There are multiple complicities and many questions in one of the bloodiest clashes over land in recent years, in village Umbha, Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh. How could a land dispute be allowed to fester, how could anger and mistrust be permitted to thicken, over decades? How did land registered as Gram Sabha land, following the UP Zamindari Abolition and Land Reforms Act, 1950, get transferred to individuals? Why was no attempt made to blunt the sharpening divide between the Gonds, the historically marginalised tribal people, tillers of the land, and the Gujjars, the locally dominant backward community that the powerful landowners belonged to? But in Sonbhadra, after July 17, when clashes and firing killed 10 Gonds and injured many others, one question looms more urgent than all others: On the day the tractors rolled in, of the headman and his gang, armed with guns, to the disputed land, why did the police come only after the nearly hour-long gruesome action was over, despite warnings to the local officials of an imminent conflict? In fact, several warning signals had reportedly gone unheeded by the administration after 2017, when the village headman had acquired ownership of the land and begun brazen attempts to oust the Gond tillers.
The Yogi Adityanath government has arrested several people, including the main accused, suspended officials and instituted a probe in the case. But it must know that it is being watched. The fact is that the Sonbhadra killings reinforce an unfortunate impression that has gained ground about the UP government — that it presides over a climate of impunity for atrocities against the poor and the weak, the minorities and the disadvantaged, and where vigilantism rules, be it by the gau rakshak mobs, or by the state itself, through, for instance, the “anti-Romeo squads”. That impression, of the rule of law and due process being flouted by the powerful and the privileged, unchecked, is only underlined when the first response of the chief minister to the crime in Sonbhadra is to shift the blame — to governments of the 1950s and 1980s when the ownership of the disputed land changed hands. Or when, in this grim moment, the government seems to expend its energies more on keeping Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra away from the victims’ families, than in hastening justice for the victims.
The Yogi Adityanath government needs to visibly pierce the perceived cycle of impunity for crime and atrocity by the powerful in the state. Sonbhadra, site of a terrible and terrifying crime, could mark a beginning.