An eyewitness to the firing that left 10 dead in Uttar Pradesh’s Sonbhadra district has said that a constable at the nearest police station had called him earlier that day for a “compromise” on the land dispute, warning that “something might happen” if he didn’t turn up. The witness, Ram Rajya, has also claimed that he called up Sonbhadra Superintendent of Police Salmantaj Jafertaj Patil to seek help, after hearing that an attack was imminent, but said he was directed back to the police station.
Ram Rajya said Constable Satyajit of the Ghorawal police station called him saying the SHO wanted to talk to him regarding the land dispute that led to the firing. “He said that if I don’t come, then I should not blame the administration if something happens. That means he knew something was going to happen. I had also heard from people in neighbouring villages that the pradhan of Murtiya village (who allegedly led the firing) was collecting tractors and men.”
Rajya said he called up SP Patil and told him the pradhan, Yagya Dutt, was planning something. “The SP told me that the Inspector at the police station would handle the matter.” Rajya said he made several calls to emergency numbers 100 and 1076 from 11 am to 11.30 am, after the attack started. Police took an hour arriving from the Ghorawal police station, over 30 km away, over a kuchcha road. By then, Dutt and his men had allegedly fled.
The SP, however, denied receiving any calls from Rajya. “I don’t know why he is levelling such allegations. I will talk to him about the matter,” Patil said, adding that Satyajit had been suspended and a probe ordered against him. “If the Constable is found guilty of being biased or taking a side in the dispute, we will take strict action against him.”
In the firing on July 17 triggered by a land row between members of the Gond and Gujjar communities, 10 people were killed and 23 injured. Gonds are classified as Dalits in this village. With the incident snowballing, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath announced he would be visiting Umbha village on Sunday to meet the victims.
Police have so far arrested 29 people and are searching for 17 others. “The prime accused, Yagya Dutt, has been arrested. If needed, we will seek warrants against those missing,” said the SP.
Recalling how the incident unfolded, several eyewitnesses told The Sunday Express that they saw men collecting on the main road of the village at 10.45 am. “We thought some officials had come to hold talks. We gathered and headed towards the disputed land. It was then that we realised that the pradhan had come with at least 100 people in around 20 tractors. They were armed and started firing around 11 am. We were shocked and could not fight back because they were carrying at least 10-12 guns,” said Basant Lal Gond, 35.
Recounting his narrow escape, Gond said, “I would have been killed had I been in the front, rather than at the back. They shot indiscriminately.” Three women were among those killed.
Ram Bali, 40, said many of them crawled into a big pipe nearby. Showing the blood stains in the mud at the entrance to the pipe, Bali said, “The pradhan stationed a person at one end of the pipe and a group of others at the other. The group pushed out people from that side with sticks, and the man on the other side shot those who hurried out.”
Phoolpati, 51, said a bullet brushed her thigh as she ran. “I was lucky to not get a serious injury.” Shuddering at the memory, she said, “Bhage nahin hote toh abhi gadhe hote zameen mein (I would have been dead had I not run).”
Bali said the attack lasted an hour. “At least 100 bullets were fired, maybe more. One person standing on a tractor kept reloading the guns and passing them on to those who were firing at the unarmed crowd.”
Rajya said police came after it was all over, around noon. “Nine people were already dead and one died at the hospital later. The pradhan’s men escaped and after that, police came in five jeeps. They had an ambulance and took some of the injured to the district hospital. The others were taken to hospital in police jeeps.”