In Jharkhand’s Rapura village, Rajput families claim road and block access

On 15 June 2021, several members of the Prajapati community, from Rapura village in Jharkhand, gather to protest a road closure in their locality by upper-caste families. The Prajapati community, also referred to as Kumhars, are among the most marginalised communities in the state. Md Asghar Khan
31 August, 2021

On 15 June this year, the people of the Navdihwa locality of Rapura, a village in Jharkhand’s Garhwa district, held a protest at the zonal office of the Kandi block headquarters in the district. The protesting families belong to the Prajapati community, listed among the backward classes in the state, and they had approached the administration over the closure of a road in their village by two upper-caste families. The protesting families say that access to the road has been restricted by a barbed wire put in place by the Rajput families in April 2020. Around three to four hours into the protest, the local administration asked the villagers to leave by citing lockdown rules, and told them that a resolution would be arrived at soon.

When I first spoke to the protesting families that day, they told me that a similar protest was held on 21 December 2020—they had organised a hunger strike in front of the anchal karyala, or circle office, but the fast ended on the same day after the officials at the circle office gave a written assurance, which said that a solution would be worked out. The villagers told me that they have been assured many times in the past, but the issue is yet to be resolved. They said that all the work being done by the administration remains on paper, and on the ground, the road is still inaccessible.   

The dispute arose over an unpaved road that connects the Navdihwa tola, or locality, to the village’s market. According to the people of the locality, this road used to be around eight to ten feet wide. But since April last year, two Rajput families, who live at the entrance to the locality, have claimed the road as their own. Santosh Kumar Singh, a 41-year-old member of one of the two families, erected a barbed wire fence across it, and told me that “I have closed it since it is my land.” The villagers say that the remaining road is so narrow that it is difficult even for a child to cross it.

The locality has a population of about 350 people. Only two houses in the locality belong to Rajput families, while there are 35 houses of the Prajapati community. The Prajapati community is also referred to as Kumhars, and is considered one of the most marginalised communities in the state. The dispute over the road is between the Prajapatis of 30 houses and the Rajputs, while some members of the Prajapati community have supported the upper-caste families’ action. The protesting families told me that they have been using this road for decades and that the sudden closure has left them struggling for access to their daily lives.

Bhateshwar Prajapati, a 50-year-old resident of the locality who is among the protesters, told me, “It’s been more than a year. You must have seen how we people come and go through this road.” His daughter died in February this year due to Tuberculosis, and he told me that “when we brought her dead body in a car to the village, her body had already gone rigid. We thought that we would carry her dead body on a cot, but due to the barbed wire on the road, the body had to be brought on the shoulders like an animal.” He added, “People don’t even carry their animals in the way we brought our daughter.”

Another resident, 45-year-old Manoj Prajapati, said that he had to take his daughter’s marriage procession through the fields because of the barbed wire on the road. Manoj told me that they had requested Santosh, and the other Rajput family to remove the wire for the procession. “The police administration was also called but they did not remove it,” he said. All the affected families in the locality had similar complaints. Santosh denied all the allegations, and told me that they had opened the road for Bhateshwar and Manoj.

Both the parties to the dispute, the Rajput families and the Prajapati families, claim that the road is built on their land. The Prajapati families say that the road should be measured so that a solution is found and the ownership of the land is clearly established. However, the Rajput families have been adamant about not allowing the road to be measured under any circumstances.

Anup Prajapati, a 27-year-old resident of the locality, gave me the names of the 30 families and told me that they first appealed to the authorities on 14 April 2020. “We applied at many places including the Kandi circle office, Garhwa’s district collector, the sub-divisional officer.” He said that they sent reminders to the relevant authorities thrice but no action was taken. “After being compelled, on 21 December, about 25 of us sat on a fast unto death.” He said that the officials at the circle office gave a “written assurance that the road would be cleared in 15 days. When the 15 days passed, we again went and they said that our work is in process. But till this date, the way has not been found.”

Anup, and several other affected villagers told me that no one was willing to help them because of their caste. Suresh Prajapati, a 60-year-old resident, and 32-year-old Devendra Prajapati told me that the people of their caste are “helpless.” Suresh said that “since we belong to the Kumhar caste, no one listens to us.” They told me that Santosh and the other families asked them to “fall to our knees, touch their feet, and do what we are told. Only then they will allow us to go through that road”—this conversation had been recorded by one of the local residents. Suresh and Devendra told me that the protesting families had also visited the local member of legislative assembly, Bhanu Pratap Shahi, from the Bhavnathpur constituency in Garhwa, but he refused to support them since he is upper caste. Some of the families also told me that none of the Prajapatis are allowed entry to a Durga temple in Rapura.

In January and February 2021, Anup posted several tweets about the dispute and tagged several authorities. Soon after, Champai Soren, the state transport minister, and Sita Soren, an MLA who is also chief minister Hemant Soren’s sister-in-law, ordered the district collector of Garhwa to get the road issue resolved at the earliest and remove the barbed wire. Both these leaders used Twitter to issue orders and follow up on the case.

In a tweet tagging the district collector, Rajesh Kumar Pathak, Champai had ordered that the barbed wire be removed first and then the rest of the legal procedures could be followed. Sita also took up the matter on Twitter and hauled up Pathak for the delay in the matter. She accused Pathak of “working under the pressure of some minister or MLA,” and said that things are only being done on paper for show.

Pathak responded to Champai and Sita’s tweets and said Johan Tudu, the circle officer of Kandi, had been directed to resolve the matter within 24 hours. Soon after, on 12 February, the district collector’s Twitter handle posted that the site was inspected in the presence of local police, and it was found that the barbed wire had been removed and the road is now operational. The tweets further said that all parties concerned had agreed that the measurement of the road would be done after the harvest was over.

A few months later, the situation on the ground was unchanged, the wire was back up and the land had not been measured. The families then wrote to the state drinking water minister Mithilesh Thakur, on 23 May. Two days later, the personal assistant of the minister, Janmejay Thakur, wrote a letter to Pathak, which said that action should be taken to open the blocked road without any further delay.

But when I visited the village, on 15 June, there seemed to be a big difference between the orders given by ministers, what the administration claimed, and the situation on the ground. The barbed wire, which Pathak claimed had been removed, was still in place on 15 June. The Prajapati families told me that Santosh reinstalled the barbed wire two days after the police visit in February. In addition, the land had not been measured despite the harvest being long over. The families told me that the sarkari ameen, or government surveyor, had visited on 19 and 20 April, but the Rajput families refused to allow them to conduct a survey. The families recorded an audio where the Rajput families threatened them and said, “even if the prime minister was to order it, there would be no road opened for them.”

I spoke to Shaukat Khan, the in charge of the police observation-post of the area, who was present during the inspection in February. Khan told me, “There was an agreement about the measurement from both the sides. When we went there, all the people were present at the place. It was agreed that the land would be measured after the harvest.”

Both Santosh and Awadhesh, another member of the Rajput families, told me that there was no agreement on the measurement of the land. When I spoke to Santosh, he introduced himself as “Babu Saab.” He told me, “The barbed wire and pole that you are seeing, on the other side of it is Sarju Prajapati’s land, and here is my personal land.” There are around three to four houses which belong to the Prajapati community, but their residences are right next to the Rajput families and they are not a part of the protesting families. These houses all belong to Sarju’s family. Santosh said that the “wire has been there for 20 years.” When I told him that the villagers claim that the wires were put up only in April last year, Santosh said “See, there is mix up of the timelines. The wire may have gotten removed or broken or rotted, and that time then we could not install it.” He added, “We could not install it for five to ten years. Letting them use the road was my generosity.”

Santosh also told me that he had not agreed to any measurement of the land. “We do not care what the district collector and circle officer are saying and writing.” Santosh’s language got increasingly abusive as he spoke about the matter. “Once the circle officer asked if I was going to remove the wires or not? I told him neither the chief secretary nor the chief minister have the authority to remove it. I told him to save his own job and save his respect.” Raju, the 26-year-old grandson of Sarju, told me that he, too, would not allow any measurement as one side of the land of the road belongs to him. “I will not give way to it either,” Raju added.  

Pathak, the district collector, did not respond to calls and messages. The sub-divisional officer, Zia ul Ansari also could not be contacted. The circle officer, Tudu was evasive when I asked for responses around the end of June. Tudu told me that the status of the dispute will be clearer when he files his status report but refused to answer further questions and cut the call.

In the middle of July, around ten days after The Caravan published a report on Rapura, Anup told me that Tudu and the sub-divisional officer visited the site again for an inspection. The families told me that both the officials assured them that the matter would be resolved within 15 days. Despite that, the dispute is still at an impasse.