Ground Report: A Custodial Death, a Protest and Raids that Drove Dalit Villagers Out of Homes

Sarta residents believe that police may return to unleash more brutality as revenge for a protest held against the custodial death of a Dalit man. A policewoman died in the protest.

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Sarta: The Bihar village of Sarta – which has a Dalit majority – was deserted on July 28. Most houses, built of mud and straw, were locked.

On July 24 and 25, police raided the village, in the states’ Jehanabad district, and ransacked many houses – breaking doors, television sets, tubewells, autorickshaws and furniture.

The police action was the fallout of a protest against alleged police brutality on a villager – 31-year-old Govind Majhi – who died in jail. He was arrested early morning on July 19 from his house for allegedly running a country liquor business. Liquor has been banned in Bihar since April 2016.

The Majhi or Musahar community is economically, educationally and socially one of the most backward among Dalit communities in Bihar.

The state has 2,50,000 Musahars, according to the Census of 2011. Most are landless and many have migrated to other states. Those who have stayed on in Bihar’s villages work as daily wage labourers at construction sites, brick kilns and farms. They earn between Rs 150 and Rs 200 a day.

According to Majhi’s family members, police had beaten him mercilessly before taking him to Daudnagar sub-jail in Aurangabad district, around 70 kilometres from Sarta village. He died in the jail at 1.40 am on July 24.

Majhi was arrested based on a complaint filed by one Rajkumar Yadav, a policeman at the Paras Bigha police station. Sarta is under the jurisdiction of this police station.

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

Yadav’s complaint had said, “In the wee hours of July 19, we raided liquor traders. In this process, we reached Sarta village and nabbed Govind Majhi in front of his house. He had a plastic gallon full of liquor. During the interrogation, he accepted that the plastic gallon had liquor and he was involved in this business for a long time.”

On the basis of this written complaint, police lodged an FIR against Govind under Section 30 (A) of Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2018. As per that section, a person, if proven guilty, will have to spend a minimum 10 years in jail and will have to pay Rs 1 lakh as a penalty.

Majhi’s wife, Suranti Devi, has said that the allegations police made against her husband are false. The couple has a six-year-old daughter.

“It was around 5 am on July 19. I had just woken up to relieve myself in an open field,” she tells The Wire. Suranti Devi has no access to a toilet. Ninety percent of Dalit houses in the village don’t have toilets, so women wake up early to go to the fields to relieve themselves.

“They (police) were 10 people. They barged into our house. I was at my dehri (porch),” she recalls.

“One police personnel verbally abused me and asked me to come inside the room. I said that I needed go to the field and left the house. Police entered the bedroom where my husband was sleeping. They woke him up and brought him to the police station, beating him mercilessly,” she tells The Wire.

Suranti Devi holds up identity cards of her husband. Photo: Umesh Kumar Ray/The Wire

She says that there was no plastic gallon inside the room. “When police arrested him, he had nothing. Later police claimed that they had recovered a plastic gallon with country-made liquor. This is a complete lie,” she says.

“I have been with him for a decade. He kept himself busy with farming. He never engaged in the liquor business. He was a healthy man. He had no other disease. He can’t die suddenly,” she says.

Govind had studied until Class 10. He was landless and farmed on leased land. Apart from this, he would assist people with online work and upload songs and movies to mobile phones in his locality with the help of his laptop.

His school friend Roshan Kumar, who belongs to the Bhumihar caste, says, “He was a nice guy. In Musahari (a locality where the majority population is of Musahars) only two to three youths are Matric-pass. Govind was among them. We had studied together. I never saw him involved in any illicit business. Police can claim anything, but this allegation against him is baseless.”

A local, who wished not to be named, tells The Wire, “Few people of this village do make country liquor. Police should identify and arrest them, but why frame an innocent person?”

The Wire contacted SP (superintendent of police) of Jehanabad and SHO (station house officer) of Paras Bigha police station, but they did not respond to calls.

Custodial death 

On July 23 morning, Suranti Devi received a phone call. The person on the other side told her that her husband is seriously ill in jail and may die anytime soon. This person who called her was a resident of Arwal district and had shared the room with Majhi in jail. He was freed from jail on July 23 and had immediately called Suranti Devi.

Govind had given his fellow prisoner his family’s mobile number and requested him to inform his family about his deteriorating health.

“I spoke to that person at around 6 am that morning…on July 23, we could not visit Daudnagar sub-jail. We went there on July 24, Saturday morning. I saw his body was in a van. There were multiple wounds on his legs and hands. His clothes were torn. A guard in the jail told us that he died on July 23 night,” she said.

She further says, “Police didn’t give the body to us. They said that the body will be handed over after postmortem.” Hospital authorities have not provided a postmortem report so far.

According to the jail sources, Govind’s health started deteriorating on July 22. He was brought to the Daudnagar sub-divisional hospital barely two kilometres away from the Daudnagar sub-jail.  A prescription issued by the hospital says: “He was unconscious and disoriented. He had a 103-degree fever. He had a history of alcoholism.”

Dr. Rajesh Kumar, deputy superintendent of Daudnagar sub-divisional hospital, who treated Majhi on July 22, recalls that he had written “history of alcoholism” in his prescription according to the police statement.

A villager holds up a photo of Govind Majhi (extreme right). Photo: Umesh Kumar Ray/The Wire

“The patient had told me that he had no previous ailment and he was not a habitual drinker either. The police told me that he was an alcoholic, so I wrote it on prescription,” the doctor tells The Wire.

“He was young and healthy and didn’t look like an alcoholic. On July 22, he was in the hospital for two to three hours. We gave him medicines, injections and saline. As his condition improved, the jail authorities said that they would get him treated in the jail as there was a doctor there,” recalls the doctor.

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His condition started deteriorating again on July 23 night at around 12.30 am, according to jail sources.

The jail authorities again brought him to the Daudnagar sub-divisional hospital at around 1.40 am – around 70 minutes late. Doctors declared him brought dead. Notably, the distance between sub-jail and the hospital is barely 2 to 3 kilometres.

Further, if his condition was serious on July 22, why was he brought back to jail?

Meanwhile, Aurangabad DM Saurabh Jorawal has given a clean chit to the jail doctor and jail authorities. “Postmortem report says that he died of heart disease. We had no knowledge of it as he didn’t tell us anything. We found that he had died of medical reasons and there was no negligence on the part of jail authorities,” says Jorawal.

On the question of delay in reaching the hospital, he says, “When his condition started deteriorating, the doctor checked him. He tried to give him some medicines. So, it took time. This is normal.”

The death of a policewoman 

As soon as news reached the village on the morning of July 24, locals began to protest. They gathered at the National Highway 110 at Nehalpur chowk and blocked traffic. A huge contingent of police reached the spot and tried to pacify the crowd.

The police in its FIR claimed that the crowd had gone out of control and attacked police personnel. “Police tried to persuade them to end the protest, but they were not listening. They got angry and attacked police with bricks, stones and sticks. More than 13 police personnel sustained injuries,” the FIR notes.

Local people say it was the police who first started hitting locals. “Protests are our right. My brother was murdered and we can’t even protest?” asks Bablu Majhi, Govind’s older brother.

The television at a Sarta villager’s house, broken allegedly by the police. Photo: Umesh Kumar Ray/The Wire

Bablu works at a brick kiln. He tells The Wire, “Police suddenly gathered and started lathi-charge on protesters. In response protestors too started hurling bricks at them.”

Police, in their written complaint, alleged that a policewoman, Kanti Devi, fell on the road, and was run over by a vehicle during the protest.

But locals people say that it was a police van which hit her when she fell on the road while running. Bablu told The Wire that he was at the spot and knew exactly how the policewoman had died.

“She had tried to board a police van, but she fell on the road. A police bus which was passing by hit her,” he says.

Police fired eight rounds to disperse the crowd.

Later, police lodged an FIR against 51 persons from Majhi community and 200 unknown persons under several sections of the Indian Penal Code and Section 27 of the Arms Act. So far, more than a dozen people have been arrested, including a few women.

On July 27, Govind’s body reached the village. There was a huge contingent of police personnel. Local people recalled that police insisted on cremating the body as soon as possible as they feared that situation may further escalate.

Suranti Devi said, “Police were telling us that they will cremate the body and we should leave. But we didn’t leave and cremated the body at a small distance from the village, in the presence of police.”

A mud hearth, destroyed allegedly by police. Photo: Umesh Kumar Ray/The Wire

The police raid

Police then raided the village for two consecutive days on July 24 and 25, ransacking entire houses.

Elderly persons in the village said that the police action was similar to that of the Ranvir Sena, a militia of ‘upper’ caste Bhumihars in Bihar, which was active between 1994 and 2000. The group had carried out more than half a dozen mass killings of Dalits.

Sunaina Devi of the village told The Wire, “Police did not say anything. They broke into my home and “searched” two rooms. In one room, I had kept Rs 15,000 in a suitcase, which they took and left. Ranveer Sena people would raid the same way.”

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

One Lalita Devi said police broke all her utensils and tore up documents related to land. In the deceased Govind Majhi’s house, police destroyed tubewells, a laptop and chairs, say family members. One Janakiya Devi says police broke her door and destroyed the television that she owned.

A tubewell allegedly broken by police. Photo: Umesh Kumar Ray/The Wire

The fear of police action is such that most villagers are hiding in agricultural fields or in the forest. The villagers fear another round of police brutality.

Fifty-five- year-old Budhu Majhi tells The Wire, “We go to the jungle in the evening and spend nights there. I am not alone. Almost all the men and some women of the village are staying in the jungle to avoid police action.”

“Police beat us mercilessly,” Budhu says.

Apart from Sarta, police had raided Nehalpur Musahari tola as well. Nehalpur is adjacent to Sarta village.

A middle-aged man, Mohan Majhi, said that the youth of the village have been spending their days in the fields for almost a week.

“Sometimes we sleep at the border of two agricultural fields. There has been no rain at night since Saturday, which is helpful. Had there been rain, I don’t know how we could spend the night,” the Nehalpur resident said.

There is risk of sustaining snake bites out in the open. Two women of the Nehalpur Musahari tola have suffered snake bites while hiding in the fields. Both survived. One of them is Sheila Devi.

Sheila Devi. Photo: Umesh Kumar Ray/The Wire

“I was sleeping in the field when a snake bit me. We had to hire an auto for Rs 500 to go to the ojha (spiritual healer) who stays 5 kms away. He took Rs 400 from me. Luckily, I survived,” she said.

Villagers also alleged that police have named many people who were not involved in the protest and are, in fact, staying in other states.

Budhu Majhi alleges that his nephew stays in Punjab but police have included his name in an FIR for protesting.

Sarta village resident Sheila Devi alleges that her husband was not in the protest but police have arrested him. “Police had beaten him so badly that doctors had to inject saline,” she said.

Govind Majhi’s family is yet to lodge an FIR against the police and jail authorities for his death.

“We fear a trip to the police station. They will not listen to us. They could arrest us and beat us up like Govind,” Govind’s brother Bablu said.

“But we demand justice. Police personnel behind this must be punished,” said Govind’s widow, Suranti Devi.