At about noon, on 7 October 2015, a Dalit farmer named Sunil Gautam was sitting naked on a brick-paved street that cuts through the town market of Dankaur village in Uttar Pradesh. I spoke to dozens of shopkeepers who told me he had stripped as a form of protest. He did this, his sister, Laukesh Kumari, said when I met her this Saturday, on 10 October, “Because the police refused to register his complaint.” She told me that Gautam wanted to file an FIR (First Information Report) which stated that Mahendra Gurjar—who owns a patch of land next to Gautam’s, close to the Jaypee Sports City in Greater Noida—had stolen his bike, the keys to his auto-rickshaw, and a sum of Rs 850 on the evening of 5 October. The police, however, told me that Gautam did not want to file a written complaint, and that, based on their prior experience with him, they were wary of being accused by him of filing an erroneous FIR. Gautam, his brother Sohan Lal, and their wives Harwati and Reeta are all currently in custody at Noida’s Luksar jail.
Within days the matter had spread well beyond the town, thanks to social media. A video shot by some passers-by had made its way online and local media websites had published unconfirmed news reports. One such report wasa storypublished by a news website called Dailysikhupdates.com, that was titled “DALIT FAMILY MADE TO PARADE NAKED BY POLICE IN UP CAUSES OUTRAGE ON SOCIAL MEDIA.” The report is no longer available on the website. Soon after, other video clips began surfacing on the internet; these contradicted the narrative that had gained traction and indicated that that the family had done so of its own accord.
When I reached Dankaur on 9 October, it was already close to 9 pm and the market in which this incident took place was shut. There were no streetlights, and the village was enveloped in darkness. Earlier that day, a fact-finding team that comprised activists from some Left parties visited Dankaur. Their reportstated thatthe police never filed Gautam’s FIR. It went on to claim that Praveen Kumar, the station officer at the Dankaur police station, had torn Gautam’s shirt and beaten him up, before doing the same to his sister-in-law Reeta when she tried to intervene. I was unable to corroborate either this or much of the other information in that report through my experience in Dankaur.
The police in Dankaur, I found, consider Gautam a nuisance because he files too many complaints. At the police station there, he has a file dedicated to him—a grey paper folder that serves as a record of Gautam’s grievances.“And that is only from this year,” said Jogendra Yadav, a constable, as he nonchalantly flipped through its pages before tossing the dossier to me. These complaints had been submitted in a running hand on Gautam’s personal letterhead, which, in large letters, announces his name as: “Sunil Kumar Gautam (Chamar Jatav).” In one note, dated 21 March, he brings to notice that there is only one cashier at the State Bank of India branch in Dankaur; in another one he filed on 23 June, Gautam registered his discomfort with thehijras—transgender people—who would turn up to ask for money whenever a child was born in the neighbourhood.
Given the number of formal complaints that he appeared to have authored, it seemed strange to me that Gautam did not submit a written complaint on the evening of 5 October, immediately after he was allegedly robbed by Gurjar. “He is just that kind of man, you can’t really reason with him, he does what he wants to,” Kumar told me when I met him on 10 October. The townspeople I spoke to seemed to consider Gautam an oddity too; no conversation I had was complete without anecdotes about his penchant for haircuts. “Sometimes he cuts half of his moustache, sometimes he goes half-bald,” said Azad Ansari, who works as a dentist and has a clinic in the town market. Gautam has also contested several elections,most recentlyfor the position of a member of parliament from the area. An owner of a juice-centre in the market told me, “Gautam runs for every seat, but only gets the vote of his family.” In 2013, officials from the police station and the villagers told me, Gautam was arrested for hurling sexual obscenities at Durga Nagpal, who was then the sub-divisional magistrate of the area.