Five feet and a few centimeters tall, Raja Singh Chauhan looked diminutive compared to the men in his service, three or four of who surround him at all times. Clad in a saffron kurta and pajama, Chauhan sat on a seat in a small green patch outside a government-funded skilling centre that he runs in Gwalior, in Madhya Pradesh. Over the one and a half hours that we talked, he had a steady stream of visitors—all local residents, all men. Some came merely to greet him, others to exchange a few words. One visitor came to request Chauhan’s presence at his birthday party. Each time, Chauhan’s personal secretary would announce their presence, leading with their caste. “Ye Sharma ji hain, Pandit”—this is Sharma ji, he’s a Pandit—the secretary would say, or “ye apne Tomaron ka ladka hai” (he’s the son of Tomars). Each visitor would bend down to touch Chauhan’s feet, before waiting for his sanction to speak or sit.
Raja is an influential member of the Chauhan community—of the Rajput caste—and over the past few months, he has become a local hero of sorts. He featured prominently in the national coverage of the Bharat Bandh on 2 April this year, when thousands of Dalits across the nation marched in protest against a Supreme Court order passed in late March. The order diluted the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by removing immediate arrest upon complaint as a mandatory provision, and triggered the unusually massive protest from Dalits across the country, without a call from any political party. Protestors clashed with police at many places. At others, the protestors faced counter protests from armed upper-caste men—the mobs attacked protestors with sticks, stones, or opened fire at them. At least nine Dalit protestors died after the police and upper-caste mobs opened fire at rallies at different places in the country. Of them, three alone were murdered in Gwalior, while four were killed in Bhind, also in Madhya Pradesh.
Video footage from Gwalior made headlines across the country. In it, two men were clearly visible, shooting straight at the protestors. Raja was one of them—in one video, which was later identified to have been shot in Gwalior’s Thatipur area, Raja can be seen firing at a group of protestors passing through an alley. Dressed immaculately in a crisp white shirt tucked into grey trousers, Raja positions himself on an elevated platform by the roadside, fires two shots, then walks confidently towards the protestors, adjusting his pistol. A group of men can be seen following him, yelling “Jai Shree Ram.”
In another video, also shot in Thatipur, Mahendra Singh Chauhan, wearing blue jeans, a white shirt and a bandana, determinedly walks down a wide street, holding a rifle aimed at protestors. Mahendra takes one shot; a man is then heard saying “je baat”—nicely done. Mahendra owns a medical shop at Thatipur in Gwalior. He, too, is a Rajput.
Two Dalit men were killed in the firings that day: Deepak Jatav and Rakesh Tamotiya. Jatav was shot at his home at Galla Kothar, and Tamotiya was shot at a labour adda outside Bhim Nagar colony—both lie in Thatipur, and comprise large numbers of Dalit residents, mostly Jatavs. Both victims were hit by bullets above their waists, in the chest region. Their bodies lay barely 500 metres from each other. First information reports were registered in both cases.
Mahendra Singh Chauhan was arrested in connection with Jatav and Tamotiya’s killings, and was charged with murder in both cases. He spent three months in jail, and has been out on bail for the past two months. Two others—Rishabh Bhadoriya, a Rajput man, and Rishi Gurjar, a man from an Other Backward Class community—were arrested and charged alongside Mahendra. Both are out on bail.