The river took their fields first, then came the sand, then the sand miners. On June 21, village Bhauri in Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich district paid the heaviest price yet for the sand mining that began in these parts 10 days earlier. Two children, 7 and 12, walking home together, were found mysteriously dead, amid charges that they were murdered following villagers’ protests against the sand miners and the son of a BJP MLA. A week later, the parents say they are not sure if the boys died in an accident or were murdered. But with little to go on, the villagers are clutching at straws.
Karan, 7, was the youngest child of Dalit couple Sushila and Chetram (the FIR mentions his age as 10), and enrolled in Class 1 at the village primary school. One of their daughters is married and the other is 9. Sitting in the only pucca room of their small house, Sushila keeps breaking down at the mention of Karan’s name. “We had no enmity with anyone. Why would anyone kill my son? They could have killed me instead. What do we live for now?” she cries. The family’s 18 bighas of land is located near the stream of the Ghaghra river that runs close to Bhauri. Ten days before Karan was found dead, Chetram says he had met the mining supervisor to tell them to vacate his field. While the mining operations are supposed to be restricted to 8 acres allotted by the government, villagers accuse the miners of encroaching on land.
“I told the supervisor that I would give them a passage through my field, but that they should vacate the rest of it,” he says. On the morning of June 21, he went to his field with Karan to see the state of the ground, Chetram says. “I hoped to plant paddy this monsoon. But the entire soil was covered with sand. What crop can be cultivated in it?” The damage to the fields in Bhauri comes on top of decreasing returns from farming. The rise in the level of Ghaghra submerges the fields during monsoon, forcing villagers to look for other work. Chetram often spends the monsoons in Ludhiana working as a labourer.
Around 11 am that day, Chetram says, Karan told him he was going home with friend Nishad, 12. “They decided to walk along the embankment of the stream, which is used by villagers. They also wanted to look at machines mining for sand in the stream. I instructed them to stay clear of the water, though it is not very deep,” he says. Sushila says she was returning home after collecting grass for their goats around noon when a few children rushed up to her and said Karan was lying near the stream. She found Karan lying covered in sand. “His tongue was sticking out. He looked like he had been strangled. He lay some distance from the water and his chappals were missing,” she says.
As the news spread, villagers gathered at Chetram’s home. As tempers rose, they blamed the miners for the death and demanded action. A hut built by the mining workers was set on fire and vehicles and machines damaged. In his complaint to police, Chetram said the mining work was being supervised by Nishank Tripathi, the son of BJP MLA from Payagpur Subhash Tripathi, and Manoj Shukla, and said his son was killed because he along with other villagers had announced a sit-in to get the mining stopped.
At Nishad’s home, his family members had also begun looking for him. The 12-year-old studied in Class 2 in the village school, and was the eldest of Rahmat Ali and Zareena’s three sons. Ali works as a labourer at a dhaba in Lucknow, while his family lives in a one-room hut in Bhauri, near Karan’s home. “We thought Nishad was out playing. It was when I came to know of Karan’s death that I realised he was missing,” says Zareena. “We looked in the stream for him. The next morning, I had gone to relieve myself there when I saw his body floating in the water,” Ali’s brother Israil says.
The family didn’t register a separate FIR, and Nishad’s death is mentioned in the FIR lodged by Chetram. Ali says he has no information yet how his son died. “Now that everyone is saying he died of drowning and the postmortem report also says so, how can we accuse anyone?” he says. However, Ali adds, he has not yet got a copy of the autopsy report. Israil says their family has “nothing”. The family had 12 bighas of land, but when the river submerged the village in 1998, that land vanished. “Now, we have hardly 2 bighas, also very close to the stream. All three of us brothers work as labourers,” says Israil.
The flurry of mining activity in Bhauri followed the state government’s recent decision to allow short-term mining licences till the monsoon. Uttar Pradesh is seeing an acute shortage of sand due to curbs placed on illegal mining and lack of permits. The permit in Bhauri was given to SS Enterprises. On paper, MLA Tripathi’s son Nishank has no connection with the mining.
The villagers accuse the pradhan of having allowed mining without consulting anyone. Pradhan Soorsati Yadav directs all queries to husband Shankar. He, in turn, passes the buck to Rajan Mishra. Villagers say Mishra handles most of Shankar’s work. Ram Vriksha Verma, one of the villagers to have complained against the miners, says, “They shift their machines to wherever they find better sand.” Chetram says that on June 17, four days before his son’s death, the village sent a memorandum to the officials to stop mining. The memorandum said an indefinite sit-in would begin in Bhauri from June 24.
Rajan Mishra claims the villagers are angry as it was they who were involved in illegal mining earlier. “When the government issued permits to someone, they did not like it.” MLA Tripathi says his son had nothing to do with the deaths of the children. “He has been named as part of a conspiracy,” he says. Bahraich District Magistrate Ajay Deep Singh backs the claim that villagers were involved in illegal mining and hence angry. However, he says, he has formed a committee to probe their allegations.
The three FIRs registered by the miners, in turn, all name Chetram, apart from 50-odd others who are unidentified. Chetram claims he wasn’t in the village at the time. As the two sides trade charges, Karan and Nishad’s families fear they would never have the answer to what happened to the boys. Mahasi Circle Officer Tanvir Ahmad Khan, who is investigating the cases, quotes the postmortem to say Karan died of asphyxia and Nishad of drowning. Khan adds that while Chetram had stated in a complaint to police that his son was murdered and his body was found under the sand, he gave another letter saying his son drowned and was not killed.
Susheela says she finds it hard to believe Karan entered that stream on his own. “People are saying he may have gone in to take a bath. He did not know how to swim. He would not do that.”