Was the Dalit Family in Dankaur Really Stripped by the Police?

11 October, 2015

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.

According to Kumar, there were not too many policemen at the Dankaur station on the evening of 5 October. “Elections for village pradhan are going on, most of my force was on field,” Kumar said. But even those who were there, Kumar added, did not want to write the complaint for Gautam. “You have to be cautious with him,” Kumar told me, “he is the kind of person who can later write a complaint that you are writing fake complaints in his name.” Shortly after, Gautam went back to his home in Atta Gujraan, a village that is about six kilometres away from the police station.

The next day, on 6 October—according to the police and Gautam’s family—he returned to the station in the evening and filed a written complaint. “It was late again, but his application was accepted, and the FIR was filed next morning. It was slightly delayed, but there’s an election going on!” Kumar said. The copy of the FIR I saw was filed at 6.30 am on 7 October. “That was when officers came on their morning duty,” explained Yadav.

According to Laukesh, Gautam’s sister, this FIR was never registered. However, Kumar claimed that Gautam came to check on the status of his complaint the next day, on 7 October, and went back towards the market once he was shown that the FIR had been lodged. By noon, Gautam and his family were protesting in the market. That morning, although Kumar was in his office, he was not in uniform. He told me that he was in a hurry to reach Pari Chowk in Greater Noida: “My brother-in-law’s son had high fever, and we were concerned that it could be dengue, so I was going to take him to a hospital,” he said. But he couldn’t move through the market, which was jammed—a crowd had formed around the naked figure of Sunil Gautam.

“I went and asked him why he is protesting now that the FIR has been filed, he said that I should arrest Mahendra Gurjar,” Kumar told me. This was not something that Kumar was in a position to do. There had been no investigation in the case, and since the complaint involved a member of the scheduled caste, it could only be carried out by the circle officer. Gautam, according to four people who claimed to be eyewitnesses of the spectacle, wasn’t happy when Kumar told him this. “He wouldn’t listen and he was causing a traffic jam, so I tried to drag him away,” Kumar said.

By then, Gautam’s elder brother Sohan Lal had also slipped out of his pants. Shortly after, as I saw in a video clip that had been recorded on a phone, Gautam tore the clothes of his own wife Harwati. Kumar was also visible in the video as he attempted to drag Gautam away from Harwati along with other policemen. However, Gautam dashed back to her, and as she was putting hersalwarback on, he disrobed her once again, before turning to Sohan’s wife, Reeta.

“At around the same time, three schools surrounding the market were shutting for the day and the children were getting out,” Ansari, the dentist who claimed to be an eyewitness, told me when I met him on 9 October. “Once the kids came out, they started shooting whatever was happening on their phones—so now there are a hundred versions of the same incident, depending upon which video you watched.” Mohammad Javed, who also owns a shop in the area added, “But, essentially, there are just two.”

When I reached Gautam’s house in Atta Gujraan on Saturday, the circle officer Ajay Kumar was there. He refused to speak with me. “I won’t be giving you a bite,” he said, and walked away. However, Gautam’s sister, Laukesh,who I did meet, was more forthcoming than the police. “Hamari baat suno, who kya batayenge,”—listen to us, what will they tell you—she said.

“We are Dalits,” Laukesh began, “and that is why it all happened.” According to Laukesh, the police did not file the FIR and proceeded to beat up the family when they were protesting. “The SHO, Praveen Kumar, wasn’t filing the FIR, he asked Sunil [Gautam] to go away,” she said, before adding that Kumar had told Gautam, “Tum sab chamar aise hi pareshaan karte ho—Only you chamars stir up so much trouble.” “Chamar,” historically used for members of leather-worker communities, is still used as a slur for Dalits and people from lower castes through much of north India. Mid-way through this narration, she paused, and asked me if I understood how serious an offence that is. I said I did, to which she responded, “Haan to likho kitnaserioushai—Note down how serious it is then.” Laukesh continued, “The SHO [station house officer] came to the spot and started beating them and tearing their clothes, and then put them in jail.” She concluded, “All of this only because he doesn’t like lower caste people to show up in the police station.”

“Our demand is that we be given compensation, Sunil [Gautam] and his family be released from the jail and SHO Praveen Kumar be sacked immediately,” said Laukesh. I asked her about the things that I had heard about Gautam, about the haircuts and the unusual complaints. “Stylehai uska, sheher me log kya ky akartehainsabkastylehota hai—It is his style, just like the people in cities—everyone has their own style,” she said, before adding, “Baki sab log baat bana rahe hain, jalte hain usse. Sunil ki baith choti-moti nahi hai, bahut neta aur media wale jaante hain usko, door door se aaye the kal. Is baar jeetega woh chunaav”—Everyone else is making up tales, they are jealous of him. Sunil moves around with people of high stature; many politicians and media representatives know him, they had come from very far-off last night. He is going to win the elections this time. As I was about to leave, she asked me to note down my name and contact number in a diary. “Kabhi bhi zarurat pad sakti hai, sabse likhwa rahe hain—It could be useful, I have made everyone who has met me write it down,” she explained.

Atul Dev is a former staff writer at The Caravan.