What Bharat Bandh Did to Dalits in the Chambal Belt

The Bharat Bandh organised to protest the dilution of the SC/ST Act by the Supreme Court paradoxically led to numerous atrocities committed against Dalits in Madhya Pradesh.

Chambal, Madhya Pradesh: The Bharat Bandh on April 2 was a historic event. For the first time ever, a bandh was organised across the country without being backed by either a national political party or group of parties or by any national organisations. The call came from various Dalit groups and individuals reacting to the decision by the Supreme Court to water down the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. It spread like wild fire to government offices, public sector undertakings, bastis and village clusters, with millions recognising the court’s decision as nothing short of life-threatening.  At a time when abuse, humiliation and violence are becoming more and more commonplace for Dalits in most parts of the country, where rape, mutilation and barbarity are realities in the lives of Dalit women, girls and infants, the danger of access to justice itself being curtailed was immediately understood by those to whom justice has been regularly denied in the name of custom, tradition and religion.

By and large, the bandh was peaceful. However, there were exceptions. Dalits were killed in Rajasthan and Western Uttar Pradesh and in the days following the bandh, there are reports of hundreds being arrested and of terrified families locking their homes and leaving their villages. In Rajasthan, a mob was allowed to burn down homes belonging to a Dalit BJP MLA and an ex-Congress MLA.

In the Chambal area of Madhya Pradesh, comprising Gwalior, Bhind and Morena, eight people were killed on April 2. They died of gunshot wounds but the police denies having taken recourse to firing. In no time, videos of young men firing from rifles and revolvers with complete impunity went viral. They were seen walking down the deserted roads and firing at Dalit targets. Policemen could be seen following them. These men are known both to the police and to most citizens of the city. They are believed to be close to the local BJP MP, who is also a Union minister.  They have been recognised and named, but are yet to be arrested.

Paradoxically, thousands of Dalits have been charged under section 302, 307 and other stringent sections. Hundreds have been arrested and hundreds more are being threatened with arrest every day. The use of ‘unknown others’ (anya agyaat) in police FIRs is known to create panic and terror and also unending opportunities to extort. Anyone and everyone can be arrested, or anyone and everyone who could be arrested can be left untouched, for a price. The matter does not end there, as the policemen can return citing “tremendous pressure from seniors” to arrest so-and-so which can only be eased by more gratification.

By the evening of April 2, curfew was imposed across the three districts. The Dalit population in Chambal is over 20%, of which a large majority belongs to the Jatav community who are recognised as the most conscious among Dalits. This gives them special status and also makes them special targets of those to whom Dalit assertion is anathema. It was the areas they live in that saw the strictest implementation of the curfew.

Reports of large-scale arrests, beatings by the police, looting and destruction of property in Dalit homes started coming in from the morning of April 3. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) arranged a visit by its MP, K. Somaprasad (from Kerala) along with Vijoo Krishnan (All India Kisan Sabha) and Vikram Singh (Students’ Federation of India), who spent two days visiting various homes and hospitals in Morena and Gwalior. Their visit to Bhind was prevented by the district administration. They also met district officials in both places and demanded that a compensation of Rs 1 crore be paid to the families of those who had been killed (the families of the farmers killed in police firing in Mandsaur last year were given a similar sum), aid be provided to those wounded and maimed and the arrests of innocents be stopped. They also demanded that those involved in killing and maiming should be immediately arrested. Predictably, there has been no response from the state government.

Rakesh Jatav's mother mourns for him.

Rakesh Jatav’s mother mourns for him.

A whole month has passed since the bandh. Major opposition parties are silent on the issue. Even the ruling BJP’s Dalit leaders (MPs, MLAs, corporators etc.) who spoke up, are silent after being attacked and vilified.

On May 1 and 2, I visited Gwalior and Morena along with others from my party and the Dalit Shoshit Mukti Manch (DSMM). We went to the homes of the two young men who were shot dead on April 2. Rakesh Jatav of Bhimnagar was a daily-wage earner who used to stand at the crossroads every morning waiting to be hired by someone. On April 2, he went with his brother, Mangal Singh, to the crossroads but was forced to head home because he did not find anyone who needed him. He was shot on his way back home. The police took his body to the mortuary. Mangal Singh reached there late in the evening and begged the police to allow him to take the body home, but they refused.  The only concession they made was to send a policeman to bring Rakesh’s 12-year-old son to the crematorium. Here, he was told brusquely that he could light his father’s pyre. This was when the young boy learned for the first time that his father was dead. The family has received no compensation, not even a condolence visit from the administration.  It was only after Somaprasad’s visit that a Congress leader paid a hurried visit to the family, as did the local BJP MP, who is allegedly harbouring the killers.

On April 3, hundreds of policemen raided Bhimnagar, entering homes, abusing and beating people and taking away many young men. The arrests have continued and dozens are in jail with serious charges under section 307 and 302 of the IPC. What is interesting is that while those killed are Dalits (victims), it is Dalits who are being arrested.

Deepak Jatav, also killed on April 2, lived in a large basti, Galla Kuthar.  There is a huge gate that opens into the basti. Beside the gate is a large house that belongs to the Tomar family. Deepak (22) used to take his cart out everyday to sell tea on the main road, and this is what he did on April 2. He was still inside the gate when he was shot dead. There are photographs of a man shooting from a revolver from behind a wall, but the police have not been able to find him yet. They had charged him with section 308 (bailable) but we were told later by the administration that due to protests, including ours, he is now charged under section 307.

Deepak’s father, Mohan Singh, is old and frail man. His brother, Rajendra, took turns with Deepak with the tea cart. Several men from the basti set up stalls on the road outside and many of them have paid the Tomar family Rs 1,500 a month as ‘hafta’.  Deepak and Rajendra never agreed to this. Rajendra worked hard at odd jobs and bought himself a gold bracelet. When someone from the Tomar family noticed this, he was called to a small restaurant where he was abused for ‘getting above himself’.  He was beaten and his bracelet was taken away. His father went to the police station but no report was lodged. Instead, the old man was made to sit there for hours. The next morning, Deepak was shot dead. His wife was not even allowed to see his body which was cremated in the middle of the night.  

Several young men have been arrested from this basti. The people who live here suffer in other ways too. The public water pump is located near the Tomar house and its key is in their custody. As a result, the basti only gets water at the Tomars’ will. Very often, their taps run dry. When we were there, we were told they had had no water for two days. A government school building inside the gate has been encroached by the powerful Tomars. It is unfortunate that although the local corporator-cum-MLC is a Jatav, but she hasn’t been able to do much to protect the rights and lives of her voters.

Fr subhashini water pump outside Galla Kothar controlledby Tomar family

The water pump outside Galla Kothar that is controlled by Tomar family.

On May 2, we went to Dabra, which is part of Gwalior district. Here too, Vimal, (26), who was married just a year ago, had completed his BSc and was preparing for the exam to become a sub-inspector of police, was killed in ‘private’ firing in police presence. He was the only one of the three killed in the district who was a bandh supporter. The other two were actually going to work when they were killed.

The people we met in Dabra were in fear of the police, the constant arrests and threat of further arrests. They were furious about what had been done to an old statue of Ambedkar during the bandh. The administration did not take any action against those responsible for breaking and removing the statue but they worked all night to install a new statue in its place. They are not, however, ceding to the demand of Dalits to hand over the pieces of the broken statue to them. Even a marble-cutting factory in Dabra, cars and home of a Dalit BJP supporter, Lakshman Singh, whose sister-in-law is the BJP town area chairperson, were not spared. Not only was his property and home destroyed and looted,  he has also been charged under section 307 and is on the run.

The people we spoke to alleged that the police had called gangsters working for the sand mafia to attack the bandh supporters and later, RSS and Bajrang Dal people were also brought in. More than 200 people have been arrested so far and more than 10,000 ‘unknown’ persons have been mentioned in the police FIRs. Dalits in Dabra say they are facing constant police visits, arrests and extortion.

Morena was the most shocking. We visited two large bastis situated on either side of the railway track – Singal and Uttampura. Dozens of young men have been arrested from Singal, homes have been ransacked and women beaten. Extortion is a common feature. The earning members of families living in this basti are either in jail or too afraid to go to work.  Their suffering has been compounded by the fact that electricity and water supply had been cut for the last four days. When some of them went to complain, they were sarcastically told that they should organise some more bandhs.

Uttampura is a very large basti from where over 300 people have been named in FIRs and about 35 have been arrested. Hundreds have run away in fear. The police have released lists of young men with their photographs announcing a reward for any information. None of these people has a criminal record but rewards from Rs 3,000- 10,000 have been placed on them. The highest reward of Rs 10,000 has been announced for information about 76-year-old J. K. Pippal, a veteran CPI(M) leader.

As a result, people in these bastis have started looking at each other with suspicion. Their solidarity is under severe threat. So far, however, no one has fallen for the police bait. No politician or social worker has visited either of these places. No lawyer has taken up any of the cases (this is the case in Gwalior too) and the people feel completely helpless and at the mercy of a capricious administration.

Interventions with the administration and interventions in the courts are the only way out to ensure justice to Dalits in these bastis. A beginning was made when a protest by hundreds of people, organised by the CPI(M), other Left parties and the Aam Aadmi Party, was held in Gwalior. Many Dalits who had suffered at the hands of the police joined the protest. The Gwalior administration did everything to prevent this small protest, which could well be the beginning of an end to the reign of terror that has been unleashed on the Dalits.

Photographs by Reena and Preeti, AIDWA, Gwalior.

Subhashini Ali is a former member of parliament from Kanpur and politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).