Gwalior: On April 2, 2018 – the day of a ‘Bharat Bandh’ called by Dalit groups across the country – Dalit homes in the Galla-Kothar area of Gwalior district were allegedly attacked by upper-caste mobs.
The clash left seven dead, including five Dalit protesters – two of whom were allegedly shot and killed. Two others were hit by bullets, but survived.
A year later, more than a dozen residents of the area’s Dalit bastis have applied to the police for licenses to carry firearms.
The 2018 Bharat Bandh was organised to protest a Supreme Court verdict that was seen as an attempt to dilute some provisions of the SC/ST Atrocities Act, 1989. It scrapped the requirement that the accused be arrested immediately, a provision that was restored by an act of parliament in August.
The protests turned violent in areas in Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, with vehicles set on fire, and confrontations between the protestors and police.
Some of the worst violence occurred in Galla-Kothar and Bhim Nagar, on the outskirts of Gwalior city, which have large Dalit populations and fewer, upper-caste (mostly Thakur) residents.
In the Gwalior clashes, Deepak Jatav and Rakesh Tamotiya were allegedly shot dead. Four months later, eight residents of Galla-Kothar applied for licenses to own 12-bore rifles and Mauser pistols.Jagdish Pal, 56, is one of the men who applied to the Gwalior police for a gun license in August 2018.
“Goliyo ke awaz dil dahaladene wali thi [The sound of gunshots was heart-pounding],” he told The Wire, recalling the day of the attack. “Everyone locked themselves in their homes as bullets started flying in our colonies.”
“Upper-caste men came armed with guns, swords and sticks, but we have no weapons to defend ourselves other than stones. If we had guns or Mausers, we could have given them a befitting reply.”
Mohan Jatav, the father of the slain Deepak Jatav, has also applied for a firearm license. He runs a tea shop near his home in Galla-Kothar. Most of the applicants are daily-wage workers or employed at private firms.
“If we had a weapon, my son would have been alive because they wouldn’t have dared attack us,” Mohan told The Wire. “They can attack our colonies because they are armed with weapons and they know we have nothing to defend ourselves with.”
One source of the residents’ insecurity is the alleged inaction of the police when upper-caste mobs attacked their colonies.
“Instead of controlling the situation, police personnel were supporting the attackers,” said Ram Awtar Singh, a former sarpanch of Galla-Kothar. “To defend themselves, women and children started throwing stones. Stones were the only weapon we had to defend ourselves.”
The firing was so intense, Singh said, that it killed several cows and oxen that were tied up outside Dalit homes.
“The police were mute spectators on April 2 last year, while people were killed,” alleged Babulal Jatav, a local leader. “The following day, it was the police who attacked Dalit homes, vandalised them and arrested innocent youths.”
“We have lost faith in the police. We have understood that we have to defend ourselves.”
After the attack, the grieving Dalit residents still had to endure harassment or inaction by the police. “First the matter escalated to such extent because police did not act,” Mohan Jatav said. “Then the police did not lodge the FIR of my son’s death for a day. They kept me moving from one police station to another. And then they vandalised our homes, harassed our women and innocent young men. Above all, police have not acted on any cases registered against the upper-caste men.”“We have no reason to trust them but to protect ourselves,” he said. “Police will always support upper-caste men who have money and power.”
Two months after applying, however, the group of applicants say the District Collector ocalled them to ask why they needed guns: ‘To form a Dalit militant group and take revenge?’
When the applicants asked why they couldn’t keep firearms, when Thakurs in the area have them, the collector allegedly asked them to leave.
The superintendent of Gwalior police, Navneet Bhasin, confirmed that he had received a number of applications for arms license from Dalit applicants in Galla-Kothar and Bhim Nagar area, which are currently under scrutiny.
“In a recently-held meeting with the district magistrate, I forwarded the five applications and soon we will issue the license,” said S.P. Bhasin.
About the delay, he said, “There was assembly election and now a general election. In between, a number of officials were transferred, including the district magistrate. But sooner or later, we will approve their arms license.”
“We abide by the law and are committed to protecting everyone,” Bhasin told The Wire. “But just like anyone, they have a right to get an arms license if they feel unsafe.”
Kashif Kakvi is a Delhi-based journalist who reports on Madhya Pradesh. He tweets @KashifKakvi.