deol and the policemen named in the FIR, the government has moved out the Milak police station’s head and another officer in the circle.

Somesh Kumar’s mother.

Somesh Kumar’s mother.
| Photo Credit:
SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

Under the same sky

Through the lanes of the Jatav colony, homes are decorated with blue flags, with pictures of Ambedkar on the gates. In fact, the flags and photos are an identifier of the village’s outskirts, and can be spotted from miles away. Azure has been a uniting colour for Dalits, symbolising the non-discriminatory nature of the sky. Scores of public spaces like canteens and petrol pumps though have been named after the Gangwars in the area, highlighting their dominance in the Rampur-Bareilly belt of north-western Uttar Pradesh.

“Everyone in the village knows our community and how important Babasaheb is to us. What happened was that we decided to assert it and name a public park after him. Is that what their problem was? That it was now in the public?” says Anita, who has four children.

A crowd of women around her joins in. “Why are they suddenly interested in this land?” one of them asks, as Anita elaborates, “All these years, they had no problem dumping their garbage there and not looking this way twice. Now that it is a usable plot of land, they are interested, is it?”

Back in the lanes of the Gangwar neighbourhood, Tulsiram says, “Look everyone is sad for the family… Yes, the family should get the appropriate compensation, but what happened to the suspended officials is wrong. They were just defending themselves.”

Sitting in the courtyard of his home, 17-year-old Kunal (name changed on request) says, “None of the Gangwar families were present at the spot during the incident. We had shut our doors and gone inside. I could hear the commotion. It was their fault. The police were just acting to save themselves.” He adds that the Jatavs should not have named the park without consulting with the other caste groups in the village.

“We also do pujas, and tell all caste and religious groups,” he explains, hesitating. “Nothing formal, but we go around asking for donations and people are made aware of it. This just seems like a coup.” Kunal says after a pause, “I knew Somesh, not well, but we used to see each other around quite often. What happened is sad.”

As Bhim Army supporters leave Somesh’s home, Anita says, “No arrests have been made. The family has got no compensation, and not a word from the top people in government. How can we move on without justice?”

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