In UP’s Shobhapur, Dalits flee after community leader accused of arson is killed; Upper-caste families admit to making list of arsonists

05 May 2018
''This murder was pre-planned,'' Gopi’s father Tarachand said. ''The upper-caste people can’t see a Dalit growing. They wanted to silence Gopi.''
Ishita Mishra

An unusual silence prevailed over Shobhapur village on 14 April, a day on which it normally witnessed festive celebrations of the birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar. A contingent of nearly 40 police officers and members of the Provincial Armed Constabulary was deployed at the entrance to the village. Despite it being a holiday, almost half the houses were locked from the outside, and few residents were visible on the streets. Munawwar Ali, a PAC constable stationed in the village, said he had never witnessed such quiet. “Iss gaon mein thoda ajeeb sa sannata hai. Hua kya koi nai jaanta, magar hai toh yeh ladai takat ki” (There is an eerie silence in this village. Nobody knows exactly what happened, but it is a fight for power.)

Shobhapur is a predominantly Dalit village, located on the outskirts of Meerut city, barely a kilometre away from the Yogi Puram police post in Meerut district, in Uttar Pradesh. The villagers live in distinct quarters—respectively, of the Dalit population, the Gujjar and Muslim population, and the Brahmin and Thakur population. I saw around 15 men gathered outside a two-storeyed house in the Dalit neighbourhood. As I approached them, the wail of a woman from within the house cut through the air.

Inside the house, there were two photos placed next to each other—one of Ambedkar, and the other of a Gopi Pariya, a 28-year-old resident of Shobhapur. Flowers were placed in front of both photographs. Gopi’s name was the first in a list that has been circulated widely in the village since 3 April, of those who were who were allegedly involved in the violence and arson carried out during the Bharat Bandh protests in Shobhapur. (On 2 April, Dalit organisations across the country protested against a Supreme Court order diluting the provisions of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act of 2013.) The list includes the names of 83 of Shobhapur’s Dalit residents, and nine others from neighbouring villages. A day after the list began to be circulated, Gopi was shot dead.

On that day, based on a complaint by Gopi’s uncle Bir Singh, the police registered a first information report against four men—Manoj Gujjar, Kapil Rana, Ashish Gujjar and Giridhari, all from the Gujjar community in Shobhapur. Three days later, the police arrested all four on charges of murder, among other offences under the Indian Penal Code and the Prevention of Atrocities Act. Maan Singh Chauhan, who was the superintendent of police of Meerut city at the time of the incident, told me that all the accused individuals had criminal histories, including offences under the Prevention of Atrocities Act.

During two visits to Shobhapur and conversations over the phone, I spoke to Gopi’s family, to other Dalit residents of the village, to the families of the accused persons, and to the police officials involved in the investigation. The police and the families of the accused persons denied that Gopi’s death was related to the list—but curiously, Rana’s family and police officials both admitted to preparing a list of Dalit residents from the village allegedly involved in the Bharat Bandh protests. In fact, Rana’s family told me that the all the non-Dalit villagers had prepared the list together, which had then been widely circulated. “We prepared the list only to seek police’s help,” Amit Gupta, a lawyer and Rana’s neighbour, told me. “This was just a coincidence that Gopi, whose name was on the first spot, was killed.”

But all the Dalit residents I spoke to said it was the list that led to Gopi’s murder. They spoke with great reverence and fondness for Gopi—several of them said he was an influential community leader, and helped the residents with his earnings from a successful badminton-racquet manufacturing unit. “This murder was pre-planned,” Gopi’s father, Tarachand, said. He is also named in the list, at number 48. “The upper-caste people can’t see a Dalit growing. They wanted to silence Gopi.”

*

The conflict in Shobhapur began with the protest on 2 April, during which the village witnessed significant damage to public property and arson, including a police post being set on fire. It led to the police registering an FIR against the protestors, which alleges that the Dalit protestors carried arms, bamboos and stones; enforced multiple blockades; and set several cars, buses and shops ablaze. But Manoj Kumar, a Dalit resident of Shobhapur, had a different story to tell. “We were calmly protesting for our own rights,” he said. He showed me an undated video on his phone in which a man in a police uniform could be seen damaging a car and a two-wheeler. “Can you see any of us here?” Manoj asked. “It was a pre-planned conspiracy to attack Dalits and those who went on a rampage were outsiders, not protestors.”

The situation in the village escalated with the circulation of the list. After Gopi’s murder, the list, which was typed out on a computer and then circulated widely on WhatsApp, became a source of panic. “Savarnas made it, who else,” Ravindar Jadhav, a 48-year-old resident told me. “Between 2 and 3 April, they held four panchayats. Then they killed Gopi.” Jadhav alleged that the list even included the name of one dead person, and several names of persons who were not there in the village on 2 April. For instance, Gopi’s younger brother, Prasanth, was the fifth name in the list. When I spoke to Prasanth, he told me he was in college that day.

Babbe Ali, a Muslim resident and daily-wage labourer of Shobhapur, claimed that the entire affair was orchestrated by the Brahmins. “They are richest here and have a computer at home—only they could have prepared a list in this way,” he said. According to Ali, the Brahmins in the village felt threatened after Amit Surendra Kumar, a member of the Bahujan Samaj Party, was elected the councilor of Shobhapur in December last year. “A Dalit contestant won, and that too with the support of Muslims, Gujjars and Vaishyas,” Ali said. “Brahmins were seeing that their kingdom was falling.” According to Gopi’s father, Tarachand, “Many police officers in Kankarkherda police station are relatives of Brahmins in Shobhapur.” He added, “It’s obvious that the police will not help us.”

On my second visit to the village in late April, Rana’s brother, Anil Chaprana, who is a member of the Gujjar community, and their neighbour Amit Gupta told me that Shobhapur’s non-Dalit residents—from the Brahmin, Gujjar and Vaishya communities—had prepared the list together. “Yes, we have prepared the list,” Gupta said. He explained that the list went viral after the children in the village started sharing it with each other. “It was prepared on the versions of small kids and teenagers who saw Dalits burning down shops and vehicles.”

According to Gupta, several Gujjar residents submitted a copy of the list along with individual complaints concerning the Bharat Bandh protests. “Satyapal, whose shop was gutted by protestors, attached that list with his FIR application. So did Kuldeep, whose bike was burnt, and Ramendra, whose chairs and tables were burnt down.” Sandeep Sharma, a cable operator in Shobhapur, who is from the Brahmin community and whose shop was set on fire, also admitted to compiling the list with the non-Dalit residents of the village. But Sharma dismissed Ali’s allegations, stating that it was “a cooked-up story.” He added, “The Brahmins of Shobhapur are very peace-loving.”

Deepak Kumar, the station house officer of Kankarkheda police station, which has jurisdiction over Shobhapur village, also admitted to compiling a list, before adding that it was “not clear whether the list we compiled and the one that went viral are same or not.” On the other hand, Pankaj Kumar, a deputy superintendent at the police station who is investigating the FIRs arising out of the Bharat Bandh protests, had initially denied any knowledge of the list, or its relation to Gopi’s murder. “Police hasn’t prepared any list,” he said. But his position appeared to have shifted after my second visit: “There were multiple lists—given by villagers as well as prepared by the police.” Pankaj was categorical in stating that “the list is not a part of any investigation and no investigation is being done to find from where the list was prepared and circulated.” He maintained, however, that the list was irrelevant to Gopi’s death.

*

The residents of Shobhapur relayed conflicting accounts of the circumstances leading to Gopi’s killing. According to his father, on 4 April, Gopi returned from work at around 4 pm. He was getting ready to leave again when Sunil Singh, a Gujjar resident and known in the village as Manoj’s aide, came to their house. Tarachand said that Gopi then left with Sunil, heading towards the nearby Shiv temple, less than half a kilometre away, “where Manoj was waiting for him.” “We heard the sound of gunshot a few minutes after Gopi left home and before we could guess anything, Gopi ran towards us, injured with bullet wounds and covered in blood,” Tarachand said. “He was so brave that he walked to the house with such grave injuries. He even identified that Manoj, Kapil, Ashish, and Giridhari had killed him.” Gopi’s uncle Bir Singh’s complaint to the police differed slightly on the details—for instance, it did not mention whether Sunil had visited the house. I asked Tarachand about this discrepancy; he told me that he later gave his account to the police as well, and that it was attached to the FIR.

All the police officials I spoke to, however, denied that the murder was connected to the list. “The victim and the accused had an old enmity,” the SHO Deepak said. Chauhan, the former Meerut SP, reiterated the same position: “In March, during Holi, the two had a fight over some eve-teasing case.” He, too, argued that the timing of Gopi’s murder and the circulation of the list was “a mere coincidence.”

The families of the accused echoed the police’s statements—they maintained that the death was unrelated to the list, though they all had conflicting accounts of the killing as well. Bobby Gujjar, the nephew of one of the accused men, Manoj Gujjar, agreed to discuss the case with me over the phone. “The village has just two Gujjar families—we, the Bainslas and the other are the Chapranans,” Bobby said. “The two families hardly speak to each other, so how come they named both for murdering one person?” Bobby continued, “Why would Manoj kill Gopi? We are far superior than him. There is a big conspiracy behind all this but we will get justice.”

I visited the home of Kapil Rana, who is from the Chaprana community and was also arrested for the murder. Rana’s 46-year-old brother, Anil Chaprana, said that his brother had shot Gopi in self-defence. “Gopi had come to the Shiva temple with his aides and pistols to kill Kapil only because he volunteered with the police to catch those who created a ruckus on 2 April,” Anil said. “Kapil pushed Gopi when he pointed his pistol at him and then shot him to save himself.” When I asked him why Kapil would have shot him four times in self-defense, Anil did not respond.

According to the members of the two Gujjar families—both of which included over 50 members each—there was more tension among themselves. Manoj and Rana were both leaders within their respective Gujjar families, and Anil said that the two families did not speak to each other much. “Hum toh Manoj ke ghar saalo se na jayein, isse zyada toh Daliton se dosti thi humari”—We haven’t been to Manoj’s house in years, we were better friends with Dalits than with them.

After the incident, most of the Dalit youths of Shobhapur fled the village, and the residents who stayed back said they were living in a state of constant fear. “Gopi was number one and was shot immediately after the list went viral,” Vijendra Kumar, a 54-year-old resident of the village, told me. “It’s obvious that they will kill all others too,” he added. “I am also selling my house and planning to shift to city. It’s safer than living here in the outskirts with upper-caste people.”

Vinod Katheria, a resident of Shobhapur who works in a bat-manufacturing factory, said he intended on converting to Islam out of fear. According to Katheria, nobody in the village “dares to attack Muslims—they roam freely.” He continued, “You ask a Muslim who he is, he will say I am a Muslim. You ask a Christian who he is, he will say he is a Christian. You ask a Sikh who he is, he will say I am a Sikh. But you ask a Hindu who he is—he will divide it into Brahmins, Vashyas, Dalits, Gujjars, Thakurs and what not.”

According to Tarachand, Gopi was killed because he was an emerging leader in the community. “He was messiah for us,” Rajeev, a 39-year-old resident of Shobhapur who visited Gopi’s house on 14 April to pay his respects, told me. Gopi’s influence within the community was well known. “Woh ladka netagiri mein bahut tez tha”—That boy was good at politicking, Anil said. “Uski ek awaz pe 5,000 ladke khade ho jayein gaon mein”—On his call, 5,000 men from the village would rise. Salim Ali, a resident of the village whose house was adjacent to the spot where Gopi was shot, said that both Gopi and Tarachand had contested and lost local polls on behalf of the Bahujan Samaj Party. “Both father and son were interested in politics,” Salim said. “Dalits are already dominating here in Shobhapur and they wanted to take over everything.”

It was evident that Gopi had earned significant love and respect within the community. On the day of my first visit, Amit, a 13-year-old resident of Shobhapur who had just appeared for the tenth-standard board examinations, took me to a building that was under construction, and which he said was initially meant to be a village community hall. “They left it in the middle and Gopi bhaiya started a school in it,” Amit said. “Over 200 children from all over Shobhapur and nearby villages come to study,” he added, while showing me the school library that he said Gopi and his friends set up. Gopi’s wife, Pinky, told me, “If anyone got sick in the village or anyone needed money for food or something, Gopi never said no.”

In the aftermath of his death, in view of the rising tension in the village, several Dalit residents complained that no BJP MLA or MP had visited them after the incident, and that no representative of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes had approached them to offer assistance. In fact, Gopi’s death was not the only casualty of Dalit leadership in the village due to the protests on 2 April. Yogesh Verma, a former BSP member of legislative assembly from Hastinapur and the husband of Sunita Verma, Meerut’s mayor, had also been arrested. According to Tarachand, Yogesh Verma was the only remaining Dalit representative for the residents of Shobhapur. Omveer, a 48-year-old resident, told me, “Dalits become Hindus for the elections.” He continued, “How would Modi and BJP win without our support? This is another matter that after the elections, we are just untouchables.”

Ishita Mishra is a UP-based crime and political journalist with a penchant for human-interest stories.

Keywords: Uttar Pradesh caste caste violence
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