A 100-metre walk through an uneven field, mucky in parts due to water leaking from pipe, lies a cluster of 10 huts at Marabel village of Kadana taluka in Mahisagar district. In veranda of a hut, a framed of photograph of Rama Vechad Khant, garlanded and a lamp lit alongside, is placed on a plastic chair, even as mourners gathered outside speak in hushed voices.
His wife Kali, dressed in a red saree — veil covering her face — and traditional silver jewellery sans the vermillion, sits beside the chair as her childen Shailesh (16), Kapila (15) and Dharmesh (13) recollect the evening of November 27 when their father returned from an “outing” and complained of “chest pain”.
Rama was one of the three people who died reportedly after he consumed spurious liquor, said to be distributed by local politicians during the recently concluded local body elections in this tribal-dominated district.
Locals say over 50 people from several villages in Santrampur and Kadana talukas were taken ill just days ahead of the taluka panchayat polls on November 29. Though, police suspect as many as six people died due to consumption of spurious liquor, allegedly distributed BJP and Congress workers, most villagers deny any knowledge of hooch intake or political link.
Shailesh, who helped his father Rama as a farm labourer earning a meagre Rs 20 a day, says, “That day, he said he had to go out. He returned in the evening and said he was not well. Immediately, he began to vomi and we had to rush him to a hospital in Santrampur (about 20km). He died within a few hours.”
Shailesh and Kali say they have no idea if Rama consumed illicit liquor allegedly distributed by BJP’s taluka candidate Harish Khant.
The villagers allege police allowed an autopsy on Rama’s body without their consent. “In our tradition, we do not perform autopsy, but the hospital did it on its own without asking us. We do not know why the report says that Rama drank alcohol. Nobody came here to distribute any alcohol and we do not know if Rama went to a party with someone,” says Dhola, a village elder and Rama’s neighbour.
On the night of November 27, Arjan Natha Patadia, 50, a resident of Shial village, around 4 km from Marabel, who lived in a mudhouse with his son Shailesh and nephews, complained of severe chest pain and nausea. He was rushed to the Santrampur hospital where he died within hours. Like Rama, Arjan’s autopsy, conducted was at the instruction of police, confirmed that he had died due to consumption of spurious alcohol. Arjan, who worked as a wireman with the Gujarat Electricity Board (GEB), had died within hours of Rama’s death.
Shial villagers say they were “lucky” to have escaped death that evening when most consumed the cheap liquor distributed in 200 ml plastic pouches by workers of political parties. However, Shailesh (30) claims his father was a “teetotaler”.
“Why are you interested in my father’s death? None of us in this village have ever seen alcohol. No one came here to distribute alcohol ever,” Shailesh, a farm labourer, responds coldly to a query.
A few meters from Arjan’s home, an elderly Kanti, however, says, “Workers of political parties came here two days before the polling for the taluka and the district panchayat polls. They distributed the ‘potlis (pouches)’ and asked everyone to vote for them. That day, men in the village abandoned work and some took up the job of evenly distributing the booty of liquor received by the parties. It was evening and almost immediately many complained of blurred visions, vomiting and sweating. Those who did not drink the liquor were lucky.”
In Santrampur taluka too, villagers reject police’s claim of deaths due to consumption of hooch. In Chikdara, which is close to Bugad na Muvada village where police reported the death one Bharat Chauhan on December 1, locals immediately point in direction of the neighbouring village when asked about distribution of spurious alcohol. “Nothing has happened in our village,” many of them claim, brushing aside any more questions.
At Bugad village, several men gather near a roadside house in the evening tucking into a suspicious blue plastic container. Two men rush indoors with the containers as they see a car approaching them. When asked loud about Chauhan, a man inside replies, “There is no body in his house now.” Soon there is another voice from inside the house — “He means to say, there is no one called Bharat Chauhan here. No one distributed alcohol here. We do not drink.”
Further down the road, another villager, Bhura, however, says two people have died there in a week. “One man named Dinesh died due to alcohol and police had come here to question some people. But no one will talk about it. Police will return to harass us,” he says.
At least three persons, still critically ill with blurred vision, are currently undergoing treatment at Ahmedabad civil hospital.
No cooperation from villagers in the investigation has become a hurdle in taking action against the accused, says Usha Rada, Mahisagar SP. “We have arrested seven persons from Kadana and Santrampur, belonging to political parties. We believe that at least six persons have died, but we have been unable to access these families. Most of them cremated the bodies soon after the death. Those who have taken ill have refused to complain or speak about the fact that they consumed alcohol. They fear they will land into trouble in view of the prohibition law. Moreover, the tribal area is ridden with superstitious beliefs… Wherever my officers go to inquire about the recent deaths, people say they died due to ‘fury of the goddess’. It has made the task difficult,” Rada tells The Indian Express.
The SP says the probe has revealed that political parties procured the spurious liquor from Dhoth village in Rajasthan’s Dungarpur district.
Among those arrested are BJP candidate Harish Khant from Vada Jampa taluka panchayat seat of Kadana village and four party workers. In Santrampur, police have arrested three persons connected with Congress candidate from Bugad taluka panchayat Lila Damor. Both Khant and Damor lost the elections.