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
''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.”

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

Keywords: caste caste violence Uttar Pradesh