When the Indian women’s hockey team returned to India from the Tokyo Olympics, hundreds of people gathered at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport to cheer them on. The team had narrowly missed winning a bronze, but it was still a monumental moment for Indian sports.
Over 200 km away, however, silence enveloped the area of Roshnabad, located about 15 km from the Haridwar district centre in Uttarakhand. Two constables were posted outside a two-storied house carrying the nameplate “Vandana Katariya, d/o Nahar Singh”.
Vandana is a forward in the women’s hockey team. Hours after India lost to Argentina in the Olympics semi-finals on August 4, upper-caste men in the village circled Vandana’s home, burst crackers and danced, and allegedly hurled caste abuses at her family.
Katariya is Dalit. , the men said the team had lost because it had “too many Dalit players”.
“We’ve been posted here since the incident,” one of the constables told Newslaundry. “Two constables stay here during the day and night.”
Vandana’s older brother Chandrashekhar Katariya filed an FIR at Sidcul police station on the evening of August 4. A case was registered under Section 504 of the Indian Penal Code as well as under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The police have so far to, as the police told Newslaundry, prevent a “law and order situation”.
Newslaundry met Vandana’s older brother Lakhan Katariya at the family’s home.
Describing what had happened on August 4, Lakhan said, “We were watching the match at home. Many journalists from the district were also there...Only nine seconds of play remained and India lost the match.”
Suddenly, Lakhan said, they heard crackers being burst.
“We were astonished,” he said. “Who in our colony was bursting crackers when India was losing? I opened the door and saw that crackers were being burst in the house in front of ours.”
Lakhan stepped outside and gestured at the house in question. It belongs to one Titu Pal, 47, who runs a juice shop nearby. Originally from Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar, Titu has two sons and a daughter. His sons – Vijaypal and Ankur Pal – have been arrested in connection with the incident, along with their friend Sumit Chauhan. All three spent 24 hours in jail and are currently out on bail.
Titu was unable to explain to Newslaundry what had happened.
“I am extremely poor,” he said, his face lined with worry. “I am educating my children by running a juice shop so they don’t live a miserable life like mine. Look at the small house we live in. My son [Vijaypal] is a national hockey player. Why would he burst crackers for India’s loss?”
, Vijaypal had played hockey for Uttarakhand. Locals told Newslaundry that he was a coach at a hockey stadium in Roshnabad.
Titu continued, “Vandana is our daughter too. Her playing for India is a matter of joy for us too, but we are being called traitors. They are entrapping us. Vandana’s brother misuses her name to bother people. They have physically assaulted my family earlier too. A complaint was also registered about it with the police.” He also claimed his sons were in “mortal danger”.
Villagers told Newslaundry that both families had registered FIRs against each other on August 14, 2018.
Titu Pal had accused Vandana’s brothers Chandrashekhar, Pankaj and Saurabh and Chandrashekhar’s son Ashu of physical assault. Vandana’s father Nahar Singh, meanwhile, registered an FIR against Titu and four others, accusing them of physically assaulting his family members. Vijaypal also told Newslaundry that Ashu had once “attacked him in the middle of the road”.
But did this have anything to do with the events of August 4?
‘Kavita Pal used the casteist slur’
Roshnabad comprises Muslims, Dalits and members of the Pal community, an OBC category that forms the majority of the population. It falls under the Salempur village panchayat, home to 19,000 people of which roughly 13,000 are Hindu.
Mukesh Pal, the former pradhan of Roshnabad, said, “There are 1,500 people from the Pal community in the village. About 500 of them are voters. There are 500 members of the Dalit community of which 250 are voters, and 1,500 Muslims of which approximately 500 are voters.”
Since the incident of August 4, Vandana’s home has become a hub of political interest. On his part, Mukesh stayed away from visiting either Vandana’s family or the families of the accused.
“The accused are from my caste,” he pointed out. “Had I visited them, people would have said I’m favouring my caste. Had I gone to Vandana’s house, the people of my caste would have got upset. So, I stayed silent. If they made a mistake, then they should be punished.”
But he had visited Vandana’s family the day before the incident took place. “Look at this photograph,” he said. “I went there and gave a bouquet. Vandana is our pride.”
The Pal community might be in the majority, but barring a couple of families, no one has come out openly in support of Titu or his sons.
Vijaypal’s version of events is that he had nothing to do with bursting crackers or using casteist expletives.
“I had a fever on August 4,” he told Newslaundry. “My friend Sunil Chauhan came to see me. The fever was high so I was lying down in my home when the noise of crackers came from the roof of our house. My sister and I went upstairs to check. A while later, the commotion started downstairs.”
Vijaypal and his family claim that someone else lit crackers and tossed them onto their roof. There are no houses to the right or behind. The house to the left belongs to Sapna, a relative of Vandana’s, who said, “I was in the room at the time. Suddenly, the noise of crackers came. We didn’t see who burst the crackers.”
Vijaypal said two constables then arrived and asked whether he had burst crackers. “We told them we didn’t, that we don’t know how and from where those crackers came,” he said. “But no one listened to a word I said.” He denied “circling” Vandana’s home, as reported by Times of India, or using casteist language.
Titu Pal, who lives opposite Vandana's home.
Vijaypal and Ankurlal, who were arrested in connection with the incident.
But there was an eyewitness to what happened: Manoj Katariya, 27, who owns a shop in front of Vijaypal’s home.
“I was watching the hockey match on TV in my shop that day,” Manoj said. “The match was about to end when the first cracker went off. We thought someone must have burst it just like that. When it happened the second time, we stepped out to see what was happening. We saw Vikki [Vijaypal] and his brother Ankur bursting crackers.”
A few minutes later, Manoj said, Vandana’s brother Chandrasekhar arrived. He had telephoned the police, who soon arrived.
“Suddenly, Vandana’s brother Chandrasekhar began shouting, ‘Titu Pal murdabad’. Vikki’s mother then shouted, ‘Vandana ka bhai murdabad’,” said Manoj. “She then used a casteist slur, saying ‘You are a...and can’t do anything to us.’ All this happened in front of the police.” Newslaundry could not determine what the slur was.
The consensus among those who spoke to Newslaundry is that Vijaypal and Ankurpal burst the crackers but their mother, Kavita Pal, used casteist language.
Vijaypal believes he’s being “entrapped with false accusations” due to the “old feud” with Vandana’s brother Chandrashekhar. Vijaypal’s lawyer Kuldeep Singh cited this feud to get him bail.
“There’s old enmity between the two families,” Kuldeep said. “There was an attempt to sort out the issue but for some reason, it couldn’t happen. The accusation stems from that. We made this the basis of our argument and the judge granted bail.”
Vijaypal said, “I want to play for India myself but they didn’t think while making false accusations that my career would be destroyed. Neither did I use casteist words nor did I burst crackers.”
Vandana’s brother Lakhan scoffed at the idea that it had anything to do with the 2018 FIRs. “The whole Indian team was playing, not Vandana alone,” he said. “When the team lost, the whole country was sad. But they were celebrating. This is treason.”
A journalist, who was at Vandana’s home during the time of the incident, offered up a theory.
“I see two reasons for this,” he said, on the condition of anonymity. “The first is the fact that this boy [Vijaypal] is also a hockey player. His contemporary, a neighbour girl, was not only playing but doing well in the Olympics. When she scored three goals against South Africa, many politicians and officials started coming to her place. Maybe he was jealous because of this.”
And the second reason?
“Could be caste-based pride,” the journalist said. “He wasn’t able to digest such progress of a Dalit girl.”
Police: ‘No progress’ so far
The case is presently being investigated by Vishakha Bhandare, the assistant superintendent of police in Haridwar. She was unavailable for comment.
Another police officer working on the case told Newslaundry, on the condition of anonymity, that there has been “no progress” so far.
“In cases such as this, arrests don’t happen quickly. But we arrested them so the law and order situation doesn’t deteriorate,” he said. “The district judge has given bail. The prosecution attorney opposed the bail. We still haven’t found any electronic evidence of bursting crackers, dancing with joy, or casteist words. We’ll see what happens once the investigation begins.”
This story was in Newslaundry Hindi. It was translated to English by Shardool Katyayan.
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