In Umbha village of UP’s Sonbhadra district, four kilometres separate the houses of the Gond and Gujjar communities. Between the two is the 90 bighas of disputed land over which a clash led to firing and nine deaths Wednesday.
A day later, with another death in hospital and all the victims belonging to the Gond community, the divide has widened further, filled with anger and mistrust. While Gujjars belong to the OBC segment, the Gonds are classified in the state as SC.
Police have arrested 26 persons, including village pradhan Yaghya Dutt Bhuriya who belongs to the Gujjar community and led the group that fired on villagers who were farming on the land. Those arrested include his two elder brothers, Dev Dutt and Nidhi Dutt, and two nephews, Ganesh and Vimlesh.
Eyewitnesses and families of victims told The Indian Express that it was the third attempt by the pradhan to forcibly take possession of the land, which he had bought from a society two years ago.
“On Wednesday morning, while we were working on the land, a neighbour, who was returning home, reached the field and told us that over 100 people on 20-25 tractors were coming towards us… and that they were carrying weapons,” said Vijay Kumar Gond, 30, whose uncle was injured in the attack and is undergoing treatment in hospital.
“We passed the information to others after which many others rushed to the field. When the pradhan and his group arrived, our women sat in the fields. We asked them to wait for the court order or solve the matter with discussion,” said Basant Lal, 47, whose nephew Jai Prakash was injured.
“But they moved their tractors to the land and started farming activity. We objected strongly. Some of us called the police. But before we could understand what was happening, the pradhan’s group started firing at us. Some men from our side, who were carrying sticks, hit back. But then, they started firing at all those carrying sticks,” he said.
By the time police arrived, he said, the pradhan’s group had escaped. Officials said 23 people were injured and are undergoing treatment at hospitals in Sonbhadra and Varanasi. Among them are seven from the pradhan’s group who were hit with sticks. One person, identified as Ashok, succumbed to bullet injuries in Varanasi Thursday.
“The pradhan and six members of his family are prime accused in the case,” said Sonbhadra SP Salmantaj Jafertaj Patil. Police have also seized two licensed guns from the accused.
The land dispute, say residents, is over two years old. “At that time, we were surprised to know that the pradhan had purchased the land on which we had been farming for several decades, growing wheat and grain. The land belongs to a society and we could not understand how it could be sold. A month later, we moved court and challenged the deal,” said Ramraj, who is pursuing the case in the Sub-Divisional Magistrate court.
“A few months after we moved court, the pradhan reached the spot with his associates. While discussions were going on, one of us called the police. They directed the pradhan not to force villagers to take back the case,” said Ramraj.
“Last October, the pradhan made another attempt. That time, too, police gave him the same direction. But we were sure that he would try again,” said Ramraj.
Sonbhadra District Magistrate Ankit Kumar Agarwal cited revenue records and said the land was earlier registered in the name of Adarsh Krishi Sahkari Samiti, which allowed local residents to take it on rent for farming.
“In 1990, the ownership was transferred to two individuals, who later sold it to three others including the pradhan. The two former owners of the land are the wife and mother of an IAS officer. We don’t it find necessary to question them in this case,” said Agarwal.
The residents, however, claim they were paying rent to the society till two years ago.
“We used to pay Rs 3,000 per year to the Adarsh Krishi Sahkari Samiti for each bigha. One man, Neeraj from Bihar, used to come to collect money on behalf of the society. He stopped coming after the pradhan purchased the land,” said Gond. “During two earlier discussions, we agreed to pay the same rent to the pradhan. But he refused and threatened to fix us in false cases.”
On Thursday, the simmering tension led to a face-off between some residents and the administration over conducting the last rites. The residents demanded 10 bighas of land to be first given to families of those killed. The tussle was resolved with the District Magistrate promising to forward the demand to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.