Dangawas is a village located in the Nagaur district of Rajasthan, about 200 kilometres to the west of Jaipur. Hoardings of mobile network providers haven’t yet reached here, and window-sized shops mostly sell grocery items and unfamiliar candy. The government hospital in the area, while equipped for procedures such as childbirth, mostly receives visitors suffering from diarrhoea. Almost all the women I saw here, covered their faces when they were outside their houses, while the men flaunted their impressive moustaches. With a population of about 7,000, spotting an outsider is easy; curious eyes follow your footsteps as you stroll through the by lanes. Most motorcycles—a common mode of transport in this region—are adorned with number plates that, apart from the registration number of the vehicle and the state of registration, announce the owner’s caste in fancy fonts.
On 14 May 2015, around noon, violence broke out in this village over a disputed piece of land, leaving four people dead. The incident took place on 15 acres of agrarian turf, the ownership of which has been a matter of dispute between two families—one Jat and one Dalit—in the village for the past several decades. When I visited the village on 22 May, a week after the incident, few people seemed concerned about the violence. During the course of my reporting, no conversation I had, appeared to be complete without an interrogation about my surname. While members of the Dalit family told me that they had ancestral ownership over the land, the Jats I met maintained that the land was sold to them in the early 1960s and they had been farming on it ever since.
According to the villagers I spoke to, although a case over the disputed territory was underway in the Merta district court, that morning they had called for a meeting along with Kanaram, the Jat who claimed ownership over the land, to speak to Ratna Ram Meghwal, the Dalit who claimed to own the land and had been squatting on it with his extended family for the past few weeks. They meant to tell Ratna Ram to stay off the property until the matter was resolved in court. But Ratna Ram did not turn up. “That land is ours, so why should we go to any meeting?” Kishan Lal, one of about two dozen Dalits who had been living there, said when I asked him why they didn’t go. “The Jats should have come to us instead,” he added
“A few people went to fetch [Ratna Ram] for the meeting—he wasn’t answering calls—soon, the Meghwals started shooting. That’s how they killed my son,” Dharmpal Goswami, the father of Rampal Goswami who died in the shooting, said when I met him. The Goswamis had no stake in the land and they don’t belong to the Jat community either. According to Dharmpal, Rampal was a bystander and one of the many villagers who went to call Ratna Ram to the meeting.
Kishan Lal denied this. “We have no weapons and nobody came to call us. They had come to kill us,” he told me. “Why would the villagers try to kill you?” I asked. “Because we are Dalits,” he replied. Kishan Lal didn’t seem to believe that Rampal had died; “He’s hiding somewhere,” he told me. Investigating Officer PR Dudi, who is the deputy superintendent at the Merta police station, told me that while the police haven’t yet been able to locate the gun, they believed they had found the gauge of the rifle, from which a bullet was fired and subsequently found in Rampal’s body. According to Dudi, “No matter what the Meghwals claim, they had the gun.”
“I have no idea what happened next. I didn’t care. My son died,” Dharmpal told me during our conversation. What he didn’t want to talk about was the brutal retaliation that followed the alleged shooting. According to the villagers I spoke to, the mob that had gathered on the plot after, was a predominantly Jat gathering. It killed three men of the Meghwal family and disabled 13 others—women and the elderly included—fracturing their hands and feet by beating them with lathis and whatever they could get their hands on. Ratna Ram, along with his two brothers Pancha Ram and Pokha Ram died on the spot. “The Jats drove tractors over them,” said Tularam, one of the members of the Meghwal family.
It has been reported that the the three men from the Meghwal family were killed by tractors, but Dudi told me that post-mortem reports don’t support that claim. “They were beaten to death with lathis and rods, the tractors were used to demolish the house constructed on the property,” he said. OP Inani, the doctor who conducted the post-mortem, told me over the phone that, “since there were multiple injuries, it is very hard for us to determine whether the men died by getting crushed under the tires of a tractor or getting hit repeatedly by lathis and rods.” However, a forensic expert who has worked in the All India Institute of Medical Science for six years and whom I spoke to, to ascertain the validity of this claim, said the injuries inflicted by the two would be “poles apart” and it was “rubbish” that the doctor couldn’t tell the difference.
Earlier this week, Dudi and Nagaram Choudhury, the Merta police station in-charge, were suspended for their negligence in the land dispute case. Manoj Bhatt, the director general of the Rajasthan police said that “ An inquiry is being set up against the concerned officers from Nagaur to ascertain the level of negligence. We definitely feel that there has been some negligence in this case.” I spoke to Gulab Chand Kataria, the home minister of Rajasthan, who confirmed this development to me. He told me that, “The investigation has been handed over to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), and we have recommended that a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry be set up so that nobody feels that they are being treated unfairly. He added that, “The CID is investigating the matter as an instance of violence over a land dispute, and not as a case of caste violence. “ Six people—all of them Jat according to Kataria—have been arrested in relation the case. These include Kanaram Jat, who claimed ownership of the house, his brother Omaram Jat, and Kaluram Jat.
The houses of Kanaram and the Meghwals are located in separate colonies situated on either side of the same lane. There is no forbidding force that made it so, but a middle-aged man who has lived in Dangawas his entire life, replied to my question about the history of the segregated placement by saying, “Everyone wants to live with their own kind. Don’t you?”
I couldn’t find anyone at Kanaram’s house, but a group of eight policemen were lounging under a tent in front of the house that belonged to the Meghwals. They checked my press identity card and told me that they were there to “protect the oppressed.” “Oppressed,” a man who sat in civilian clothes repeated, chuckling this time. The uniformed men chortled in approval and went on to talk about the policies that exonerated the Schedule Castes. “All these policies were drafted in Russia sometime in the 1960s,” the plain-clothed man said. The policemen did not appear to doubt him. I asked him for his name, but he said it was irrelevant. Soon after, one of the officers asked me to go ahead and talk to the family—a group of about half-a-dozen men who were sitting under another tent, smoking bidis.
Most of the Meghwals I met in front of the house worked as daily-wagers, except for those who were too old for manual labour anymore. They didn’t waste any time before presenting their version of the story: “no shooting happened,” said Tularam, even before I had a chance to present any of my questions. “We are being discriminated against … the police favours the Jats … we should be awarded the land now,” He went on, “and the compensation as well.” Tularam told me that in order to understand what really happened, I should go with a cameraperson to Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Ajmer, where the injured had been referred. As I closed my notebook and started to get up, he asked, “Which caste is Dev?”
At Goswami’s house, the tent was bigger, with as many people as there had been at Meghwal’s, but there was no police in the vicinity. “The police is where the criminals are,” Dharmpal said. Goswami’s family appeared aggrieved because they thought the media wasn’t interested in Rampal’s death. “You people only care when a Dalit dies. Our lives are not lives for you?” said one of Rampal’s cousins. When I asked them about what happened on that afternoon, they said they didn’t care. “They kept fighting, but my son was dead,” Dharmpal said, sitting in front of a framed portrait of Rampal. The men from the Goswami family also work as daily-wagers, but the bond of the same occupation has been unable to defy age-old grievances. “Soon enough, these people [Dalits] will start asking for compensation when a mosquito bites them,” said Dharmpal, as he showed me the way out, before asking, doubtfully, “Devs are Jats, right?”
No one seemed to know what really transpired that afternoon. No one seemed to care either; everyone had a different pair of eyes, and I left Dangawas no wiser. Back in Ajmer, at the JLN hospital, the only victim who wasn’t asleep in the room allotted to those injured in the attack was Kishan Lal. I approached him and introduced myself. He asked if I was a part of the television media and when I replied in the negative, he seemed to be disappointed. We talked for about ten minutes; no details of his account—from the time the police reached the site or the number of people who had gathered—corroborated with what his uncle, Tularam, had told me earlier.
I looked around the room. Men and women, young and old, lay sedated. Their limbs were plastered, and in some cases held together by metallic frames. I could occasionally hear sounds of whimpering from some bed or the other. That these injuries were a result of the afternoon of 14 May, was the only concrete truth I could arrive at. A nurse told me these patients were fine, but when I asked about the two who had been referred to the intensive care unit earlier in the day, she said, “They might not make it.”.
Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.