On 25 April, Surendra Sahni was among a few Mallah boatmen—the Mallahs form part of the Nishad community—plying their boats on the Kuon river of Uttar Pradesh, ferrying their vegetable produce to Gorakhpur, the chief minister Adityanath’s home district. At around noon, police personnel arrived at the far bank, on the Gorakhpur side. Sahni said, “The police called us to the shore. When they called, one of the boys on the shore got scared and started running. The police began abusing him. When I reached the shore with my boat, I asked them what happened, but they didn’t say anything.” The policemen returned half an hour later, with JCB machines, “and took eight of our boats,” Sahni said.
Some of the boats were damaged while the police confiscated them, Sahni added. “They took the boats to Sikriganj police station, in Gorakhpur. My village is in Baswari, in Sant Kabir Nagar district,” he added. The Kuon river is flanked by two districts—Sant Kabir Nagar on one, and Gorakhpur on the other. Since the lockdown to combat the novel coronavirus began, the Nishad community, traditionally associated with fishing and other work centred on rivers, has been struggling to earn a living.
I spoke to Jata Shankar, the station house officer of the Sikriganj police station. He said that the border of the Sant Kabir Nagar district had been sealed after one case of the coronavirus disease emerged there. “These people were ferrying people from one side to the other. We warned them, but they did not agree,” Shankar said. He added that there was no ban on selling vegetables. “They can sell vegetables but they cannot take people across the river,” he said. He claimed that the police had returned some of the boats, and would soon summon the owners of the remaining boats and return those as well.