In a creaking brick house with a tin shade roof, Mohan Singh, a 60-year-old daily-wager of Galla Kothar, in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, owns a shiny 315 bore rifle, perhaps his most expensive possession. The British military Lee-Enfield rifle worth Rs 1.15 lakh is neatly tucked in a narrow old cabinet in a house that lacks even the most basic equipment.
The rifle stands testimony to the distrust of government machinery that has filled Mohan Singh after his 25-year-old son Deepak Jatav was shot dead in the April 2018 caste protests in India.
A nationwide Bharat Bandh called by Dalit groups over the Supreme Court order to amend the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 had taken a tragic turn as ‘anti-social elements with criminal cases’ mixed with Dalit protesters had indulged in violence, killing many.
Madhya Pradesh had witnessed seven deaths, including five Dalits, who were killed during clashes that erupted in Gwalior, Bhind and Morena districts. Galla Kothar and Bhim Nagar, situated on the outskirts of Gwalior city, saw clashes between its large Dalits populace and upper-caste residents, with the latter allegedly attacking Dalit neighbourhoods, armed with firearms.
Singh, who merely earns Rs 200-300 a day, applied for a licence four months after the Bharat Bandh violence. But it was only last year, on 18 September 2019, that he got the licence of his 315 bore rifle.
“We need arms to protect ourselves as they (the accused) are free. They often indirectly threaten us to kill us...,” said Mohan Singh, adding that the local administration supports them because they are rich and powerful. “Paise wale hain iseliye murder kar ke bhi bahar ghum rahe hai. (They’re roaming free, even after murder, because they are rich).”
Recalling an incident after the 2018 Bharat Bandh violence, Mohan Singh’s wife Dropadi Jatav said, “Someone tried to break in at my house in the middle of the night. They also climbed on our walls in a bid to enter our home. They were armed with firearms. But we locked ourselves in the room and only opened it after they left. There's a constant threat looming on our head.”
A case was registered under section 302 (murder), 147, 148, 149 and 3(2)(V) of the SC/ST Atrocities Act, 1989 against nearly a dozen people. All the accused are out on bail and the matter is before the court. Hearing is yet to begin.
Raja Chouhan, one of the accused, said, "We fired for our own protection from licensed weapons when the mob was trying to break into my house. Firing in self-defence isn't a crime. Now the matter is before the court – and I hope justice will prevail."
Donations to Buy a Gun
Mohan Singh is among the eight-odd residents of Galla Kothar who had applied for the firearm’s licence post the Bharat Bandh violence. The residents of Galla Kothar donated the money and collected nearly Rs 70,000 for the rifle. He said he managed the rest of the amount by himself – from his savings and a little help from relatives.
“After constant attempt and pressure, the administration has issued only two licences in all these years. We have demanded to approve the remaining applications, two for each entry point of the basti (locality),” said Mohan Singh.
“If we have firearms, they would not dare to attack our basti, open fire and kill our children. We would give them a befitting reply,” said Mohan Singh. “My son would be alive if we had guns. The rifle has given us courage and a sense of security,” he added.
Ram Awtar, 57, another applicant who got the arm’s licence with Mohan Singh, is from the half dozen men who got shot during the 2018 violence but survived.
“The accused are roaming freely. They have threatened us to sign the settlement. However, we are immutable, and we want justice,” said Ram Awtar.
“When we had approached the Gwalior collector office with eight applications, the ADM (additional district magistrate) taunted us saying‘“gang bana rahe ho kya?’(are you forming a gang?)” because we are Dalits. But they turned a blind eye to upper caste families, who own at least two guns/rifles in each home,” Awatar lamented.
“Now, we have to protect ourselves, police works for them because of their close associations with the political parties,” Awatar added.
Galla Kothar and adjacent Bhim Nagar fall under Gwalior East constituency which is among the 28 seats in Madhya Pradesh where bypolls will be held in November.
“Dalits have no place in the ruling party and the BSP is working as a proxy of the BJP. In that situation, Dalits this year will unanimously vote for the Congress,” Ram Awatar said.
What Police Says
Commenting over the allegations of Galla Kothar residents, Amit Sanghi, Superintendent Of Police, Gwalior, said, “There is complete peace in the region post 2018 Bharat Bandh violence.”
He further said that to ensure law and order in the locality, the prime accused of the incident, Rishabh Bhadouriya, who is out on bail, will be externed from Gwalior district in the next couple of weeks. “The collector will notify the order soon,” he said.
As far as the matter of issuing more licences to the residents of Galla Kothar is concerned, the Gwalior police has been keeping a sharp eye in the locality to prevent any untoward incidents, said Sanghi.
“I have received no complaint from the residents of Galla Kothar which says that the police is intentionally denying or stalling the license applications to an eligible person. If I receive any such complaint, I will review their applications and do the needful,” he added.