How a Dalit man was burnt alive at the altar of caste for daring to love

Hindustan Times, Hardoi/Lucknow/New Delhi | BySaurabh Chauhan and Dhrubo Jyoti
Sep 24, 2019 10:03 AM IST

Fault lines: On Sept 15, a 23-yr-old Dalit man got a text message from a woman he was said to be in a relationship with. He rushed to her house and was caught by her kin, who allegedly set him ablaze. Now, even children in his village say Abhishank Pal was killed ‘because he was Dalit’.

To his friends in Bhadaicha village, Abhishank Pal was no less than Virat Kohli. The 23-year-old resident of central Uttar Pradesh’s Hardoi district imitated the Indian skipper’s shots on the field and mannerisms off it.

A view of the room in a neighbour’s house where Abhishank Pal (inset on left) was allegedly kept in confinement and set afire. His almost-charred body was recovered when passers-by reported a blaze. Pal died on his way to hospital.(Saurabh Chauhan/ HT Photo)
A view of the room in a neighbour’s house where Abhishank Pal (inset on left) was allegedly kept in confinement and set afire. His almost-charred body was recovered when passers-by reported a blaze. Pal died on his way to hospital.(Saurabh Chauhan/ HT Photo)

His parents, poor sharecroppers Mithilesh and Rambeti, were worried about their son spending too much time on the field. Good at studies and diligent at work, he was their one hope to haul the family out of poverty.

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They had long nursed a dream of him becoming a police officer someday – a position of power and influence in India’s most-populous state that can offset caste hostility and government apathy. “He used to say after completing the graduation, he would apply for a police job and help the family,” said Mithilesh.

There were three things that everyone knew about Pal in Bhadaicha: his craze for cricket, his infectiously sunny nature, and his relationship with a local woman, Shivani Gupta, who lived three lanes down from his house.

The relationship dismayed Gupta’s family and many upper-caste people in the family who resented forging any association between the well-spoken young man from a Dalit community and a woman from a higher caste, breaking the shackles of caste. But Pal and Gupta were hopeful of a future together after graduating from college, getting a job and moving to the city.

Those hopes were snuffed out in the early hours of September 15 as three members of Gupta’s family and two other upper-caste men allegedly caught hold of Pal, locked him in a room of their house, tied him to a cot and set him on fire. Hours later, Pal’s almost-charred body was recovered after passers-by reported a blaze, and he died on his way to hospital.

When news of his demise reached his ailing mother Rambeti, she also passed away; his killing was another in the list of crimes against scheduled caste communities in Uttar Pradesh, which clocks roughly one such incident every hour, according to government data. Using police complaints, witness testimonies and interviews with the family and experts, HT explores the contours and roots of caste-based crime in a society with rapidly shifting cultural mores and economic compulsions.

Located roughly 10km from Hardoi town, Bhadaicha is a dusty village of 5,000 people dominated by Thakur and Baniya communities. The Dalit settlements are on one edge of the village, as dictated by centuries-old caste-based spatial segregation norms, but unlike many other similar clusters, many of the houses are finished, the lanes tarred and the neighbourhoods clean.

Pal grew up here with an elder sister and a younger brother in a thatched-roof house in a noisy joint family. His father shared a 4.5 bigha (roughly 1.3 acre) plot with four other men and eked out a basic living of Rs2 lakh a year. Many of his relatives wanted him to quit studies after graduating high school -- where is the money for college going to come, they said -- but Pal was determined to study further, qualify for the police services exam and eventually become an officer.

“Abhishank was our hope. He was advised by several including our relatives to stop the study and work but he defied them all and joined a college,” said Mithilesh.

In 2018, he joined the BA programme at Shivam College in Hardoi town, mainly to polish his English language skills. To keep the family happy, Pal would come back from classes in the afternoon and help his father in the farm.

To his friends, he would often talk about his dreams of a better future away from Bhadaicha, a pakka house and a better career for his younger brother, Pradeep.

In the Dalit settlement, Pal was loved. “He used to greet everyone, listen to their issues and help,” said Pulka, a local woman resident.

Five years ago, local residents say, and police officials confirm, Pal fell in love with a village resident, Shivani Gupta, 21, and the duo allegedly decided to elope. They were found three days later, brought back to the village, and reprimanded by the village council.

“The entire village knew that the man and woman were in a relationship. It’s an old story... the matter was sorted out by the intervention of some villagers,” said village resident Hari Prasad. When she came back, Gupta was adopted by her uncle Radhey and aunt Daali Gupta. “They stopped her from going to school,” Prasad added. Gupta told HT that she was also beaten up to teach her a lesson. The Guptas ran a grocery shop in the village and had an annual income of around four lakhs, but what they lacked in economic heft, they made up in social standing.

Police investigation has revealed that despite pressure from her family, the relationship continued surreptitiously through phone calls, texts and clandestine meetings. That would prove to be fatal for Pal.

Around midnight of September 14, Rambeti fell ill, according to the FIR lodged by Pal’s uncle Ajay Pal after the crime. The family took her to the district hospital in Hardoi and was advised the next day to move the patient to a bigger hospital in Lucknow. Pal was asked to go back to Bhadaicha and bring back cash required for the treatment.

Darkness had fallen by the time Pal reached the village, his family said, and he went straight to the house and then met some relatives to arrange R25,000 for the hospital visit. He was about to step out of the house when he got a text from Gupta asking him to meet her at her house, barely 500m away. Both Gupta and police confirmed that the text was sent.

Pal walked over to Gupta’s house and barely spent a few minutes when Radhey and Daali allegedly found them together. “I texted him to come. When my uncle saw us together, he got angry and locked me in a different room. He and aunt set him ablaze,” said Gupta, who is also one of the five people named as accused in the FIR.

A senior police officer said Pal was beaten brutally and when found, there were severe burn injuries on his body. He was rushed to the district hospital, the same his mother was admitted at.

Pal’s father Mithilesh, sister Ruby and brother Pradeep were at the hospital, tending to Rambeti and were shocked when police wheeled in Pal, bloodied and charred.

“We were already in the hospital with mother. When I came to know about the incident, I stayed with my brother till his death. He recorded his statement and named some people including the woman (Gupta),” said Ruby. Mithilesh said when he saw his son, he was barely conscious, his legs were broken and blood was oozing out of his body. “Before he died, he told us that he was asked to go to the house,” said Pradeep.

Circle officer Vijay Kumar Rana said that in his dying declaration, Pal named five people, including Gupta, her uncle and aunt, and two local men from the Thakur community -- Satyam Singh and Shikhar Singh — who were arrested on Monday after being on the run for roughly a week.

The role of these two young men is unclear.

“Bhai loved to dress well. This was the reason Satyam and Shikhar used to mock him. They could not digest that a son of Dalit is being hailed by people in the village for his character,” said Pradeep. Mithilesh also believed that the two men goaded the Guptas to burn Pal to death. “We believe they (Gupta’s family) were instigated and supported by the two men,” he added.

To be sure, Mithilesh also said he was not aware of his son’s relationship to Gupta, and that he blamed Satyam and Shikar Singh for the death. But a second senior police officer said the family may be under pressure because they continue to live in the same village and therefore might be hesitant to accept the relationship. “Even if there was a relationship, was it a reason to kill our boy so brutally?” asked Ajay Pal, the complainant.

The relationship was confirmed by Gupta, the police and several residents of the village. “We all know about the relationship between the girl and boy. I don’t know why the victim’s family is denying it. The woman is admitting that she invited the boy,” said Tathya Kumar, a local resident.

During interrogation, the accused initially alleged that Pal had abducted Gupta five years ago and was about to do the same again, which forced them to stop him. But Gupta has contradicted their statement, and admitted that they flew into a rage when they found her with Pal.

Now, they are claiming it was a spur-of-the-moment act. “The accused had been changing the statements. They are contradicting what the FIR said. They said the man had come to their house and in a fit of rage, her uncle, when he saw them together, assaulted him. We are investigating the matter,” said Rana. The Guptas have not engaged a lawyer and families of Satyam and Shikar Singh refused to comment on the issue.

Superintendent of police, Hardoi, Alok Priyadarshi said, “They have been booked under IPC sections 302 (murder), 147 (rioting), 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace), 506 (criminal intimidation) and under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.”

A two-hour drive from Lucknow, Hardoi is sandwiched between Uttar Pradesh’s industrial hub of Kanpur in the west and the Gomti river to the east. Almost a third of the people in the backward mostly-rural district, which receives funds from the Backward Regions Grant Fund, belong to the scheduled castes, many of whom live in villages as labourers and marginal sharecroppers tending to crops such as sugarcane, cereals and tobacco.

But as agricultural incomes fall and new political formations loosen social coalitions, traditionally elite communities find it more difficult to hold on to their dominance.

“It is a region where a Thakur or Brahmin will always want to be known by their caste because they get political and economic power from it. Caste names weaken Dalits but strengthen upper castes and they can do anything to preserve that power,” said sociologist Rama Shankar Singh.

As rural distress deepens, traditional land-owning patterns yield less power and marginalised communities move to the cities and urban areas to take up jobs. Even if they are low-paying, it signifies a break in the caste-controlled rural economy -- such as Pal going to a college in the city, displaying upward mobility and publicly articulating his desire to build a better house for his family and move away after becoming a police officer.

“In the districts around Lucknow where Dalits are in large numbers, many are travelling to cities as upper- caste farmers increasingly run out of money to pay them. The economic hold of upper castes in the rural economy is slipping. So they are doubling down on social hold,” Singh added.

Uttar Pradesh presents a paradox when it comes to caste relations and hate crimes. The state has the highest number of crimes against SC communities, according to the National Crime Records Bureau report for 2016, the last year for which data is available. But the state also has the highest conviction rate, noticeably higher than almost all major states in the country, showed an analysis of NCRB data from 2002-15 by GC Pal, director at the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, New Delhi, in a paper published in the Economic and Political Weekly in January.

There are two main reasons behind this. One is political mobilisation, not just with bigger parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party, which has been in power four times, but also smaller organisations, activists and groups who put up daily resistance to caste diktats. The second is growing awareness of rights and ambition of young people from SC communities, who find that there are better opportunities outside traditional jobs and village dynamics. “But political processes, or a Dalit chief minister, cannot change society, especially where then is little effort from the upper-castes. Which is why cases like Pal happen,” explained Ajay Kumar, a postdoctoral fellow at the Shimla-based Indian Institute of Advanced Studies.

The hostility is starker in villages, where there are fewer avenues to escape caste norms and diktats. Kirti Kumar, a local activist in Hardoi, explained that in the villages, it was common for young Dalit men and women to face caste slurs, and taunts in school and college. “Sometimes if they go to the fields to relieve themselves, they are beaten because most fields are owned by upper-castes. Business ties are now accepted but most families will frown if someone wants to marry a Dalit person,” he added.

What may have sealed Pal’s fate is the vital importance of matrimonial relations to maintain caste hierarchy, and traditional notions of purity. Additionally, the family had little access to traditional sources of rural power, such as land ownership or a seat on the village council.

“The upper-caste family must have felt that if their girl marries elsewhere, the claim to their caste power will be shaken at its root. The loss of power, prestige and caste honour makes people take up such steps. Dalits can do electoral mobilisation, but they don’t have land or wealth to convert it to social mobilisation,” added Singh.

Back at Bhadaichaa, the crime has left many families shocked. Many upper-caste families say they are horrified by the crime and sympathise with Pal’s family. “I have heard about the incident. It is sad. Such things have never happened in our village in the past. I am hopeful that family will get justice,” said village chief Shakuntala Singh.

But people in the Dalit settlement say the caste gap is wider than ever and despite the gruesome crime, few upper-caste families came to the Pal household to console the family. “They won’t come inside our house. Especially after this incident, that gap has widened,” said Arjun Pal, a local resident. News of the crime has sent ripples of anger through Dalit communities. “There is a lot of anger and resentment,” said Kumar.

Four days after Pal’s demise, a group of young boys gathered to play in the local village field in the evening, and the issue of Pal’s murder comes up. “I know it,” chimed Shibu Gupta, a nine-year-old boy. “A man was burnt alive.” When asked why, pat came his answer, “Because he was Dalit.”

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