Phoolwati breaks down when she speaks of her husband Dhansha Invati, who was killed by a mob earlier this month. “I kept pleading with them to at least tell me where they were taking him. And to show me the cow meat that he had been accused of possessing. But what I received instead were blows and abuses,” she says.
On the night of May 2-3, Phoolwati and Dhansha had been fast asleep outside their kaccha house in Simariya village in the Kurai block of Seoni district in Madhya Pradesh. It was when she heard thudding sounds that Phoolwati woke up to see a group of men assaulting her husband. Their elder son Jai Prakash, who lives next door, also rushed out on hearing the commotion. He pleaded with the mob to let Dhansha go, but the men paid no heed. Threats from the mob forced Phoolwati and Jai Prakash to retreat to their homes. The men took Dhansha away. Phoolwati and her son are unsure of how old he was; they reckon he was “upwards of 50”.
Dhansha, a part-time farmer and casual labourer, was one of the two Adivasi men who were lynched during the early hours of May 3. The other, Sampat Lal Vatti, 52, lived in the neighbouring village of Sagar, also in Seoni district and around 400 km from Bhopal, the State capital. Sampat Lal’s family, who were not at home at the time of the incident, say they heard that he went to Simariya upon hearing of the assault taking place there and also became a victim of the mob.
So far, 14 men have been arrested in the case. G.S. Uikey, who was in charge of the Kurai police station under whose jurisdiction the two villages fall, had alleged that the attackers belong to the Bajrang Dal and Sri Ram Sena. The families of the two men have also made the same claim. Denying these allegations, the Madhya Pradesh government transferred Uikey and all the officers of that police station, and formed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to conduct the probe. Even as investigations go on, the residents of the village fear for their lives.
A night of terror
Eyewitnesses of the assault, including Brijesh Vatti who woke up on hearing the noise outside his house, say the incident took place between 2.30 a.m. and 3.00 a.m. Rushing out, they saw 15-20 men hitting Dhansha and Sampat Lal with sticks and batons while accusing them of possessing beef. The mob demanded to know the names of the others responsible for “killing a cow”. They wanted to take Dhansha, Sampat Lal and Brijesh, who was also assaulted but survived the attack, to the Badalpar police post nearby. By that time the police arrived and seized a bag of meat from the spot that the mob claimed had been in Dhansha and Sampat Lal’s possesion. They took the three injured men to the Kurai government hospital. Dhansha succumbed to his injuries at around 6 a.m. Sampat Lal died half an hour later.
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Sagar village is a 30-minute walk from the Invati household. Mathho Bai Vatti, Sampat Lal’s wife, lives with her mother-in-law, Bisania Bai, and two daughters, Seema and Sonal. Unlike Phoolwati, Mathho Bai did not get a glimpse of her husband just before he died. “My daughters and I had gone for a wedding while my mother-in-law had gone for another,” she says. “My husband stayed back to take care of the house. I then heard from people that he had gone to Simariya village. I later saw a video in which he was being tortured by a mob. Those men were forcefully trying to extract a confession from him. It was an unbearable sight.”
Following the incident, a CCTV camera has been installed outside Dhansha’s mud house in Simariya. Phoolwati lives alone following her husband’s death. The house has a modest kitchen and a storeroom for forest produce. It does not have power supply. Goats sometimes saunter in. Jai Prakash lives with his wife and two daughters in a better equipped concrete house next door. Phoolwati’s younger son, Om Prakash, is a daily wager in Mumbai. He is yet to come home after his father’s death as taking leave for a few days could cost him his job.
Economic opportunities are few in the tribal-dominated Seoni district, which is largely covered with forests. Some shops in Seoni town open as late as noon. There are no major manufacturing activities in the town. The Pench Tiger Reserve provides some jobs in the tourism sector. But the Adivasis in the district mostly till small parcels of land or collect forest produce such as mahua. Since this brings them little income or ends after a season, they also sometimes look for jobs in the nearby district of Nagpur in Maharashtra. Before he was assaulted by the mob, Dhansha had been planning to go to Nagpur. Sampat Lal, on the other hand, had not sought work in the big cities and had depended on whatever he could find in Sagar or the nearby villages. His family says he was saving up to build a concrete house and organise his 19-year-old daughter Seema’s wedding.
“There are limited opportunities in the village and the pandemic years made our lives even tougher. All the hard work he did is now of no use. He will never be able to see any of his dreams come true,” says Mathho. Sampat Lal’s mother Bisania recalls how he had worked overtime to get a smartphone for Sonal who needed one to continue her education during the lockdown. Seema had already quit school because she did not have one. For Bisania, the tragedy is especially devastating as she had lost her other son to tuberculosis just a few years ago.
Brijesh, 26, whose house is a stone’s throw away from the Invati household, had got married about a fortnight before the incident. He and his wife live with his parents, two sisters and grandmother. Some consider him lucky for having escaped death after being beaten so mercilessly. Brijesh is grateful that the villagers saved him that night, but he is fraught with anxiety now. “The incident has left a deep impact on me,” he says. “I have not been able to resume work since then. Being the only earning member of a family of seven, this cannot be the case forever.” Though he wants to go back to his routine, the fear that such an assault may occur again has left him with a sense of dread, he says.
Since Seoni district is close to Nagpur, rumours often float around that cattle are smuggled from Madhya Pradesh to Maharashtra to be slaughtered. In both the States, cow slaughter is banned. If anyone is suspected of slaughtering a cow, the burden of proof falls on the accused, as per State laws.
While Kurai block is used to the murmurs, the recent incident is a first and has caused great disquiet. “The swiftness and suddenness with which two of our own were picked up and lynched is shocking. Our village had kept its peace. It is under strain now. Forget violence or cow vigilantism, I had not even seen Bajrang Dal volunteer movements or outreach activities here. And suddenly one night, a bunch of 15-20 people come and just beat two men so severely that they don’t survive,” says Indar Namurte, whose house is about 200 metres from Dhansha’s house.
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Namurte, a farmer, says that of the 160-odd homes in the villages, 125 are Gond families. The rest of the population consists of people belonging to Other Backward Classes, primarily the Teli and Pal castes. “This is a tribal majority village. If we are not safe here, where else do we go? And how can we take the administration’s assurances on face value,” he asks.
Sewak Ram Dhurve, a Gond who lives in Sagar, where Sampat Lal lived, echoes these sentiments. He fears retaliation by the 14 men who have been arrested in connection with the lynching incidents so far. “If there is no strong message from the administration, they will not fear the law. They can come after any one of us on the pretext of cow slaughter,” he says. “The way the probe is progressing, it won’t take long for them to come out on bail and come back to avenge their incarceration. And even if they continue to be in custody, others can do the same when the spotlight on these deaths dies down.”
Dhurve is referring to the stream of visits by administrative officials and politicians after the incident, including of former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath of the Congress. The Congress’s Arjun Singh Kakodia represents the Barghat (Reserved) Assembly seat in which Simariya and Sagar fall. Nath met the families earlier this week, and charged the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, headed by Shivraj Singh Chouhan, of shielding the accused due to their alleged association with the Bajrang Dal and Sri Ram Sena. Kakodia alleged that the State government formed an SIT to investigate the incident after Uikey’s statement. Another special team, which had been formed before the SIT, visited the village on May 15. It met the families and briefed them about the SIT.
“I don’t know about these technicalities,” says Phoolwati when asked if the formation of the SIT came as a reassurance. Jai Prakash says that the local police, which was investigating the matter before the formation of the SIT, “were also doing a decent job”. Apart from Uikey and the Congress, the families of the deceased, and Brijesh, maintain their claim that the “goons belong to the Bajrang Dal and Sri Ram Sena”.
While the Congress won a significant number of the reserved seats for the Scheduled Tribes in the 2018 Assembly elections, the BJP has made considerable efforts in consolidating its electoral outreach in tribal areas in recent decades. Chouhan has been the flag-bearer of ‘cow protection’. When he returned to power in 2020, he even announced the formation of a ‘Gau cabinet (cow cabinet)’. Refuting the allegations that the accused are associated with the Bajrang Dal and Sri Ram Sena, Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam Mishra had said that the initial investigation had found that no members of the Bajrang Dal or Sri Ram Sena were involved in the attacks. Members of the special team have chosen to remain silent on the affiliation of the 14 men arrested so far, and the SIT has refused to speak to the media.
The accused from Seoni
All the men arrested belong to Seoni district; most of them are in their twenties and thirties. The families and neighbours of the victims have also sought the arrest of Shubham Baghel. A video where he repeatedly refers to the two dead men as “gau kasai” (cow slaughterers) went viral after the incident. In the video, Baghel is seen blaming the police, instead of the mob, for the deaths of the Adivasis. Since the incident, he has posted videos on Facebook of Sri Ram Sena activists going to the residence of an accused and taking a vow to “save them all”.
“Such brazen display of solidarity with the accused has made us more apprehensive. The police have provided security to the affected families, but until people like Baghel are arrested, it does not mean anything,” says Anshul Shah Markam, a lawyer and social activist from Gwari village in Kurai block. Markam, who belongs to the Pardhan tribe, is also the founding member and the State spokesperson of the Jai Adivasi Yuva Sangathan. Baghel was unavailable for comments.
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Since there are very few job-creation opportunities in Seoni district, right-wing groups have allegedly tapped the vast population of unemployed youth in the area to add heft to their activities. Says Kakodia: “Imagine a jobless youngster who is getting good food to eat, a vehicle to drive around in the whole day and local authorities and police fearing him. This creates a heady cocktail of power and luxury that the youth get used to. It emboldens them to take the law into their hands.”
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) Mahakoshal Division Sangathan Mantri, Awadhesh Pratap Singh, has not tried to distance himself from the accused. (The Bajrang Dal is the youth wing of the VHP.) But he says Adivasis are not the group’s targets. “Adivasis are Hindus and follow the Sanatana Dharma. Why would we target them? Those who died were poor. They could not have engaged in beef trading. They have done it for someone else,” he says. He does not elaborate on who the “others” are. Responding to this, Markam, the social activist, alleges that the right-wing groups themselves are involved in cattle smuggling.
What closure means
The government has announced compensation of ₹8 lakh and a job each for the next of the kin of both the deceased. Amar Singh Warkade, a Gond from Simariya village, who has been associated with many NGOS working for the Adivasis in Seoni, says the announcements of posting Sampat Lal’s daughter Seema in a tribal girl’s ashram and Jai Prakash Invati as a daily-wage earner in High School Vijayapani were made under the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 and the Protection of Civil Rights Act of 1955. But the government should have done much more, he says. Uneducated Adivasis are not aware of their rights and the families should have got compensation of at least ₹1 crore, he says.
Groups such as the Gondwana Ganatantra Party, the Adivasi Adhikari Karmachari Sangh, the Jay Adivasi Yuva Shakti Sangathan and the Bhim Army have made similar demands. On May 9, they came together to stage one of the biggest protests in Seoni’s history. It was attended by thousands of Adivasis from Seoni and nearby districts.
While investigations are ongoing and political parties make allegations and counter-allegations, Phoolwati and Jai Prakash bring up a buzzword that has gained currency in the Hindi heartland in recent months, to describe what closure means to them. “We want the houses of the attackers razed to the ground. After all, this is what we have come to know as justice in recent times. So, why should mob violence in our case be treated any differently,” Phoolwati asks.