As part of a drive against encroachment on government land, a big herd of cattle was pushed into agricultural fields in Raigarh to stampede the crops cultivated by Dalit farmers.
The panchayat in Chicho-umariya village, 240 km east of Raipur, has defended the incident, which took place on October 30 and has created tension in the area.
Local BJP leader Kartikram Pradhan, who also allegedly performs the role of sarpanch-pati (husband of the woman sarpanch, wielding authority on her behalf), allegedly spearheaded the move.
Pradhan, who is also block president, said: "After the directive from the collector and the resolution passed by the gram panchayat, the process of removal was initiated."
The Dalit families of the village are now facing the threat of social boycott and the blocking of their ration supplies if they protest or lodge any complaint.
Raigarh collector Amit Kataria said humanitarian concern should have been shown to the villagers. "The action was legal and undertaken after a resolution was passed by the gram panchayat. Following the directive of the Supreme Court, we have decided to get rid of illegal encroachments on all public and government land by December 15," Kataria told HT. Of the 1,650 acres in Chicho-umariya, nearly 250 acres has been declared as grazing land, owned by the government. About 65 Dalit families were reportedly using 150 acres of that for decades.
"We have been cultivating the land since the sixties and now face the threat from the sarpanch pati, who is also a local BJP leader, that our ration supply will be blocked," said Pushkarma, a woman in her thirties.
Suraj Kumar, a villager, asked: "Why was the drive undertaken without the presence of an officer or the police? We had a lush green harvest this year owing to the good monsoon but all are destroyed now."
The police, however, are saying the action was unjustified. "I have sent a police force led by the additional SP to inquire into the incident. Such an anti-encroachment drive is absolutely wrong. And the issue becomes sensitive when the victims are Dalits," Raigarh superintendent of police Rahul Sharma said.