Rewa (Madhya Pradesh): Reeta Saket, 31, wept as she opened a bag full of the bloodstained clothes that her husband, 37-year-old labourer Ashok Kumar Saket, was wearing last Saturday when his employer allegedly chopped off his hand over a wage dispute.
Ashok is still unconscious in the ICU ward of the Sanjay Gandhi Memorial Hospital in Rewa district, Madhya Pradesh, where anxious relatives mill about at the cost of their own daily wages.
“Apne kaam ka rupya hi to maanga tha. Lockdown ke baad jo kaam mila uspar aas laga kar baithe the 5-6 mahine se. (All he’d done was ask for the money he’d worked for. We had been waiting for five or six months for the money he earned after the lockdown),” a distraught Reeta told ThePrint.
According to Reeta, Ashok’s employer Ganesh Mishra, who belongs to an upper caste, had called him Saturday. “Ganesh Mishra owed about Rs 15,000, but had been delaying payment for months. We are poor people, we depend on our wages to fill our stomachs. That day, Mishra called and said, come and take your money,” Reeta said, adding that her husband had been pleased to receive the call.
That afternoon, Ashok and another labourer called Satyendra Saket set off to collect the dues from Mishra.
However, Mishra had other plans. The police say that instead of paying Ashok, he attacked him with a sword and injured him grievously. Rewa Superintendent of Police (SP) Navneet Bhasin told ThePrint that three people, including Ganesh Mishra and his brothers Ratnesh and Krishna Kumar, have been arrested in connection with the attack, and an FIR has been lodged under IPC Section 307 (attempt to murder), Section 20 of the Arms Act, as well as provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
What happened that day?
ThePrint spoke to Satyendra, the only eyewitness in the case, about what took place on the afternoon of 20 November.
“When we went there, he asked us to sit down and said he was going to get the cash. We were hopeful. Instead, he returned with a sword and attacked Ashok’s neck. In order to protect himself, Ashok raised his hand… but in a span of seconds, his hand was chopped off. It fell on the ground,” Satyendra said.
“I got up quickly to start the bike and Ashok also ran towards me. His chopped hand was still on the ground. He sat behind me on the bike and called the ambulance and police. We had barely covered any distance when he fell unconscious.”
Ever since the incident, Satyendra has been living in constant fear. Two policemen from Sirmaur police station visited his house on the day ThePrint met him, but he has been fleeing to the fields to avoid talking to anyone.
Rewa SP Bhasin said the police acted quickly to help the victim.
“When I got the call that such an incident has happened and the man is seriously injured, we immediately communicated with the dean at Sanjay Gandhi Hospital. A team of doctors were ready to perform the reattachment surgery without wasting much time,” Bhasin said.
“At the same time, one thana (police station) was assigned the duty of bringing Ashok to the hospital. Another thana was roped in to go and search for the chopped part. An ambulance was also attached with the team so that they could bring it really soon.”
Bhasin added that a police team was able to nab Mishra and his two brothers “within three hours”.
“When he chopped Ashok’s hand and the two (labourers) managed to flee, Mishra got scared and called his brothers. They helped him get rid of the bloodstained clothes and arranged new clothes for him. They also tried to dispose of the chopped arm by throwing it in the fields. They hid the sword too. Mishra fled the crime scene on a bike,” the SP said.
Political attention on the case
The case is currently being investigated by Rewa Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Punnu Singh Paraste, who is trying to get the case marked under the ‘Chinhit Apradh’ scheme — intended to address grievous crimes with wider societal implications — for fast-track redressal in court.
“We will also initiate the process for mandatory compensation for the victims under SC/ST Act after verifying the caste certificate and FIR,” SP Bhasin added.
The assault on the Dalit labourer has invited political attention as well. Within two days of the incident, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan also announced financial aid of Rs 2 lakh to the victim. The family has also received visits and assurances of justice from Dalit activists, including the Bhim Army’s zonal chief advocate Madhukar Raj Suryavanshi and workers of the Azad Samaj Party.
Amit Karnal, district president of the Bahujan Samaj Party, also reached out to the family on the day of the incident.
Deep caste divide
The roots of the incident appear to lie in the deep caste divide in the region.
Ashok Saket, who belongs to a Scheduled Caste, is a resident of Padri village in Rewa district. However, he, his wife Reeta, and their three children live about 3 km away from the main settlement in a Dalit hamlet. This basti is situated on barren government land and has no pucca road. Most people live in extreme poverty in kuccha houses, most of which do not have a toilet.
The accused Ganesh Mishra lives about 10 km from the Dalit settlement, in a village called Dolmou. His sister, who did not wish to be named, told ThePrint that the family is constructing a house in the fields from money they received under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, a flagship housing scheme launched by the government. She added that she believed that her brother acted in self-defence.
“I live in the town (40 km away) and I was not present at the time of the incident. But, everyone around here is saying that Ashok Saket tried to attack [Ganesh Mishra]. My brother was trying to save himself,” she said.
However, the landless Dalit community in the area believes that if anyone is under threat, it is them.
Ravinder Saket, the son of a labourer, is pursuing graduation from Govt Rewa T.R.S. College. “Hum kuch bolenge toh humein hi kaam milna band hoga. Saari zameen unke paas hai (If we say anything then we will stop getting work. All the land here belongs to them [upper castes],” he said.
There is a sense of anger and resignation among the Dalit community. Sanjay Saket, the 26-year-old neighbour of the victim, pointed out to ThePrint that even government schemes seemed skewed in favour of the richer upper castes.
“We poor people don’t even have a bathroom, but rich people are able to build houses under the PM Awas Yojana. Hum unke kheton mein mazdoori karenge aur unke ghar banayenge aur khud kacche gharon mein soyenge (We will work in their fields and build their houses, while sleeping in kuccha huts ourselves),” Sanjay said.
A relative of Ashok Saket who did not wish to be named said there was no point getting angry about the situation. “Gussa karab toh kya karab (What do we get even if we get angry)? We only demand that the family should be given financial help and a government job as Ashok will never be able to feed his children with his severed limb,” the relative said.
Madhukar Raj Suryavanshi of the Bhim Army, who advocates for justice for Dalits in the area, claimed there has been a rise in crime against Dalits over the past couple of years. “We track the cases through WhatsApp and Facebook and reach out to [Dalit victims]. Recently, some upper caste men vandalised an event on Birsa Munda Jayanti. We pursued the case and managed to get an FIR registered,” he said.
ThePrint accessed the police data on crimes against SC/ST communities in the district. In 2019, the police registered 168 such cases, but in 2020, the number rose to 353. As of 22 November this year, there have been 221 cases registered under the SC/ST Act.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), crimes against SC and ST communities increased by more than 9 per cent between 2019 and 2020.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)