Was Police Savagery in Azamgarh the First Episode of a New Wave of Violence Against Dalits?

When about 200 police personnel attack relatives and property of a Dalit village pradhan with iron rods and bulldozers, it seems likely that caste issues are the motivation.

Azamgarh: “At around 8 pm I heard a commotion outside. Suddenly, the power supply was disconnected and everybody in the house started shouting, ‘Run! The police are here’!” recalled Sandhya, a 22-year-old Dalit resident of Palia village in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, about the horror endured by her family on the night of June 29, 2021

“Before I could understand what was going on, a dozen policemen barged into the house. One of them hit me on the hand with an iron rod while hurling abuses at me. The policemen began vandalising everything in the house. I grabbed my sister’s hand and fled to the lake behind our house. It felt as though my heart would stop and I’d die. I still feel the terror. That night, it seemed we were attacked by a bunch of criminals, not cops,” she said.

That night, according to the villagers of Palia, about 200 policemen had arrived at about 8.30 pm in about 30 to 40 four-wheelers and two-wheelers and violently raided the village. The villagers alleged that police had brought three JCB bulldozers with them as well, which they had used break down parts of the village houses. 

Palia village falls under the Raunapur police station area in Azamgarh. 

The June 29 attack was followed by two further raids, one on June 30 and the other on July 3. The police might have wreaked yet more atrocities against Palia’s Dalit community after July 3, had it not been for the arrival of Anil Kumar Yadav, secretary of the Congress party, on the night of July 4. Yadav had heard of the attacks on Palia village and had decided to visit the village himself for more information.

It was only after members of the Congress party and other political parties staged a dharna or sit-in protest against the atrocities wreaked by the police on Palia that the administration transferred the station house officer (SHO) at the Raunapar police station to the police lines and also transferred the circle officer of the Sagri police circle to which the Raunapar police station reports. 

The incident is largely being viewed as the first episode of a new wave of violence and atrocities on Dalits.

Also read: Azamgarh: First Dalit Village Pradhan in 2 Decades Killed ‘to Send a Message of Fear’

The incident at Mau Qutubpur crossing

The police attacks on the Dalit community of Palia took place after an alleged incident of molestation at the Mau Qutubpur chauraha (crossroads) at 6.30 pm on June 29, which led to a scuffle between two constables and the people of Palia. 

According to Munna Paswan, the husband of the village head, Manju Paswan, a girl from the village had been in touch with Littan Biswas, the son of Anand Biswas, a doctor living at Mau Qutubpur crossing. 

At around 6 pm on June 29, the girl’s brother and Munna’s 21-year-old nephew Santosh went to warn Littan Biswas against pursuing the relationship. A heated altercation ensued, following which Littan allegedly attacked the duo with a sickle and a stick, hitting the girl’s brother on the head and Santosh on the back. 

When news of this altercation reached the village, the locals rushed to the scene. Munna Paswan, who had been at the brick kiln that he manages together with his cousin, Swatantra Kumar, aka Appu, said that someone had had phoned him about the incident, after which he ran to the crossing. There he had been told that Littan had fled while his father, Anand Biswas, had locked himself into his house. Munna claimed that he had mollified the locals and had urged them to return to the village while he accompanied the injured men for medical treatment. 

But before they had travelled even 300 metres, a police vehicle had drawn up and stopped and two constables had asked about Munna Paswan. 

Signs of destruction around Palia. Photo: Manoj Singh

“When I introduced myself, they told me to accompany them to the police station,” Munna recounted. “I told them I’d go once the boys had received medical treatment. But one of the constables, Vivek Tripathi, began forcing me into the vehicle. When I resisted, he punched me in the face and my nose began to bleed. This angered the locals and a scuffle broke out between them and the cops. However, I pacified the people and asked everyone to return to the village, where I returned as well.”

Littan Biswas and the police, meanwhile, have another version of the story. According to Littan, some boys from Palia village had been molesting some girls near the crossing. As he recorded the incident on his mobile phone, the boys attacked him. He immediately informed the police about the incident, but when two constables arrived, the villagers attacked them.

According to the complaint filed by a head constable of Raunapar police station he and another head constable, Vivek Tripathi, had been attacked by Mukhraj Yadav, Munna Paswan and his brother Brijbhan Paswan, Swatantra Kumar and several others, and Tripathi was gravely injured.

According to the complaint filed by a head constable Mukhraj Yadav of Raunapar police station he and another head constable, Vivek Tripathi, had been attacked by Munna Paswan and his brother Brijbhan Paswan, Swatantra Kumar and several others, and Tripathi was gravely injured.

In the First Information Report (FIR) based on this complaint, 16 people including Munna Paswan, Brijbhan, Swatantra Kumar alias Appu, Shri Bhajan, Santosh, Shravan, Dipak, Aakash, Sahul, Surya Prakash, Kavi, Subhash, Rahul, Rajpati, Ashutosh Rai and 100 unidentified persons have been charged under Sections 147, 148, 149, 307, 323, 325, 333,352,353, 504, 506, 188, 269, 270, and 427 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, along with Section 7 of the Penal Legislative Amendment Act, 2013.

The FIR states: “The accused attacked both the constables with lathis, sticks, rods, hockey sticks and sharp weapons. Tripathi bled profusely after being attacked by a sharp weapon and his collar bone was fractured. Incited by Munna Paswan, Swatantra Kumar Appu opened fire with his licensed rifle. Tripathi has sustained serious injuries and is admitted to the Azamgarh District Hospital.”

Based on Littan’s statement, the police have also registered a case of molestation and assault against 12 people, including Munna Paswan, in addition to 15 unidentified persons.

Munna however claims that Swatantra Kumar, aka Appu, who has been named in the FIR for firing shots with a licensed rifle, had not even been present in the village on the day of the incident since he had recently undergone a surgery. Instead, he had been in the hospital with his wife.

Also read: Azamgarh: In Crackdown on CAA Protesters, Police Accused of Pelting Stones, Using Slurs

The first police assault

According to the villagers, about two hours after the fracas at Mau Qutubpur crossing, hundreds of policemen on four-wheelers and two-wheelers attacked Palia. 

Both Munna Paswan and Swantantra Kumar’s houses are to the right of the main road of the village. The community hall of the Gram Panchayat is to the left. Adjacent to the hall is another house owned by Kumar, where a tractor and a scooter were parked. The vehicles were completely mangled in the police attack.

When he saw the police deployment outside his house, Munna Paswan grew afraid. As he fled the house, he shouted to his wife, Manju Paswan, and children, 17-year-old Surya Prakash, 15-year-old Annu and 12-year-old Satyam, to flee as well. Also present in the house at the time were Munna Paswan’s mother Champa Devi and sisters Sandhya and Suman. Sandhya, who had just been married in May, was visiting the family.

Village pradhan Manju Paswan. Photo: Manoj Singh

According to Manju, there were three JCB bulldozers with the police. 

“As soon as the police arrived in the village, they cut off the power supply to our house and our neighbouring houses. The cops then ran towards our house and attacked everyone who came in their way. They also began demolishing parts of the houses with the JCBs. I escaped along with my children towards the lake behind the house and stayed there till 1 am. Other people from the village also hid near the lake. We distinctly heard the sound of our houses being bulldozed,” she said.

Manju continued: “We returned to the village at around 1 am after the police had left. Our houses had been completely ransacked. The locks on almirahs (cupboards) were broken and jewellery including gold earrings, mangalsutras, mangtikas, rings, anklets, nose rings and a silver girdle and anklet, was missing along with some cash. The whole house was badly vandalised. No corner of the house had been spared. Even the clothes and the children’s books had been ripped apart.” 

According to Munna, a sum of Rs 6.5 lakhs had been stolen as well. He had received the amount as payment at the brick kiln but had not been able to deposit it in the bank since Kumar was in hospital.

“Our LCD TV, inverter and its battery, table fan, air cooler, 17 plastic chairs, three tables and several other items of furniture had been broken,” said Munna. His laptop had been smashed while mark-sheets and other documents related to their children were also missing.

Recounting the night’s horror, Sandhya said that she had been in her room when the cops barged into the house. Had she not escaped, she said, the policemen, carrying lathis and iron rods, would have thrashed her. Although female cops had accompanied the force, they had remained mute spectators as the male cops went on a rampage, Sandhya claimed. When she returned home along with the others that night, she saw that the entire house had been wrecked. Food grain containers had been toppled, the gas stove was damaged and the gas cylinders were missing. Sandhya alleged that several pieces of her family’s gold jewellery were also looted.

Sandhya also claimed that the police had confiscated her mobile and laptop. She had received the laptop under the earlier Samajwadi Party-led government’s free laptop distribution scheme for intermediate students.

Two pillars of Munna Paswan’s house had been damaged by the JCB machines and the front part of his house, which had been supported by these pillars, is on the verge of collapse.

Swatantra Kumar’s properties were also viciously targeted. When the police charged at the house that night, Swatantra Kumar’s mother, four-year-old son and his older brother’s wife, Sunita, were at home. Kumar’s older brother, Suryabhan, is an engineer at the diesel locomotive works, Varanasi.

Village pradhan Manju Paswan’s house. Photo: Manoj Singh

According to 45-year-old Sunita, she had been preparing dinner when the policemen broke into the house, hurling obscenities at everyone they came across. They had immediately started demolishing the front of the house with a JCB machine, she claimed. Sunita had escaped with Kumar’s son and mother and hidden in a house in the village. Her mother-in-law, who suffers from asthma, had been inconsolable when she saw the house being demolished and had had to be locked in a room to be stopped from returning. Following the attack, Kumar’s mother’s health has deteriorated and she is undergoing treatment at a hospital.

Kumar’s house was badly vandalised too. Even the temple in one room was not spared. Every single window in the house was smashed.

‘We were beaten with lathis’

Rajpati Paswan lives across from Kumar’s house. When the police raid began, Rajpati’s daughter Priyanka, a recent graduate, had been preparing dinner. 

“My sister-in-law Manju had been feeding her four-month-old child when the policemen broke the main door and forced their way into the house,” said Priyanka. “I asked them why they were vandalising everything. They asked me instead about the pradhan’s (village head) house. When I told them this was the house of her uncle, the policemen started hitting me with rods and abusing me. I was dragged out of the house and severely beaten up. My clothes were torn.”

Some police personnel had also targeted her brother Mintu’s wife Manju and began thrashing her, which caused the baby to fall from her lap and suffer a head injury. Manju had had a surgical procedure four months earlier and was still recovering from it.

“I kept pleading them to spare us, but they did not stop. My injured sister-in-law and her four-month-old baby have had to be hospitalised after the police atrocity,” said Priyanka.

All the women who had hidden from the police returned after 1 am and spent the rest of the night in their ravaged homes without food and water. Fearing arrest, the men did not return to the village at all. On the next day, June 30, when a large number of people had gathered around the three vandalised houses sometime in the afternoon, the police returned again.

Swatantra Kumar’s house after being raided. Photo: Manoj Singh

‘It will haunt me my entire life’

Pintu, a 25-year-old resident of Palia, said that the police had returned to the village with reinforcements on June 30 for a second round of attacks. Those who had gathered near the vandalised houses had fled. Two girls, including Pintu’s sister-in-law Sunita, had been badly beaten. The police had detained a 16-year-old high school student named Chandan and 40-year-old Chandrajeet.

Sunita, Pintu’s sister-in-law, had been going through the items in her damaged home when the police suddenly returned for a fresh bout of savagery and began thrashing everyone they could see with lathis and rods while hurling slurs at them. Even ten days after the assault, the wounds on her body have not healed and she is taking pain killers. 

“I still do not understand why I was beaten up. I have never witnessed such cruelty before. I am the family’s oldest daughter-in-law and rarely go out of the house, but that day the police thrashed and humiliated me in front of the whole village. The trauma will stay with me for the rest of my life,” said Sunita.

Sunita’s sister-in-law recalled how the policemen trampled on the family pictures with their boots, breaking the photo frames. 

“They took away the picture of Papa (Shyamdev) and slashed the photo of my nephew with a knife. What could be the purpose of such vile acts? We believe the attack was orchestrated with the aim of exterminating the entire family,” she alleged.

Also read: Hathras Case: The Intersecting Factors Behind Structural Violence Against Dalit Women

According to Pintu, the police went on the rampage for a third time on the night of July 3 and continued the assault till 2 am, nabbing a labourer named Suresh who they kept in custody for four days. 

“The police also entered my house,” said Pintu. “I hid inside the gohra (a heap of cow-dung cakes). About 20-25 police personnel entered Samharu’s house too and assaulted the women. They threatened them with the same fate as the village head if Shivvachan did not appear before the police within a stipulated time.” 

Samharu is the father of Shivvachan, one of the men who had scuffled with the two constables on the evening of June 29.

‘Worse than Manuvadi violence’

Before he passed away on May 5, 2020, Sunita’s father-in-law, Shyamdev, had retired after serving as the executive officer in several Nagar Panchayats or town councils, including Mau district. Shyamdev had proactively helped the Dalit community progress with education. As a result of his efforts, not only his family but fellow members of the Pasi community in the village acquired better education and secured jobs. Shyamdev is still fondly remembered for his endeavours.

Mahant Kanhaiya Prabhu Giri of Lalganj’s Ramjanaki temple, the first Dalit Maha Mandaleshwar (high priest) in the country, acknowledges drawing inspiration from Shyamdev. He was horrified by the attack on Shyamdev’s village and told The Wire that the scale of the ransacking and the looting of the houses clearly shows that the attacks were an act of vengeance. 

Examples of destruction. Photo: Manoj Singh

“It was even worse than the typical Manuwadi or upper caste violence against the Dalits. There are a number of Pasi community members in Palia and adjoining areas who have progressed a lot in terms of education and employment. The Pasi people are well-organised and actively involved in politics. Munna Paswan is quite a popular figure in the village and for the past 20 years his family members or candidates chosen by him have been elected as the village head. The upper caste members who envy him conspired and instigated the police to take this action,” alleged Giri.

Hinting at the involvement of a local BJP leader, Giri said that there had been several attempts in the last few years to harass and persecute Munna Paswan’s family. For example, Giri said, a year ago, Swatantra Kumar had been falsely implicated in a case when liquor was planted at his brick kiln.

Giri met the district magistrate and the superintendent of police (SP) on July 7 regarding the police assault on the property of Munna Paswan. He demanded compensation for the families that had been attacked and the damage that had been caused during the attacks. He also demanded punitive action against the guilty police personnel, the release of the villagers who had been arrested and the withdrawal of the cases registered against the villagers.

Ahsan Khan, the state spokesperson of the Azad Samaj Party, who is currently staging a dharna in Palia, believes that Giri’s assessment of the reason for the police attacks is correct. 

“The members of the Dalit community in the village have worked hard to progress and prosper. They own better houses, and possess tractors and cars. The village musclemen feel envious of the prosperity of the Dalits,” said Khan.

Khan believes that the police action against the Palia villagers between June 29 and July 3 was part of a larger conspiracy and demands an investigation into the matter.

The atrocities against the Dalits in Palia village might not have become widely known had Anil Kumar Yadav, secretary of the Congress party, not visited the village on the night of July 4. Yadav said he was stunned to see the condition of the vandalised houses. When the scared women of Palia pleaded with him to stay in the village because the police were still harassing them, Yadav and his fellow party members stayed the night and launched a dharna the next day together with Vishwa Vijay Singh, the state vice president of the Congress and Praveen Singh, the district president of the party.

The Congress leaders’ dharna continued for three days. On July 5, Priyanka Gandhi tweeted about the incident. This was followed by a tweet from Mayawati, the head of the Bahujan Samaj Party.

It was these social media interventions that finally awoke the nation to the atrocities against the Dalits in the remote Azamgarh village. The Congress later organised a fast against the police attacks on Palia at its district headquarters and a Dalit Mahapanchayat was called in Godhaura village of Jahanaganj police station area.

On July 19, Chandrashekhar Azad Ravana, the chief of the Bhim Army and president of the Azad Samaj Party, met the villagers of Palia. He demanded compensation of Rs 5 crores for the families who had been targeted by the police and said that if a case had not been registered against the guilty police personnel within a week, he would return to Palia and organise a mahapanchayat in the village. 

“Even after such a major incident, it has not occurred to Yogi Adityanath to visit Palia,” said Chandrashekhar Azad Ravana about the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

The police statement

In a statement, Sudhir Kumar Singh, the superintendent of the Azamgarh police, reported that head constable Vivek Tripathi had been severely assaulted in the altercation with the villagers on the evening of June 29 and had had to undergo a surgical procedure. Two separate FIRs have been registered against the villagers, one for an assault on Littan Biswas and the other for an attack on police personnel. The SP denied all the allegations of vandalism against the police and said that a case has been registered against unidentified persons in connection with it. He also said that to avoid arrest, those accused in the FIRs had instigated the women of their families to stage a dharna.

Destruction at Palia village. Photo: Manoj Singh

However, as pressure mounted on the administration, senior officers of the police arrived at Palia village on the afternoon of July 6 and apologised to the villagers. 

“One of the senior police officers apologised and expressed regret over it,” said Anita, a resident of Palia. “I asked him how he would feel if someone did the same to the women in his family. Next to him stood the police officer who had beaten me up and abused me that night, his face covered with a mask. When I asked him to take off the mask, he looked down, but his face showed no remorse for his actions.”

Also read: BSP, Congress Raise Pitch for Action Against Cops Who ‘Ransacked’ Dalit Houses in UP Village

Eight days after the attacks, Tarakeswar Rai, Raunapar’s SHO, was moved to the police lines and a magisterial probe was ordered. Four days later, Gopal Swaroop Vajpayee, the CO of Sagri, was also transferred. In a video that has gone viral, Sunita Devi accuses the CO of telling her during one of the raids that the police had returned because they had “missed the fun”.

Even 10 days after the incident, the houses of the Palia village head Manju Paswan and her husband, Munna Paswan, their cousin Swatantra Kumar and uncle Rajpati Paswan, remain wrecked. Broken air conditioners, generators and other appliances can be seen lying outside Kumar’s house. The front of the house has been completely knocked down. All the windows have been smashed and glass is strewn all over the place. The roof of another house owned by Kumar across the road has collapsed over a tractor parked outside, which has also been vandalised.

Manju Paswan’s house is a similar picture of destruction. The verandah’s central pillar has been knocked down while the balcony dangles without support.

The manner of attack – bulldozing the houses with JCB machines and vandalising every single household item – suggests that the intent behind it was not simply retaliatory police action after a dispute between the villagers and two constables, but an act of vengeance aimed at teaching the Dalits a lesson. Why else would the police personnel mutilate photographs of children and elderly people, tear apart documents and smash laptops? 

The police atrocities on the residents of Palia have halted for now, owing to pressure from all quarters. The witch-hunt of Dalit men has also stopped. The men who fled the village have started returning. The locals are busy rebuilding damaged homes. But the police savagery experienced by the people of Palia between June 29, 2021 and July 3, 2021, will remain etched in the collective memory of India’s Dalits for a long time.