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.
The video featuring Raja was telecast on news channels across the country, but the police failed to connect him to the deaths of the Dalit men—he was charged with an attempt to commit culpable homicide, under Section 308 of the Indian Penal Code. He was also charged under the SC/ST Act as well. For five months after the bandh, Raja was absconding. In this time, he applied for anticipatory bail. The trial court and high court in Madhya Pradesh both dismissed his application, but he appealed before the Supreme Court. The apex court issued an order on 29 August, not only dropping the charges under the SC/ST Act, but also ordering the trial court to consider his bail application for charges under Section 308 of the IPC. He surrendered before the trial court on 5 September, and was granted bail the same day.
I met Raja during a visit to Gwalior in mid October. Mahendra was hesitant to meet me in person, but agreed to speak to me over the phone. Both men admitted to me that they had indeed willfully shot at the Dalit protestors. Raja claimed that he had shot at the protestors in “self defence,” to protect the bhabhis—sisters-in-law—of the Chauhan and Tomar families, as the women were terrified of the sight of Dalits leading a “violent” protest. Mahendra, too, said that he had shot at the protestors in self-defence.
Raja spoke of how, a day before the bandh, the Chauhans and the Tomars—two powerful land-owning families in Thatipur—planned to foil the Dalit protest. Most importantly, he claimed that Narendra Singh Tomar, the union minister for rural development, Panchayati Raj and mines, helped him avoid arrest and keep the police at bay, by preventing them from chasing him or raiding his home. Tomar is a member of the Lok Sabha from Gwalior and is also a Rajput. Raja boasted of his family’s long-standing association with the union minister. Tomar “apne log ko bachate hain”—He helps his own people, Raja told me. “Haan unohne madad ki”—Yes, he helped me.
I spoke to Raja, his men—one of whom claimed to be his legal counselor, and with the police officials and the trial-court judge. These conversations, as well as the documentary evidences I examined—the FIRs in Jatav and Tamotiya’s killings, the latter’s post mortem report, court orders—all indicated that Raja’s caste worked in his favour, and the power and influence of upper-caste men helped him to get away with his crimes.
In Thatipur, Raja’s house and his businesses are located on a large tract of land known locally as the Chauhan Pyau. The land also houses several rented small shops and a large shopping complex. According to Raja, his father, Bhaiyya Singh Chauhan, and his uncles own the land, which spread over around 30,000 square yards. Bhim Nagar lies 500 meters to the east of Chauhan Pyau, and Golla Kothar lies 500 metres away, towards south west.
On the land adjacent to Chauhan Pyau reside the Tomars—another Rajput family. Raja said that the two families had been involved in disputes over property among themselves and had quarreled several times in the past. But when they heard news of the protests in April, he said, the families decided to fight together to “drive out the Chamars”—he used the term as a slur to refer to Dalits. “We had already planned that we won’t let the shutdown happen,” Raja told me. “The night before, I called up our councilor and decided to put up a collective resistance.” He said that the families had gathered their men and weapons in the night.
The strength of the bandh the next day came as a surprise to him—Raja said that he had not expected Dalit protesters to turn up in such large numbers. He then added that the video had only captured his actions in part. The footage depicts him firing a couple of shots, and then walking ahead, pistol in hand. He admitted that he had fired several shots after this. “Bhagwan ki krupa se wo video bana nahi aur aagey, maine aagey bahut fire li hai”—By the grace of God, the video of what happened next was not captured, I fired many shots after that, he said. Raja then claimed that no protestors died from his shots as he was firing in the air. He told me that he alone walked into Golla Kothar and pushed protestors into their homes.
Like Raja, Mahendra also admitted to have fired at the protestors. He, too, said he did so in self-defence. He added that he was “guilty of only 308 IPC but not of double murder.”
Over the course of my conversation with Raja, it became clear that he held deep prejudices against Dalits, which influenced his actions. Raja claimed that the SC/ST Act had put upper-caste people at a “disadvantage,” and that it was put in place to “appease” the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities. He added that he was proud of his actions. “I did the right thing. It needed to be done,” he said. “If I perhaps hadn’t done that, then their power”—referring to Dalits—“would have magnified. The government has already given them so much power, it has accepted defeat in front of them,” he continued. “If they hadn’t been stopped, they may have become so powerful that if they wanted, they could attack us.” Raja believed so, even though all the causalities occurred in Dalit colonies and not a single member of his family was injured.
Raja spoke at length about his pride in his caste and what he described as the glorious past of his Rajput ancestors—he claimed that they served as knights under the Scindia kings who ruled the area before India was colonised by the British. The Scindias continued to command tremendous power in the state during the Raj. They’ve held immense political power since—Madhav Rao Scindia, the last Maharaja of Gwalior, was a prominent Congress politician and cabinet minister, and his son, Jyotiraditya Scindia was a union minister in the United Progressive Alliance government. Both have been elected to the parliament from Gwalior. Vasundhara Raje, Madhav Rao’s sister, has been the chief minister of Rajasthan since 2013. In Madhya Pradesh, where power remains concentrated along feudal structures, their influence in society remains undiminished.
Raja claimed that his family used to be second-in-command to the Scindias until the 1980s, and that they are still influential in Gwalior’s politics. For him, the Dalit uprising was a threat to his family’s caste power. The police never seized Raja’s pistol—he boasted to me that he has it still, and would readily use it again to “defend the honour of the Rajputs.”
In 1997, after a political fallout, the Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati called for a state-wide protest against the ruling BJP and BSP coalition government in Uttar Pradesh, led by the BJP’s Kalyan Singh. The repercussions of this shutdown reached Gwalior due to its proximity to Uttar Pradesh, resulting in protests by BSP supporters in the city—largely Dalits. Raja claimed that his father Bhaiyya Singh Chauhan fired 156 rounds at the protestors. “Mere pitaji ne jo fire kiye the uske cartridge aaj bhi rakhe hain hamare ghar mein”—the cartridges that my father used are still kept in our home. “Itihas dohra diya is waqt humne”—History repeated itself, Raja said. “Papa ka kaam kiya”—I did the work of my father.
Raja told me that after the bandh, he spent two months hiding in his own home, and another three traveling in Mumbai. Not a single constable visited his house during this time. “SP sahab”—the superintendent of police—“used to tell my father, ‘please call your son now, the pressure is increasing on us,’” Raja said. “But the IG and the DIG”—the inspector general and the Director of inspector general—“had all surrendered before my father.”
Aside from the family’s influence in the area, Raja ascribed this impunity to his family’s long-standing association with the union minister Narendra Singh Tomar. He claimed that Bhaiyaa Singh had known the cabinet minister since the 1970s, when the former was associated with the Jan Sangh, and when Tomar was “just another man on street in Thatipur.” Raja claimed that as a young man, Tomar was one of many hangers-on surrounding Bhaiyya Singh. The young men spent their evenings drinking and eating chicken, he said. “When Tomar wasn’t allowed to step into his home late at night, he would walk on foot to my father’s house, who would let him stay,” Raja added. Tomar was a college student then, Raja continued, and Bhaiyya Singh addressed him as “munna”—young boy—and often asked him to talk about college politics. “Unko banane mein mere pitaji ka haath raha hai”—My father has had a hand in making him who he is, Raja told me. He claimed that Bhaiyya Singh helped finance Tomar’s foray into politics.
Raja said that Tomar continues to be close to the Chauhan family, and attends events such as birthday parties at their home. Despite being close to the cabinet minister, he said he had never posted any picture with Tomar on social media because he believed it was beneath him. “Humein pata hai ki aukat kya hai tumari”—We know what his standing in society is compared to us, he said.
After the video from the protests began doing the rounds, Debashish Jararia, a resident of Thatipur who formerly attended the same school as Raja, was the first to identify him as one of the shooters. According to Jararia, the Chauhans’ argument of self-defence does not hold, as both of them can be clearly seen in the video firing directly at the protestors. Jararia also said that the men were not defending their homes or the women in their families as they claimed, but walking with guns into the colonies of Dalits with intention to kill them. Referring to the place in the video, Jararia said, “His home is at least 100–200 meters away from where he took his first shot. What is he doing there? Whose self defence is he talking about?
Dalit residents of the area that I met believed that the BJP government helped Raja and his family, but were not sure whether Tomar himself had intervened. Referring to the Chauhans and the Tomars, Ramvatar Singh, a Dalit man residing in Golla Kothar, said, “The two families have councilors and MLAs in the city corporation and the state assembly. They are huge families, sometimes they contest one of their own in local elections or back any Brahmin or Rajput leader.” Raja told me that his family has always supported the BJP candidate, and claimed that no MLA or city council candidate running for election in their area could win without his family’s support. “If anyone has to seek Brahmin’s and Thakur’s vote in Thatipur, he must come to the garage,” he said, referring to his family’s business. He gave me the example of Maya Singh, a sitting MLA from Gwalior, who is the state minister women and child welfare. “Everyone has come,” Raja said.
According to Jararia, Raja exaggerated his influence and connection with Tomar. Jararia said, “Tomar inko thanda kar dega”—Tomar would show them their place. Jararia was a member of BSP until September this year, when he joined the Congress Party. “Raja’s brother was contesting councillor’s election and to defeat him, Narendra Singh Tomar himself did two rallies in Gwalior, and his brother lost,” Jararia said.
He told me that if Tomar had helped Raja, it would not be because of his “political correctness,” but because of “caste correctness.” “The violence has become a matter of caste hegemony,” Jararia said. “The entire Rajput community felt offended because of the assertive protest and the police complaints from the Dalits that came after it.”
I called Tomar’s office several times, but was not able to speak to him. My email to him went unanswered.
Mahendra, who is accused of the Tathipur killings, claimed that Raja was indeed protected by his association to Tomar. He added further that on 2 April, he was not the only one shooting at protestors—bullets were raining from the Chauhans’ and Tomars’ buildings near Chauhan Pyau too.
I spoke to various residents of Golla Kothar and Bhim Nagar, the predominantly Dalit colonies near Chauhan Pyau. Their accounts contradicted Raja and Mahendra’s claims. Mangal Tamotiya, whose brother Rakesh was killed that day, said that armed mobs of Rajput men had arrived to ransack their colony and homes. “They came with the police,” Mangal said. “They smashed and destroyed so many things in our lane.” Residents told me that several others were injured that day. Mangal told me that like every other day, Rakesh was sitting at the labour adda at the one end of the colony, waiting to be picked by any contractor. “But as the riot broke out, the police and Rajputs chased the men back into their colony. Rakesh was hit by a bullet and died on the spot,” he told me.
Deepak Jatav lived with his family in Golla Kothar, about 500 metres from the labour adda where Raja was seen moving in with his weapon. Mohan Jatav, Deepak’s father, told me that he and Deepak were home on 2 April, when the gun-toting Raja and Mahendra had stormed into the colony, firing indiscriminately. He said his son was hit in the chest, arm and on the side of stomach. An ox that was tied outside their home was also hit with a bullet, and died. Several other family members also sustained bullet injuries, Mohan said. “Kisi ke pair mein goli lagi hai, kisi ke jaangh mein goli lagi hai”—Someone has been shot in the leg, someone else in the thigh. “My nephew was hit, I have a granddaughter, who was also hit,” he added.
Mangal, Rakesh’s brother, told me that he was present at the time of the post-mortem and there was no exit wound on his brother’s body. “Ye 100 percent malum hai, maine apne bhai ko utha ke dekha hai”—I know this 100 percent, I picked up my brother’s body and saw, he said. He said that the police and state authorities claimed that no bullet was recovered from the body. The post-mortem report noted that the bullet entered below the collarbone on the right side, travelled through chest cavity and exited through the right arm.
After meeting the families of the deceased, I met Ranveer Singh, the diwan of the Thatipur police station—the station in-charge in the absence of the inspector. Singh told me that over a period of three months after 2 April, the entire staff at the station was transferred and a new investigating officer, Chagan Singh Baghel, was appointed to the case. Baghel told me that the investigation was ongoing, but that he would only seize Raja’s firearm if required to do so by the court. “All that we will see at trial stage. For now we have some witnesses,” Baghel said. When I asked if bullet cartridges were collected from the scene and sent for forensic testing, or if bullets were found in Rakesh’s body, Baghel did not answer. When asked about political pressure, he said that he was not facing any, and added that the police have appealed Raja’s bail before the high court.
The superintendent of the Gwalior Police, Navneet Bhasin, who took charge in May, told me he, too, was not facing any political pressure. Bhasin echoed Baghel on arms seizure from Raja, saying it would be done only if required by the court. He also denied having faced any pressure from Raja’s father or Narendra Singh Tomar. Bhasin said, “Naam Raja rehne se kuch nahi hota. Kuch bhi keh sakta hai, uski marzi”—Just being named “Raja”doesn’t mean anything, he can say whatever he wants.
But when asked why Raja remained at large for five months, Bhasin appeared to defend him “Many innocents have been framed in the incident. Isn’t this our duty to see who is guilty and who is innocent? Are we supposed to arrest everyone, is this how it should work?”
Anshuman Yadav, the inspector of general of the Gwalior range, also denied Raja’s claim that Yadav was obsequious to Bhaiyya Singh. “Number 1, he is talking nonsense. Number 2, there was no political pressure, neither was his family in touch with me,” Yadav said. When I asked why Raja was not arrested, Yadav said, “Because he was at large.”
Referring to the police, Raja had said during our conversation that “Department se bahut madad mili”—the department helped me a lot. Mahendra had said, “Apne saath koi badsuluki nahi hui hai, na hi thane mein, na hi court mein, na hi jail mein”—We didn’t face any misbehavior, neither in the police station, nor the court, nor the jail. Both of them said they received help from the police, the judiciary and the state government because the system believed they did the right thing.
Raja told me that the judicial officers, too, helped him. He said that his lawyer, Prashant Sharma, did not charge him a fee. The day he was granted bail, the local bar association distributed sweets in the court, he said. “The trial court judge, BP Sharma, he was also very happy,” Raja said. “He scolded the police, and told them that if they want to seize my possessions or apply for remand, they will have to go to the Supreme Court.” I asked Sharma over phone if his court favored Raja because he was Rajput. Sharma said, “I have been transferred and cannot speak on this matter.”
Suresh Mane, a Dalit activist who is a petitioner before the Supreme Court demanding the arrest of Sambhaji Bhide, one of the accused in the Bhima Koregon case, said that it was not common for a three-judge bench to drop charges under the SC/ST Act against an accused whose previous applications for anticipatory bail for the same charges had been rejected by the trial court and the high court. “It’s obviously not normal,” he said.
Bhind, where other Dalit protestors were killed, and Gwalior are part of the Gwalior and Chambal administrative divisions in the state. The two divisions have a high concentration of Schedule Caste residents, varying between 20 and 25 percent across eight districts. While in the rest of Madhya Pradesh, an election contest is usually said to have only two players—the BJP and the Congress—in the two divisions, it has long been a fight between the BSP and the rest. Earlier, the BSP used to count on votes from Rajputs and Brahmins in the regions where it fielded upper-caste candidates, and Dalits in the rest. But the impact of the 2 April protests on the electors in the region is high—Dalits are unsure of whom to vote for, as the BSP has fielded Brahmin and Rajput candidates on seats in the divisions. Many in the community are also disappointed with the BSP for not giving vocal support to the Bharat Bandh. All other communities—the Brahmins, Rajputs and the OBC communities—seem consolidated in their decision to bring back the BJP. Jararia said that his decision to join the Congress was precipitated by the BSP’s refusal to take a stance on the bandh.
As I moved to leave, Raja asked one of his men to drop me on his bike. During this ride, I realised that Raja’s men also espoused deep bias and hatred towards Dalits. The man gave me his name as Vijay Singh Chauhan, but said he was also called Monu. Without my prompting, he said he felt reservation in government jobs for Dalits was more “dangerous” than SC/ST Act. “Reservation destroyed Brahmins. The first bullet should have been fired at that motherfucker Bhimrao,” Monu said, referring to Bhimrao Ambedkar. “When India got independence, the first thing that should have happened is to fire bullet at his”—Ambedkar’s—“chest. What the fuck, you had had a Chamar write our Constitution. Is Chamar a god? The sisterfuckers Chamars,” he continued. “So many Thakurs, Pundits are around. Pandits have been called the most learned people. They have been called more learned than even Thakurs. Then we should have had a Brahmin to write the Constitution. Then we would have also got some benefits,” Monu said. “Main hota uss zamane toh main chhati mein marta goli Bhimrao ki”—If I had been alive then, I would have shot Bhimrao in his chest.