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Sonbhadra Massacre: Politics of Tragedy

Sonbhadra Massacre: Politics of Tragedy
UP CM Yogi Adityanath meets the victims’ families in Sonbhadra/Photo: UNI
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Above: UP CM Yogi Adityanath meets the victims’ families in Sonbhadra/Photo: UNI

After the carnage that left 10 tribals dead, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has chosen to play the political blame game even as all opposition parties are demanding a CBI probe

By Atul Chandra in Lucknow

It was one of the worst clashes in recent years in Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh. And life in the district’s Umbha village will never be the same again after a bloody clash over a land dispute on July 17 that left 10 persons, including three women, all Gond tribals, dead following firing by the village pradhan and his henchmen.

According to reports, around 200 people were brought in 32 tractor-trailers to occupy a piece of land in Umbha village. The land was, reportedly, bought by gram pradhan Yagya Dutt two years ago. After arriving at the site to take over the land, they surrounded the plot and started ploughing it. As the land was sold illegally, as claimed by the locals, they arrived at the site and protested. This led to an altercation, which quickly turned violent when the goons of Dutt, who had come prepared with guns, rifles, spears and lathis, started attacking them with lathis.

Unable to chase them away, the goons took out their fire­arms and opened fire at the villagers. According to survivors, the firing went on for half an hour. Ten people were killed in the attack and 29 were injured. Seven persons died on the spot, two died while being taken to hospital, while one died in the hospital. The injured are now being treated at the BHU hospital in Varanasi.

The piece of land that led to this violence has been the centre of dispute for a long time. The local people, the Gond tribals, have been farming on the land, but its ownership has remained disputed for more than 60 years.

The police, who could have averted the massacre, now say that 30 persons have been arrested. Those held include the mastermind of the bloodbath, Dutt, and his two brothers. According to a report, the local police were allegedly in the know of Dutt’s plan and a constable reportedly tried to intervene on his behalf, persuading the tribals to enter into a compromise with Dutt. It was an offer the tribals firmly refused.

As the villagers mourned their loss and tended to the injured, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath visited Umbha village on July 21, four days after the massacre. Predictably, he brought with him a set of announcements about ration cards, houses, coverage under the Ayushman Bharat Yojna and many more. The state government has also decided to set up a police outpost in the village. The chief minister’s package of promises also includes three skill development centres to be set up in the district. It is another matter that all these should have been done in the normal course of governance and did not quite call for a chief ministerial announcement.

Adityanath’s visit came a day after Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra left the state guest house in Mirzapur’s Chunar area after meeting some members of the bereaved families. While Priyanka left the village after holding out the promise of a Rs 10 lakh ex gratia payment to the bereaved families, Adityanath outmatched her offer by giving Rs 18.5 lakh to each family which lost a dear one.

The aftermath of the killings also saw the government and the opposition indulging in the usual game of political one-upmanship. Even before Adityanath could think of visiting Umbha, Priyanka was already headed towards the village. But she was detained before she could reach the village and was subsequently lodged at the Chunar guest house. The Congress leader sat on dharna there, insisting that either she be allowed to visit Umbha or the family members of the victims be brought to the guest house. Though reluctant in the beginning, the administration finally gave in to her demand and brought some women family members to the guest house for a meeting with Priyanka.

More than focussing on the role of Dutt, the main accused, a Bihar-cadre IAS officer from whom Dutt had bought the contentious land and the alleged complicity of the local police and revenue officials, it was politics which took centrestage in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Priyanka’s 24-hour dharna at the guest house helped the Congress grab headlines and perhaps a few hearts but Adityanath’s attempts to earn a few brownie points by blaming the Congress for sowing the seeds of discord way back in 1955 failed miserably.

The chief minister did not wait for a three-member committee headed by the revenue secretary, appointed to investigate “all such wrongdoings between 1955 and 1989”, to even reach the half­way point of its 10-day deadline for submitting its findings. Without even hinting at a serious lapse on the part of his police which, by some accounts, could have prevented the mass murder, Adityanath started apportioning the blame to the Congress, Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, saying the blame for the gruesome events should be laid at their doors. He accused Priyanka of shedding “crocodile tears”, saying the land dispute was a creation of the Congress. The dispute, he said, went back to 1955 when the infertile land of the gram samaj was transferred to a public trust headed by a Congress MLC.

Refusing to put the blame on the Sonbhadra district police for laxity and alleged connivance, Adityanath said,

“In 1989 the same land was transferred to family members of those who were part of the trust, again during Congress rule,” and asked the Congress to seek forgiveness from the tribal families as it was “their sins” which led to the “goli kaand”.

In a sharp retort to the allegations, Priyanka said, “This is too much. Such murders are taking place during your rule and you are blaming the Congress government of 1955. You are the chief minister so whose duty is it to stop such incidents.”

But Adityanath dished out minute details to debunk Priyanka’s charges and establish the Congress links with the tragedy. He said that the “formation of Umbha Cooperative Society is at the root of all the trouble”.

The society was established by Maheshwar Prasad Narayan, a senior Congress leader from Bihar and the uncle of former UP Governor Chandeshwar Prasad Narayan Singh. Maheshwar was Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha from 1952 to 1956. He formed the society to take land from the then Raja of Badhaar, Anand Brahm Saha. The same land was transferred in individual names in 1989, the chief minister said.

But if advocate Nityanand Dwivedi, the lawyer representing the Gond tribals in the land dispute case is to be believed, the society was formed by Bihar-cadre IAS officer Prabhat Kumar Misra who made Maheshwar, his father-in-law, its president. He named his wife, Asha Mishra, the society’s office-bearer. “…On December 17, 1955, a total of 463 bighas was transferred in the society’s name. After Maheshwar’s death 200 bighas was transferred in the name of Asha Mishra, and Vinita Sharma in 1989. They in turn sold 144 bighas of this land to Yagya Dutt,” Dwivedi reportedly said.

According to some news reports, an application was moved by the accused for mutation of the land in his name but the villagers approached the then district magistrate, Amit Kumar Singh, who ordered an inquiry. Singh was transferred in February this year after which the land was transferred in Dutt’s name, Dwivedi added. Obviously, such fast-tracking could not have been done without the connivance of officials and it was this that led to the mayhem.

The chief minister then trained his guns on the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. He alleged that Dutt, the main accused, was a Samajwadi Party worker, something that was promptly denied by the Samajwadi Party. The party said that the chief minister should stop blaming the opposition for his government’s failures. “The main accused has been a close associate of former Samajwadi Party MLA Ramesh Chandra Dubey and had campaigned for the party during the last elections,” the chief minister said. He also alleged that the village head’s brother was given contract for road construction before 2017.

For the record, cases have been registered under Sections 34/147, 148, 149, 307 and 302 of the IPC and 31/421/35 of the SC/ST Act. The National Security Act is also likely to be invoked against the accused, as well as against all land grabbers.

While the state SC/ST Commission has demanded that both NSA and the Gangster Act be invoked against the accused, the chief minister said that the land mafia, including those involved in the Umbha killings, should be charged under the NSA. So far, the process to invoke the NSA has not been started.

State governments normally take the orders of any commission with little seriousness. For instance, the government had defied the National Human Rights Commission which issued one notice after another against encounter killings. The government persisted with its policy despite being warned that many of them were fake encounters and that the policy was allegedly aimed against a particular community. A reason why these commissions are not taken seriously is that their chairpersons and members are government appointees and they can’t bite the hand that feeds them.

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