A young woman dies and frustrations rise over a land grab attempt in a Dalit community in Bihar.
On April 5th, Belwanti Devi was shot to death during a protest in Patna, Bihar. The protest was spurred by a land grab in a Mussahar Dalit community where she lived with her family. When Jai Niwas Constructions (aka Amit Constructions) began the process of erecting a building on the community graveyard, Devi joined her neighbors and marched on the site; where they were greeted with rounds of bullets from developers. Days of protests and violence ensued.
The death of Belwanti Devi and the land grabs that have enraged the Mussahar community have received minimal press attention in the region. Such a blatant misuse of power resulting in the death of a young woman is yet another example of India’s Unheard tragedies. Reporting from Devi’s gravesite, our community correspondent in Bihar, Varsha Jawalgekar, brings us this story from the mouths of the community members themselves.
At present, the Mussahar community in Patna stands to lose what little communal land they have in India’s wide spread landing grabbing trend. “For the last 150 years the land has been used as a graveyard,” said community member Arun Manjhi. However, when the land was originally donated to the community it was worth very little. Now, as land becomes a sought after commodity in Bihar, it is valued in the millions and has been illegally seized by developers Amit and Alok Paddar.
Community witnesses maintain that during the incident, area police stood by and made no efforts to stop the violence or to protect unarmed protesters. Many believe that corrupted police are working with the land grabbers. One man stated that police justify their inaction because “they are Dalits, [and so] there is little they can do.” Although community activism and increased public pressure following the incident resulted in the suspension of a leading officer and the arrest of Amit Paddar, the community is not convinced that area police can be trusted.
The Indian government has been openly criticized for its role in the land grabbing and forced eviction issues and many land reform laws are currently under review. Yet, speaking with conviction just after the incident, Arun Manjhi said, “the government wants us Dalits to vacate this land.” This comment is telling, especially in Bihar where Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has been often praised for his attention to caste issues and accountability in the police force. In this way, the incident on April 5th has exposed the disparity between claims of good governance by Bihar officials and the experiences of this Dalit community.
For the moment, as the investigation continues, Amit Constructions has ceased building on the community graveyard and local community activists have promised to oppose any further construction. But, in the absence of a visit from CM Kumar in the wake of this looming tragedy, our community correspondent Varsha asks, “Will the rights of Dalits continue to be suppressed and trampled on?”
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