The incident established Chaudhary Babulal as a leader among his Jat community. Now a three-time MLA and one-time MP, Babulal has also got legal reprieve. On Thursday, a local court of Agra acquitted the BJP MLA from Fatehpur Sikri along with seven others, giving them the benefit of doubt, over an attack on a Dalit wedding procession by members of the Jat community three decades ago.
It was the wedding of the sister of Bharat Singh, a Jatav, that had come under attack, in June 1990. Singh, now 64, and his family left their native village Panwari fearful of Jat reprisal.
But Babulal never looked back. Till then only a block pramukh-level leader, he in 1996 contested as an Independent from the Fatehpur Sikri Assembly seat, that has a sizeable Jat population, and won. In 2002, he stood on an RLD ticket, and won again. While he lost in 2007 as an RLD candidate, by 2014, he was in the BJP and again on the winning side. He won Fatehpur Sikri parliamentary seat in 2014, and in the recent Assembly elections, won the Assembly constituency getting nearly double the votes of his rival RLD-SP candidate.
The Panwari tension had started with members of the Jat community declaring that the baraat for Bharat Singh’s sister Mundra Devi could not pass through their area in the village. This had never been allowed in their Jat-dominated village, they argued. Mundra Devi was to marry a youth from a neighbouring village.
Bharat Singh’s father Chokelal, a farmer, approached police and district officials. Assured help, the baraat first arrived at their home on June 21, 1990, in the presence of officials. But it was surrounded by members of the Jat community, who were carrying sticks and firearms.
Officials then held talks with senior members of both the communities to broker peace, after which it was decided that the wedding procession would be taken out the next day. The Jats promised not to create any hindrance, the prosecution side told the court.
However, again on June 22, as the baraat reached Bharat Singh’s residence, thousands of people belonging to the Jat community gathered and attacked the baraat and abused them, with officials unable to help. The prosecution told the court that the mob, gathered with the help of loudspeaker announcements, included people from neighbouring villages.
They also set ablaze houses of at least 15 Dalit families in Panwari village, including of Bharat Singh.
Additional police force was rushed to the area. “Police shot rubber bullets and also tear gas, before opening fire… After the public dispersed, police found a body, identified as that of Soni Ram Jat of a neighbouring village. Later, under police protection, the wedding was solemnised. Violence also spread to other parts of the district,” the prosecution said.
A case was filed against 6,000 unidentified persons at Sikandara Police Station in Agra, on charges of rioting and attempt to murder. The injured included policemen.
Over a month into the investigation, police identified 18 people, including Babulal, for allegedly being a part of the Jat mob. Babulal remained missing, and later claimed to have surrendered and got bail. He was never arrested.
The seven others acquitted along with him on Thursday are all residents of Panwari — Munna Pal, Ramveer Singh, Roop Singh, Devi Singh, Shivraj, Shyamveer and Satyaveer.
Bharat Singh says the judgment has disappointed them, “The violence did not affect the marriage of just my sister but was a blow to the prestige of the Dalit community. We will not give up the fight and we will challenge the judgment… It is not just us, many families of our community were waiting for the order.”
He says that after the violence, most of the Jatav families left Panwari, sure their opponents would make life difficult for them. His family, including his parents and younger brother Roop Singh, could never muster the courage to return. Others too never came back, and their land was usurped by villagers.
At four times their number, the Jats outnumbered the Dalits at the time in Panwari. They also dominated the neighbouring villages. According to former pradhan Umeed Singh, about 18% of Panwari’s population now is Dalit.
Bharat Singh settled down in Awas Vikas area, around 10 km away, and took up work in a private factory. His three sons now run the household.
Bharat Singh says Babulal, a former block pramukh with influence in the village, was the main conspirator behind what happened. It was he who provoked the Jats to attack the procession, he says.
Bharat Singh’s lawyer Suresh Chandra Soni says three eyewitnesses belonging to the Jatav community turned hostile during the trial, while the case diary went missing. He says they will appeal to the Agra District Magistrate to appeal against the judgment, or move the High Court themselves.
Now 69, Babulal denies any hand in the incident, claiming he was falsely implicated by his opponents, who were jealous of his popularity.
Admitting there was a dispute, as the Jatavs were “adamant” about taking out the baraat in front of the residences of the Jats, he says: “It occurred as some people thought the Jatavs were doing it deliberately.”
As per the affidavit filed by Babulal with the Election Commission, he has six other cases pending against him. The BJP MLA says all are politically motivated.
Asked about the BJP backing Babulal despite the charges, including over the Panwari incident, against him, BJP state spokeperson Rakesh Tripathi said merely being an accused in any case cannot be a criteria to treat a person as a convict. Criminal cases are filed against political leaders by opponents to create hurdles for them, he said. “Chaudhary Babulal has been acquitted in the Panwari case by the court. It is now cleared that he was wrongly accused.”
BSP Agra district president Jitendra Kumar ‘Jeetu’ said the Jatav community will hold a mahapanchayat soon to decide the next course of action in the Panwari case. Members of all Scheduled Castes will attend the mahapanchayat, Kumar said.