Print edition : August 16, 2019

Ramdhin in hospital with pellet injuries on his chest. Photo: Divya Trivedi

Ramlal, 75, sustained injuries on the head and arm. Photo: Divya Trivedi

In order to outdo Priyanka Gandhi, who announced Rs.10 lakh for the kin of each of the victims, Yogi Adityanath announced an ex gratia payment of Rs.18.5 lakh and dispatched bank officials (in picture) to complete the paperwork at the village itself. Photo: Divya Trivedi

An injured person with a pellet injury to his forehead. Photo: Divya Trivedi

Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi consoles family members of Sonbhadra massacre victims who had travelled to Chunar Fort in Mirzapur on July 20 to meet her after she was stopped from proceeding to Sonbhadra. Photo: PTI

Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath visiting an injured person in hospital on July 21. Photo: PTI

The Road freshly tarred ahead of the Chief Minister’s visit to Ubbha. Earlier, it was uneven. Photo: Divya Trivedi

The recent indiscriminate killing of tribal people in Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh, by Gujjar men once again brings to the fore how governments have failed to protect the land rights of lower-caste and tribal groups. The BJP government in the State only seems to be working hand in glove with the perpetrators.

On July 17, Gond tribals of Ubbha village, some 60 kilometres from Robertsganj, the district headquarters of Sonbhadra in Uttar Pradesh, were busy tilling the land they had farmed since pre-Independence days. Around noon, close to 300 men belonging to the dominant Gujjar community, led by the village headman, Yagyadutt, arrived in 32 tractors. Without any provocation, they fired bullets in the air and ran the tractors into the fields with the intent to cause damage. Hearing the commotion, farmers working nearby ran to the spot. “We thought Yagyadutt had come to talk about the land dispute and we gathered under the jamun tree to resolve the matter,” said 75-year-old Ramlal. But to their utter shock, the mob, carrying guns and sticks, fired indiscriminately at them. The farmers were caught completely off guard. Some of them tried to run while others used their lathis (sticks) to defend themselves. Ten Gonds were killed, including three women, and some 30 people were injured. Villagers say that the police, which had been forewarned that such an attack might occur, came an hour later and only after several calls were made to them and the local administration.

Lying on a hospital bed in Robertsganj, Ramlal said it was a miracle that he survived. He sustained heavy injuries on the head and arm. Lying in another bed, Ramdhin showed marks of chharra, or pellet injuries, all over his upper body. “If fired from close range, the impact of the pellets from a licenced 12-bore gun, which seems to have been used in this case, can be deadly,” explained Dr Prem Bahadur Gautam, Chief Medical Superintendent, Sonbhadra District Hospital. In fact, one of the victims had taken the full blast of the pellets on his right thigh and died en route to the Benaras Hindu University Trauma Centre, he said. The police arrested 30 people, including Yagyadutt, in connection with the incident.

The problem started two years ago when, during the days of demonetisation, Yagyadutt bought 144 bighas (one acre is 1.568 bigha) of land from Vinita Sharma, daughter of Prabhat Kumar Mishra, an Indian Administrative Service officer from Bihar. The tribal people complained to the revenue authorities and approached the court against what they termed was an illegal sale. Yagyadutt, meanwhile, lodged first information reports (FIRs) against the Gonds describing them as encroachers on his land.

This was not the first time that Yagyadutt had tried something like this in a bid to force tribal people to give up their claims on the land. Last year, he came with strongmen and attacked the villagers. He apparently also poisoned the crops to intimidate the Gonds into submission, but they resisted a forcible takeover of the land. “When nothing else worked, he resorted to murder to get his way,” said a survivor. Relatives of those who were killed told Frontline that the local administration was aware of the situation but did nothing.

The genesis of the problem is in 1955, when 463 bighas of land were transferred to Adarsh Sahkari Samiti, a charitable society. The land got passed on to Mishra in 1989. After the Uttar Pradesh Zamindari Abolition and Land Reforms Act of 1950, around 600 bighas of land were declared infertile in revenue records and registered as gram sabha land.

The story of Ubbha is not unique. After Independence, illegal transfer of tribal lands to charitable societies took place all across India. Gradually, much of this land landed in the hands of private individuals who were close to such societies.

In 2017, in a bid to convert black money into white, villagers alleged, Mishra sold 144 bighas of the land to Yagyadutt, who belonged to an influential family and owned hundreds of bighas in the area. He was the headman of three villages—Sapahi, Murtiya and Ubbha—in Sonbhadra district. Of these, Murtiya and Sapahi are Gujjar-dominated while Ubbha has a predominantly tribal population.

Gujjars belong to the landowning Other Backward Classes (OBC) community. When there were fewer Gujjar families in the immediate vicinity, residents of Murtiya and Sapahi developed a custom of intermarriage, that is, a reciprocal exchange of boys and girls between two families. This kept the property among themselves, and over the years the Gujjars became landowners, amassing as much as 100 bighas of land per head.

The headmen and district administrators were from among the community and its members called the shots. Apparently, Gujjars even threatened tribal people that if their daughters dared to go to school, they would be butchered. A large number of the villagers who did not conform to their norms lived in fear, said Pandeyji, a Brahmin from Murtiya. Guns were like toys for them. During festivals and marriages, they routinely fired in the air in a show of bravado and roamed around like members of a mafia, claimed villagers.

Land-grabbing had become a way of life for them, alleged villagers. In Murtiya, since 1980, there have been four instances of severe violence in land-related issues. Land belonging to the lower castes such as Kol, Dharkar and Kumhar was branded as “disputed” and slowly snatched away from them at gunpoint by Gujjars. Yagyadutt had, in the past, twice perfected the art of grabbing land in Sapahi, where he lived. These “mafia people” were not loyal to any single political party and kowtowed to whoever was in power to retain their influence, said villagers.

Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in the State, the Gujjars had become favourable to it. “Under earlier governments, despite the land grab, people did not lose their lives. Now, that guarantee has also gone,” rued a distressed villager. The Ubbha incident clearly reflected how the atmosphere of fear, violence and mob rule had percolated down to the lowest levels of governance in Uttar Pradesh.

Discrimination against tribal people

Discrimination against Ubbha is evident all around. For instance, all the infrastructure development stopped at the Gujjar-dominated villages of Murtiya and Sapahi. Just a few days after the incident, Ubbha got a facelift with fresh tar being laid at its entry point. Otherwise, the road from Ghorawal to Ubbha was uneven and difficult to use. Villagers pointed out that the road was hastily built before the arrival of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. An electricity pole was erected only to supply electricity to Murtiya. Ubbha would remain in darkness. There is no phone connectivity in the area.

Moreover, ever since the Narendra Modi government came to power at the Centre, employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has dried up, severely curtailing the livelihood options of villagers. They listed the government schemes that had failed to pick up in the region because of what they believe is a corrupt local administration. They said there were no toilets built under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and no houses constructed under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, and that banks turned them away when they approached for loans.

While some Gonds had ration cards and identity documents, many others complained that they were not given even caste certificates. The Kutumb register, a record of all families in the village, has allegedly gone missing, and villagers suspect the hands of the Gujjars in it.

Chief Development Officer Ajay Dwivedi, however, refuted these charges and said the villagers who were not eligible for these schemes were misleading the media. The responsibility of overseeing various developmental schemes, including infrastructure creation, of the State and Central governments lies with him. “Bias can be exercised by the headman in infrastructure projects like roads and ponds, but not in beneficiary-oriented schemes which are implemented directly by the Central or State governments. Now with direct cash transfers, it is not possible to systematically loot the people of their rights. The beneficiaries are selected on the basis of the Socio-Economic Caste Census [SECC] of 2011. The SECC, however, is not perfect. In the last decade, the number of eligible people has grown. The leftover survey is being conducted to add them to the list. While land grab was possible and rampant in the area, daylight robbery in schemes is not,” he said.

Dwivedi was inducted to this office shortly before the elections, some four months ago. In the wake of the Ubbha incident, he formed a survey team to submit a report in three days. To address the backwardness of the region, plans were afoot to form a new tehsil, two new blocks and a police chowki, he said. “The norms for government schemes would be waived and it would be ensured that provision of houses, toilets, MGNREGA cards, electricity, LPG, insurance and drinking water and land allotment would be carried out in Ubbha,” he said. It remains to be seen how much of this actually gets done.

A few villagers from Murtiya suspect that tall claims such as this could be an immediate ploy to appease the villagers and thus scuttle their demand for justice against Gujjars. Some Gujjars were heard saying: “They can’t touch even a strand of hair on our heads. Yagyadutt continues to call the shots from inside [the prison].” The implication was that once the issue settled down, they would go back to their old ways. In fact, the villagers alleged that the police made the 30 arrests not on the basis of the victims’ testimonies but on the basis of Yagyadutt’s statement. “He named people he had an enmity with,” they claimed, while many of the real culprits roamed free. The administration denied these claims as false.

Opposition protest

In fact, the matter might have been buried and forgotten had it not been for the media attention on the village when the opposition got its act together. In the aftermath of the incident, Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’ Brien and two other members of his party on their way to Sonbhadra were detained at the Varanasi airport. They staged a dharna near the tarmac and asked on what basis they were being detained since Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure only prohibited an assembly of more than four persons in an area. They were allowed to leave the airport and meet the victims at the BHU Trauma Centre.

Soon after, Priyanka Gandhi, Congress general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh East, tried to reach Ubbha and was taken into preventive custody citing Section 144. She was detained at a guest house by Yogi Adityanath’s security forces where she sat on a protest for 24 hours, demanding to meet the villagers. “I only want to meet the affected families, whose members have been mercilessly shot dead. A boy of my son’s age was shot at and is lying in hospital. Tell me on what legal basis I am stopped here,” she said and announced a relief of Rs.10 lakh each to the kin of the dead. In a bid to outdo her, Yogi Adityanath announced an ex gratia payment of Rs.18.5 lakh to the kin of the victims and immediately dispatched bank officials to complete the paperwork at the village itself. He said a committee led by Additional Chief Secretary (Revenue) would investigate the matter and submit its report within 10 days.

Soon, leaders of all political parties descended on Ubbha. The local administration, some of whom were responsible for the deprivation in the area according to the villagers, also made a great show of being concerned about them, they said. “They brought [electricity] meters for the Saubhagya scheme, or PM Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana, to show that they were being distributed before the Chief Minister came, but once he left, they packed up the meters and left,” said a villager. Only 10 homes in the village apparently have electricity.

In the political barbs that followed, Yogi Adityanath put the blame for the problem on the Congress, which was in power when the land was transferred from the tribal people to the society. He claimed that the Samajwadi Party had given patronage to Yagyadutt.

Meanwhile, Bahujan Samaj Party president Mayawati held both the Congress and the BJP responsible for the Sonbhadra firing. Terming it “genocide”, she said the BJP government was trying to hide its failure by imposing Section 144 in the area. Echoing her sentiments, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav tweeted: “The BJP government in Uttar Pradesh which bows down before culprits has allowed a genocide. Deaths in the Sonbhadra firing is an example of terror and suppression under the BJP rule.”

The fact, however, remains that governments led by the upper castes have failed to protect the land rights of the lower castes and tribal groups. Persisting landlessness has rendered these communities powerless and at the mercy of powerful rural elites who trick them into working on their own lands or bind them in perennial debts.

As far as the ruling dispensation is concerned, blaming everything on the Congress will not work any more. The reins of the erstwhile dabang (dominant) groups in rural India have passed on from the hands of the Congress to the BJP. Now they are being employed not only to grab lands of the marginalised but also to foment communal disharmony.

The myth of love jehad and cow slaughter too flourished under the BJP’s rule. The murders of Muslims and Dalits have increased exponentially. Law and order seems heavily biased against these communities. In the 2013 Muzaffarnagar violence, where reportedly 65 people were killed and 50,000 rendered homeless, an investigation found that in 40 of the 41 cases registered relating to the violence against Muslims, all the accused were acquitted. The only conviction took place in the case relating to the murder of cousins Gaurav and Sachin in Kawal village, the incident which is said to have triggered the violence.

Others accused in the Muzaffarnagar case, such as Sangeet Som and Sanjeev Balyan, have been rewarded by the BJP. Balyan was inducted into Modi’s 2019 Cabinet as Minister of State for Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries.

Yogi Adityanath was himself accused in a 1995 case, but after becoming Chief Minister, he absolved himself of all charges. By the blatant misuse of the law and order machinery, the message that is sent out to relatively smaller criminals like Yagyadutt is that they can get away with anything if they are on right side of the powers that be.

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