How UP police’s caste insensitivity forced a Dalit family to strip in the middle of the market

We talk to both parties and try getting to the bottom of what happened in Dankaur on October 7.

ByArunabh Saikia
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How UP police’s caste insensitivity forced a Dalit family to strip in the middle of the market
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According to a First Information Report (FIR) registered at the Dankaur police station in Uttar Pradesh’s Greater Noida, the police station’s Station Officer (S0), Praveen Yadav, survived an attack on his life last Wednesday, October 7.

Three days later, on October 10, I am meeting Yadav in his office. He undoes the first few buttons of his khaki shirt and bares his chest to show me the injury that is supposed to be a proof of the life-threatening attack: a reddish-looking mark, around half an inch in thickness, that stretches diagonally from below his neck to his left nipple. Yadav claims it was a result of an assault by a “sharp object”.  In spite of the very palpable tension in the room (a consequence of my previous few questions, which Yadav interprets as hostile), I have to make an effort to suppress my giggle. The mark appears to be nothing more than a scratch caused by an unkempt human nail. “They even tried to snatch my service revolver,” he tells me in all earnestness. Yadav, for the record, had at least four policemen accompanying him when he was “attacked”.

The incident Yadav is recounting first came to light on October 8, when the Facebook page “DALIT Parivar – The Rising Shudra – dedicated to Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkarji” put out a post about it. Accompanied by rather graphic visuals and a video, it described a very different sequence of events. The post alleged that Yadav had publicly beaten and stripped naked a Dalit family – three women and two men – in Dankaur.  Soon, the video, shot on a mobile phone camera, started gaining traction on social media and was being widely shared. As a result, the Uttar Pradesh government’s Twitter handle – which, of late, has impressed even the staunchest critics of the state government by being highly responsive and prompt – tweeted out a clarification. The clarification, attributed to the Superintendent of Noida Police, stated that the family had disrobed voluntarily and that the video was being circulated to “undermine the efforts of the police”.

https://twitter.com/UPGovt/status/652123831709011968

https://twitter.com/UPGovt/status/652124421444923392

In all fairness, the video is highly inconclusive – and does not really corroborate the Dalit family “stripped and naked by UP police” narrative. However, the video also does not reveal anything that remotely suggests Yadav was attacked by the family with an intention to kill. It is simply an ambiguous video clip bereft of any context or backstory  – which could be extrapolated to suit one’s politics (as it has been on social media).

Atta Gujran is on the west of the Buddha International Circuit – the venue of the now-defunct Indian Grand Prix.  If one is travelling from Delhi towards Agra, the third exit off the Yamuna Expressway leads to the Jat-dominated village. The final approach is rickety, and the ride feels particularly bumpy after the drive on the majestic Yamuna Expressway.

It is in Atta Gujran that the two Dalit men and three women – whose naked pictures have been splattered across the social media over the last few days  – live. Or, at least, they used to, till Wednesday. Now they are in a jail a few kilometres away. They were arrested by Yadav for charges of “rioting, armed with deadly weapon”, “voluntarily causing hurt”, “assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty”, “public obscenity”, “robbery” and “attempt to murder”. The FIR lists out 10 clauses of the Indian Penal Code encompassing the aforementioned acts.

One of the women in jail is Babita.  I meet her husband Sudesh, who sells vegetables in Dankaur, in the courtyard of his brother Sunil Gautam’s house. Gautam, too, is in jail along with his wife Rita; so are Sonpal – Sudesh’s other brother – and his wife Harwati. Also in jail are three kids: a two-month-old girl, a one-and-a–half-year-old boy and another two-and-a-half-year old girl.

The story begins on October 5, though it really dates back a few centuries.

“It was around 7 pm. We had all gone together to our farm, but I left soon to the market with my vegetables,” says Sudesh.  Soon after he left, Sudesh tells me, two men approached his brothers, asking for beedis. “Then suddenly one of the men yanked out a revolver and pointed it at Sunil and the other flashed a knife, and a few others also joined them at that point,” he claims.  According to Sudesh, the men robbed his brothers of whatever money they had (Rs 850), and also took away their motorbike. “They told my brothers they’d teach us a lesson as we’ve been acting above our aukaat” he tells me.

Sudesh contends the attack was the handiwork of one Mahaveer Gujjar, a strongman in the region. “His house is right next to our farm and he has been encroaching on our land for six years now; he claims the land is his.” Sudesh tells me that Gujjar has been systematically indulging in taking over their land bit by bit, and that he had, in fact, successfully encroached a portion of their farm: “Two years back, he had burnt all our crops, and we had no produce at all.”  Police records I checked in the Dankaur police station acknowledge the same and even show that Gujjar was arrested. Sudesh, however, claims that Gujjar wasn’t really arrested. “Yes, they took him to jail, but he was let off in less than a day in spite of a water-tight case and multiple eye-witnesses, only because he has money and is close to the cops.”

It was the same evening (October 5) that the brothers made their first visit to the Dankaur police station. “They told us to come in the morning – and refused to lodge a complaint,” says Sudesh.  Sudesh states when they went the next day – October 6 – the cops asked them to file a complaint of theft. “Why should we file a complaint of theft, when it was robbery?”

Sudesh claims they went again the same evening, but no official entry was made in the General Diary of the police station even then.  The next day, on October 7, according to Sudesh, when they visited the police station again, Yadav lost his cool and called them names. “This is not Mayavati’s sarkar; do what you want”, Yadav allegedly said. Sudesh also tells me that the cop called him a “chamaar” as a pejorative. According to a clause in the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, calling a Dalit by his caste is a punishable offence.

Sudesh claims it was then that the family felt hopeless and decided to protest in the Dankaur market. Sudesh, however, wasn’t present at the location when his family staged the dharna, as he claims he had to tend to other chores.

The only person from the family who witnessed it is Sonpal’s daughter, who was supposedly on her way back from school. She claims to be 15, but looks much younger.  “The SO slapped them around, and in the ensuing scuffle their clothes got torn,” she tells me.

Then an old lady, who has been listening quietly the entire while, speaks up: “No woman would get naked in front of the world on her own, son”.

***

Yadav’s account, predictably, is different.

When I go to his office, he insists that I should speak to “neutral” witnesses first and then ask for his account. In fact, he even arranges for a constable to show me around. I insist that I’d go around myself, but he is persistent. Finally, I budge and let a constable take me to the market, where he guides me to doctor Irfan Habib’s clinic.

In spite of the futility of the exercise (Habib is measuring the constable’s blood pressure as he speaks to me), I ask him to tell me what he saw. Instead, he tells me that media-walas have hyped up the incident unnecessarily, and that Gautam has always been a troublemaker.

“But what happened that day?”

“They came and stripped off their clothes”

When I press for details, he tells me that there had been a rally of sanitation workers, which Gautam and his family tried to block. “They wouldn’t let anyone go – and that led to the road being jammed,” he tells me. Then, Habib tells me, when cops tried intervening, Gautam stripped and tore off the rest of his family members clothes too. “I even went to my home and got my sister’s clothes to cover the women, but Gautam tore them off too”. When I ask him if Yadav had got into physical scuffle with them, he tells me that Gautam attacked Yadav with a sharp object and tried snatching his revolver.

Habib tells me he was in the police station the previous day (October 6) too for some “personal” matter, where he saw Guatam misbehaving with Yadav. When I ask him what personal matter it was, he tells me it wasn’t anything important.

The constable asks me if I have any more queries or if I want to ask anyone else. I tell him we should go back to the police station.

Apart from me, there are five other men in SO Praveen Yadav’s room, when I return from my forced reporting trip moderated by the constable. None of them are cops; their job, it appears to me, is to say yes to everything Yadav says. One of them provides me a local Hindi newspaper to read as Yadav speaks on the phone. A news report in the paper says the Scheduled Caste/Schedule Tribe Commission has given Yadav a clean chit. The Commission, however, said the complete opposite: it concluded that the local police behaved “inhumanly” with the family.

When he is done with the call, Yadav asks if I am convinced. I evade the question and tell him I have a few questions for him. Yadav asks me my surname once again. He hasn’t heard of the Saikia surname and asks, a little hesitantly, what my caste is.

“I am not a Dalit – can I ask my questions?”

“Yes, please. You’ll understand.”

“Did the brothers come on the evening of October 5?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Did they come on the morning of October 6?”

“Yes.”

“Was a complaint filed?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“They didn’t submit it in writing.”

Yadav’s answer surprises me.  When I tell him that complainants usually write their complaints in the police station itself, he gets annoyed. “Have you ever been to a police station in your life? Everything has to be written,” he says agitatedly. I tell him that I have, and the practice, at least, in Delhi, is to write the complaint in the police station itself on a piece of paper provided by the cops.

“They submitted their complaint only in the evening,” he tells me, choosing to ignore my explanation.

When I ask to see the entry in the General Diary, he tells a constable to get it.  According to the General Diary, though, the complaint was lodged only at 6 in the morning on October 7. When I point this out to him, he tells me that they worked around the clock and they had got the complaint ready by the morning so that the family could collect a copy of the FIR the next morning.

By now Yadav is genuinely upset. “What if I even refused to lodge the complaint? Is it right for them to run around naked in the market?” Yadav then goes on to explain the relevance of hierarchies in our system. “If I throw you out, will you strip? Won’t you instead go to my senior authorities and complain?”

When Yadav calms down a little, I ask him why there were no lady constables. “They are all on election duty,” he tells me.

Finally, I ask him what made him press attempt-to-murder charges against the family; he says he wanted to set an example. “If I wouldn’t have done this now, this would become the culture,” he says, buttoning his shirt after showing me the injury mark – the proof of the attack on Inspector Praveen Yadav’s life.

***

I am back at the crime location, this time on my own. Unsurprisingly, most people claim they were not there that day. After much asking around, Moqsood Khan agrees to speak to me. His story begins similarly as the doctor’s: there was a sanitation workers’ rally that Gautam and his family tried blocking. “Before the SO arrived, the cops tried taking them away but they wouldn’t budge. Then the cops tried using force but to no avail.”

“What happened after Yadav arrived?”

“He gave them a few slaps, and tried to drag them away”.

However, when I ask him if he saw Gautam attacking Yadav, he tells me there was a scuffle of sorts.

“Did anyone try snatching Yadav’s revolver?”

“I don’t remember that bit.”

Mahesh Prajapati, another shopkeeper in the market, is more forthcoming: “Nothing would have happened if there were lady constables. People can only take so much insult.” According to Prajapati, the family had protested before too, but never did things go so wrong. “It was beyond their tolerance this time. When you feel nothing but utter despair you do such things.”

“But, did Gautam really attack Yadav?”

“Do you really think anyone will dare to attack the SO?”

“But they stripped off voluntarily?”

“What are clothes worth when you have already lost all your dignity.”

Prajapati is not asking me a question. He is simply stating something that many of us – city-bred, and at a comfortable distance from the oppressive caste hierarchy – would never understand. Who would, after all, strip off in the middle of a busy market for Rs 850 and a motorbike.

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