On February 22, the barber played the dhol and made an announcement at Nagla and Chiti, two adjoining villages in Uttar Pradesh’s Dankaur block. “The sarpanchji of Chiti had hired him to announce that the government was organising a mass wedding in Greater Noida and that those who attended it would get Rs 20,000 and some gifts.
He said it was a government scheme for the poor,” says Mona Bhati, 35. She says she was “too old” to have got “married again”, but her neighbours Savita and Navin, both in their 20s, went for the wedding, wearing their best clothes.
They were among nine young couples from the two villages who travelled to the YMCA Club Ground in Greater Noida, around 20 km away, to get married in a mass wedding ceremony organised under the Mukhyamantri Samoohik Vivaah Yojana. Around 60 other couples from the district got married the same day.
However, on March 5, after Narendra Singh from Chiti village filed a complaint, the administration realised that all nine couples from Chiti and Nagla were ineligible for the scheme — they were already married and at least two of them even had children.
Acting on the complaint, the Dankaur police registered an FIR against Babita Bhati, the sarpanch of Nagla and Chiti, her husband Dharmendra Bhati, who acts as the sarpanch and whom the villagers call “sarpanchji”, and the nine couples, under Sections 420 (cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property), 409 (criminal breach of trust by public servant, or by banker, merchant or agent) and 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention). While Dharmendra and two cousins from Chiti, Vineet and Ravinder, were arrested, the others, including sarpanch Babita, the wives of the cousins and the seven other couples, are absconding. Dharmendra was granted bail on March 20. He refused to talk to the Express.
Over a month after the mass wedding, at Chiti and Nagla, where most people are small farmers or work as daily wagers, not many are willing to speak about the wedding, only saying “sarpanchji took them” — in a bus, while he went along in his car. The homes of some of the couples who attended the wedding lie locked; at others, family members claim they “know nothing” about the wedding or the whereabouts of their relatives.
At the sarpanch’s house in Chiti, Dharmendra’s father, Bharat Singh, 64, who had been sarpanch four times before his daughter-in-law, draws long puffs from his shiny, black hookah. “My son and daughter-in-law are innocent. We have been sarpanch of these villages for so long. This is politically motivated. It’s our rival Narendra Singh who filed a fake complaint to trap my son,” he says, refusing to talk any further.
Narendra, however, denies any ulterior motive. “Two years ago, I contested against them and lost the election (for sarpanch). That’s over. Did I file any complaint against them in these last two years? The pradhan’s family is calling my complaint politically motivated just to defend themselves,” he says.
The sarpanch’s aide, Mahipal Singh, 50, a farmer in Chiti, says Dharmendra knew what he was doing but was “trapped”. “The CDO sahib (Chief Development Officer of Gautam Buddh Nagar Anil Kumar), forced sarpanchji to get at least 20 couples for the mass wedding. He told him just a day before the wedding, and asked him to arrange for the couples. He said his honour and job were in sarpanchji’s hands,” claims Mahipal.
CDO Singh, however, denies he put any such pressure. “The village head is making baseless allegations against me. At a meeting I had with other pradhans about a month ago, I had told the pradhan of Chiti (Dharmendra) about the mass wedding and told him to spread the word among people. All other pradhans got eligible couples. I am shocked that he took ineligible couples for the mass wedding. I don’t have any idea why he did it,” he says.
Metres away from the pradhan’s house is a kuchcha house, where cousins Vineet and Ravinder lived with their extended families.
With the cousins in Noida jail and their wives on the run, Vineet’s brother, Ranjit Kumar, 27, a labourer and BPL card holder, says, “We had no idea it would end up like this. Vineet and Ravinder were not supposed to go for the wedding. Our sisters were getting married soon and they were eligible, but their husbands had their Class 10 exam and could not have gone. So, we thought we would send Vineet and Ravinder with their wives. We checked with some elders and they said it was okay because the government wants to help the poor and it doesn’t matter who goes.”
“We are poor, uneducated. If we knew better, wouldn’t we have gone to the city and taken up a job?” he adds, sitting beside the family’s two cows chewing cud.
Vineet’s mother Guddi says no one from the family has met Vineet and Ravinder in jail. “I don’t know when we will be able to see them now. My husband died a few years ago. If he was around, all this wouldn’t have happened,” she says. She is interrupted by her 45-year-old sister-in-law, Roshni. “Ghar pe namak ke paise nahin hai, zamaanat ke paise kahaan se laayen (There is no money for salt in the house, where will we get money for the bail)?”
Greater Noida District Magistrate B N Singh says the probe is still on in the case. “These people have cheated the government and will be punished as per law. The pradhan of Chiti knew the couples they were getting were already married.”