Video clips of members of a Dalit family stripping themselves in broad daylight in the middle of Dankaur’s bustling marketplace in Gautam Budh Nagar district in Uttar Pradesh on October 7 quickly went viral on social media. Sunil Gautam, his elder brother Sohanpal, their wives Rita and Harwati, Gautam’s youngest brother Sudhish’s wife Babita, and their three children were promptly arrested for obscenity and jailed.
The videos, taken with mobile phone cameras from various angles, depicted differing perspectives on the incident, and the reportage around the incident was reduced to the question of “who stripped whom”, with the implied premise that it amounted to a caste atrocity only if the police had stripped the women of the family. The police version of the events, along with the demonisation and branding of Sunil Gautam as a troublemaker, added to the confusion over what actually happened that day.
Sunil, belonging to the Chamar Jatav caste, lives in the village of Atta Gujran, six kilometres from Dankaur, and is an activist who speaks up on the issues plaguing the village, including illegal sand mining, lack of electricity, lack of proper roads, and poverty. He is venerated by his community in the village, and his assertiveness is a thorn in the side of policemen in Dankaur who dislike his doggedness on issues.
The immediate trigger for the dharna on October 7 was the inaction of the Dankaur police after a motorbike, two mobile phones, an autorickshaw key and some cash were forcibly snatched from Sunil and Sohanpal by three armed goons on the evening of October 5 as they were working on their land behind Dronacharya Degree College in Dankaur. The men threatened them with dire consequences if they set foot on the land again. According to a fact-finding team of the National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ) and the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), the accused mentioned the name of Mahavir Gujjar as they were leaving the scene. It says: “Sunil strongly believes that Mahavir, who belongs to the dominant Gujjar community, had sent these men. Further, the complaint says that the Gujjar community has looted their crops and caused them great tribulations for years. Sunil has made police complaints against Mahavir on prior occasions as well (in December 2014). Sunil says Mahavir abuses them with caste names (Chamar, Dhedha, etc.) every day. He categorically mentions that Mahavir and his relatives are a threat to his life and property.” On October 6, Sunil filed with the station officer (SO), Praveen Kumar Yadav, in the Dankaur police station a complaint of caste-based insult, threat and loot against the three goons, but the police did not register it or take any action against the accused.
The narratives focussing on “who stripped whom” camouflage the real issue of land grab, which is at the heart of the protest. The 8.5 bigha s (bigha is a unit of measurement of land) of land that is in Sunil’s father Jaypal Singh’s name has been under dispute ever since he passed away five years ago. Mahavir Gujjar, a resident of nearby Dairin village, has been camping on 1.5 to two bigha s of the land. According to Lakshman Singh, Sunil’s uncle, what began with a request to allow Mahavir Gujjar to keep some cattle on it led to him misusing that trust to erect a building on it. The villagers, townspeople and the police differ on the particulars of the dispute, but they all corroborate the fact that the land was allotted to Jaypal Singh and that after his death it had become a matter of dispute between Sunil and Mahavir.
Devvati, a woman in her fifties from Atta Gujran who was present at the marketplace in Dankaur, hints that caste equations could be a reason for the police’s dislike for Sunil. “I had gone there to buy medicines. When I saw the scuffle, I asked the police what was going on. SO Praveen Yadav was there. He told his officers to hit me! They said ‘ sui lagva do saalon ko [Give them all an ‘injection’]. These Chamars are becoming too confident for their own good!’” Sunil’s sister Lokesh said: “Praveen Yadav should be suspended and sent to jail. He doesn’t listen to any of our pleas. He doesn’t like Sunil because Sunil exposes the bribes he takes.”
Hindus and Muslims make up the majority of the population in Dankaur. Sunil has a rented shop in the town, which is surrounded by those of Muslims, Pandits, Telis and Chaudharys, among others. After the October 7 incident, two FIRs were filed against the family—one by the police, and the other by shopkeepers in the area. Dr Habeeb Ahmed, in whose name the second FIR has been filed, runs a medical practice a few shops away from Sunil’s shop in the market. He was all praise for SO Praveen Yadav and made no bones about his dislike for Sunil. “He is a blot on society. How dare he disrobe the women of his family? If strict action is not taken against him, others will also get the confidence to follow in his footsteps.” He claimed that the women of the area (“ hamari maa-behne ”) who witnessed the protest were traumatised and it was a moral issue for society that needed to be dealt with firmly. He admitted that Sunil’s land was being illegally occupied, but he insisted that Sunil’s methods of protest were unwarranted and should be more sensible.
So what really happened on October 7? Piecing together the narratives of shopkeepers and bystanders, it is clear that the family was observing a dharna outside their shop. The Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) was passing through the main market as part of the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan and the family wanted him to take note of their protest and listen to their grievance. However, the SDM, having been warned of the protest, took a different route. Praveen Yadav, in plainclothes, came and forcibly tried to evict them. There was a scuffle between Sunil Gautam and Praveen Yadav, during which the SO’s service revolver fell from his back pocket and landed in the gutter. The police then resorted to verbal and physical abuse and Sunil stripped himself in protest, followed by his family. All of them, including the women and the children, were dragged into a van and taken to the station. There was not a single policewomen present through all of this. Sunil’s uncle Lakshman Singh says Sunil and Sohanpal were beaten black and blue in front of him by the police outside the police station. The fact-finding team of the NDMJ-NCDHR says in its report: “If staging a protest is public nuisance and obscenity, most of what we recognise as anti-caste movement is ‘obscene’, for they were historically staged in marketplaces, roads, factories and other places of ‘public’ utility.”
The women were arrested under Section 323 and released after a week, whereas the men were booked under Sections 147, 148, 323, 332, 353, 394, 307, 324, 294 and 188 and continue to be in jail. Praveen Yadav, when asked if the men would be released on bail, told Kamal Kispotta, a member of a fact-finding team: “ Pade rehne do unko jail mein [Let them rot in jail].” The reason for booking them under Section 307, applicable for the offence of attempt to murder, was given by Praveen Yadav in the form of pictorial evidence: a longitudinal reddish mark on his chest that, according to him, was caused by a blade brandished by Sunil Gautam. He unbuttons his shirt and shows it off to everybody who walks into the station asking about the case, especially journalists, all of whom testify that it looks like nothing more than a nail scratch. Villagers who were shown this mark said that Praveen Yadav made the mark himself. “We were sitting in dharna at the chowk where this incident took place on October 11 and he did it himself,” said Jackie Bhim of Dankaur.
On October 12, as several villagers protested in front of the Surajpur Collectorate, they were tear-gassed, according to Lakshman Singh. Chamar Jatavs from several villages near by joined in a protest in front of Uttar Pradesh Bhavan, the SC/ST Commission and the Women’s Commission. On October 14, the Dalit Shoshan Mukti Manch’s Delhi unit, along with other groups, organised a protest near Uttar Pradesh Bhavan in New Delhi, where they were arrested and taken to the Chanakyapuri police station. The All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) and several groups have condemned the incident and demanded the immediate release of the family. Other demands include instituting a judicial inquiry into the matter; booking Praveen Kumar Yadav and SDM Mukesh Siddharth under Section 4 of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, for wilful negligence; booking the concerned police officials under Section 3 (1) (iii), 3(1)(viii), 3(1)(ix), 3(1)(x), 3(1)(xi), of the SC/ST (PoA) Act; registering an FIR as per Sunil Gautam’s complaint dated October 6, 2015; taking necessary action against the accused, Mahavir, as per the SC/ST (PoA) Act; compensating Sunil Gautam and his family as per the SC/ST (PoA) Act; and ensuring the protection and safety of the affected families by the Uttar Pradesh government.
The chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, P.L. Punia, reportedly described the treatment of the family as inhuman. A delegation of the All India Backward (S.C., S.T., OBC) and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF) unit in Agra visited the family and extended its support. Overwhelmed by the support, the family reflects the sentiments of an as-yet economically poor but politically astute Dalit community that is ready to fight social injustices and is unwilling to tolerate caste atrocities any longer. Lakshman Singh said: “The community is with us. The administration will have to be improved; otherwise the ill treatment of the community will never end.”