Why Seeking Public Accountability Is Deadly for Gujarati Dalits, Adivasis

06 Apr 2021 9 min read  Share

Dalits and Adivasis dominate a list of 15 Gujaratis murdered or attacked for using India’s right-to-information law to ask questions of the government. The latest to be murdered was a Dalit under State protection, with 13 previous attempts on his life. Our investigation reveals a pattern of impunity.

Activists in Gujarat protest on 23 March 2021, demanding justice for Amrabhai Boricha and criticising the state’s response to threats to activists from marginalised communities.

Updated: Apr 12

Mumbai: On 2 March 2021—as two outnumbered, fearful home guards assigned to protect him looked on—a 50 year-old Dalit farmer from Gujarat’s southeastern district of Bhavnagar was cut and bludgeoned to death by 10 men, weilding spears, iron pipes and swords, from the local, dominant-caste Darbar or Kshatriya community, who broke in to his house as he slept.

The murder was the 14th attempt, successful this time, on Amrabhai Boricha’s life in more than 11 years, a period over which he filed, according to his family, “cupboards full” of queries filed under the Right to Information Act (RTI), 2005. Among the questions Boricha asked:
  • What was the local funding for the national jobs-for-works programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA)?

  • How was land set aside for Dalits being transferred to other castes by the talati (village accountant), and how were land titles being determined?

  • How were public funds being used to distribute subsidised food under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana and other subsidised-food programmes?

  • Why was an overbridge on a nearby national highway (NH 8E) still incomplete, years after schoolchildren died in an accident?

Nirmala Boricha, 25, holds a photograph of her murdered father Amrabhai. The sole eyewitness to the murder, she can no longer work as an agricultural labourer and is guarded by an armed, woman constable/SABAH GURMAT

Today, Ambrabhai’s children, 25-year-old daughter Nirmala—the sole eyewitness to the murder, she was also attacked the night her father died—and her brother Mahesh, 28, live in fear at their home village of Sanodar, 27 km south of Bhavnagar town.

“We had asked multiple times for police protection,” said Mahesh, who worked on RTIs with Amrabhai. “Two (of the previous 13) attempts had also gone up to the Bhavnagar court, but the police still didn’t give us protection then.”

When he spoke to us the last time on 4 April 2021, Mahesh said it had been a month since their father’s murder, but only one woman police constable with a weapon guarded his sister, Nirmala, who had stopped working because of the danger to her life.

Aap humse likh lijiye (write down what I say),” said Mahesh. “Yeh mujhe bhi char-cheh mahine mein maar dalenge (these people will kill me too within four-six months).”

In Gujarat, as we now detail, at least 40% of 15 activists killed and 47% of 17 attacked since the RTI was promulgated have been Dalits, Adivasis and other marginalised communities, many of whom said that the police offered limited or no protection, or, in the case of Amrabhai, were allegedly complicit.

Since India passed the RTI Act in 2005, the effort by citizens to uncover the secrecy surrounding public works and State functioning has been diluted by the government, faced significant pushback, not just from politicians and officials but courts. The violence against Dailt and Adivasi activists in Gujarat comes from upper castes and communities, said experts, because it is they who have traditionally dominated government and gained most from public spending.

This broad resistance to the RTI law has weakened its effectiveness. As former information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi wrote in 2017, while the Indian law is ranked among the best five globally, India then ranked 66 by effectiveness.

In November 2020, Article 14 reported how at least 17 activists who regularly used the RTI law to expose corruption in Bihar have been murdered since 2008, with hundreds others facing false cases, and the government and police unresponsive to requests for protection.

Dalits Who Protest Are Detained

Mahesh, a former private-contractor for the railways in Bhavnagar, has now quit his job to live at home with his injured sister—who has stitches on her head and right-hand and is to undergo surgery for her fingers—and their mother.

“I left my job because I feared for our lives. The commute between our home in Sanodar to Bhavnagar city has 10 villages, all filled with Darbars,” Mahesh told Article 14 over the phone. “How can I step out and go to work now?”

Three weeks after the murder, on 23 March, several Dalit activists were detained by the Gujarat police. Independent MLA from Gujarat’s Vadgam constituency, Jignesh Mevani, was among them. He tweeted that more than a 1,000 Dalit activists were detained after protests over Amrabhai’s murder.

“We were merely demanding justice for Dalits in Gujarat,” said Mevani, who has been suspended from the State Assembly twice for raising the issue of Amrabhai’s murder. “Why is a PSI (police sub-inspector Pranav Ramsinhbhai Solanki) who has been named in Amrabhai’s case still not arrested? Who is the Rupani (Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani) government trying to protect by avoiding the arrest of a mere PSI?”

Of the two complaints filed by Nirmala after the murder, one of them named Solanki, who is from Ghogha police station and whose jurisdiction includes Sanodar village. He was previously accused of ignoring the Boricha family's safety concerns.

Article 14 sought comment from Vikas Sahay, additional director general of Gujarat’s SC/ST (scheduled caste/ scheduled tribe) Cell, but he refused comment, referring the issue to the local superintendent of police (SP).

Bhavnagar SP Jaipalsingh Rathore said he could not comment because the issue was “sub-judice and pending in the Gujarat high court”. He did say an FIR was registered against Solanki) under 166-A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. “The FIR was registered, and the very next day, the matter went to court requesting a stay,” said Rathore.

Mevani, alleged that the PSI, who was charged for “wilful neglect” of his duties under section 4 of The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, managed a stay only because the authorities chose not to act in time.

“Why is the government not challenging this stay? Why in cases of the Atrocities Act, there is only a Jignesh Mevani and not a Chief Minister Vijay Rupani visiting and doing anything for these victims?” said Mevani, adding that the murderers “succeeded because there was inadequate police protection”.

“Such is the lawlessness in Gujarat that a citizen who had already been attacked 13 times, including three times in the presence of police, is now killed,” said Mevani.

A Culture Of Impunity

The culture of impunity that led to Amrabhai’s murder and the state’s failure to protect its marginalised communities are not new.

Dalits and Adivasis use the RTI to access land rights and find out how funds budgeted for welfare programmes are used. For instance, such questions might include ensuring transparency from the talati (village-accountant) and mamlatdars (block-revenue officers) about illegal sales of land set aside for Dalits, finding out beneficiaries of state-sponsored housing schemes (such as the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana), and illegal constructions.

Most Dalit and Adivasi activists face multiple threats not just for their work in exposing political corruption, but also from dominant-caste led panchayats in their villages, often in collusion with local police who are from the same castes.

In 2018, academic and CERI-SciencesPo’s senior research fellow Christophe Jaffrelot and Ashoka University’s Basim-U-Nissa used data from the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI) to show that, contrary to popular perception, it was not poorer states, such as Uttar Pradesh, that recorded the most RTI-related impunity. Rich states such as Maharashtra, followed by Gujarat, topped the list of murders and attacks.

Since 2010 alone, 13 RTI activists, including Amrabhai, have been murdered in Gujarat. The death by suicide of RTI activist Jabbardhan Gaddhavi (from a nomadic tribal community) in 2011, and murder of Rajesh Sondarva—the son of slain Dalit RTI activist Nanjibhai Sondarva in 2019 —takes the death toll to 15, not taking into account numerous attacks, stalking and harassment of activists.

Jaffrelot and Nissa wrote that Dalits and Adivasis faced the brunt of these attacks.

“Among the RTI activists who have been harassed and assaulted in Gujarat, there are many who come from subaltern communities….,” they wrote. “The RTI Act has offered some space to young people from lower castes and Adivasis who would otherwise have been (even more) helpless. They seized this opportunity in spite of the associated risks.”

Some, such as Mevani, said these attacks are especially pertinent because of issues related to land rights and land ownership.

“Not just Amrabhai, but even in Bhanubhai Vankar’s case (a retired government employee and activist who protested over state delays in allotment of land to two Dalit labourers in the Patan district of Gujarat,),” said Mevani. “He committed aatmavilopan (self-immolation) because Dalits couldn’t get back their own encroached land safely with police protection. People like Bhanubhai desperately spent years on RTI applications and PILs in courts just to get Dalits their rightful land.”

Jaffrelot and Nissa said some activists, such as Jabbardhan Gaddhavi (from a nomadic tribe of the same name) and Adivasi activists, such as Bharat Ghughal and Banji Jogel, used the RTI to seek accountability from their panchayats. They noted that most of the activists harassed or attacked had been repeatedly threatened for revealing how local bodies, including the village-sarpanches, block-revenue and district development officers discriminated against beneficiaries of government programmes for landless villagers to favour richer, dominant castes not entitled to these schemes.

Pankti Jog, an activist and the head of an RTI watchdog organisation based in Ahmedabad called Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP) or the Gujarat Initiative for RTI, said that though there were no data specific to the social location of RTI activists, a large number of them, especially in Gujarat, were from marginalised communities.

RTI activist Kaushik Parmar, a Dalit from the northern district of Mehsana, said the impunity granted to upper-caste attackers was “obvious”.

“Already Gujarat is deeply casteist, then on top of that when we as Dalits ask for information through RTIs, their egos are hurt. They think, ‘How can these people ask us questions?’ It is why they punish us,” said Parmar. “Someone like Amrabhai was killed because how dare a Dalit use RTI to expose them.”

Parmar, a member of an advocacy called Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch (National Forum for Dalit Rights), who said he had been “stalked/followed” after he questioned why Amrabhai and his family had not got the protection they had repeatedly asked for and cited the double-murder of father-son duo Nanjibhai and Rajesh Sondarva.

Father Murdered, A Year Later, The Son Too

Sondarva was beaten and slashed to death by six Darbar men in his village at Rajkot district in 2018. Barely a year later in 2019, his teenage son Rajesh was also murdered. Both were killed despite repeated requests for state assistance and protection.

Ajay Sondarva, son of slain Dalit RTI activist Nanjibhai Sondarva, and his mother Kajalben, with photos of Nanjibhai and younger brother Rajesh, who was also killed/SABAH GURMAT

Sondarva’s life was under threat from the moment his wife, Kajalben, was elected to the gram panchayat of their village, Manekwada, in the southern district of Rajkot. When Kajalben discovered corruption within the panchayat, she was immediately removed from her post.

Her husband continued to use the RTI to expose financial mismanagement in relation to the village’s developmental activities. His work attracted the wrath of the village’s powerful Darbars.

Ajay Sondarva, told Article 14 that his father even went live on Facebook, pleading for state-intervention that never arrived.

A screen grab of Nanjibhai Sondarva's video appeal.

“During Diwali in 2016, some 50-60 men, mostly Darbars, attacked our home. After that, my father even shared a mass-appeal on Facebook Live that his life was under threat,” Ajay said. “He even made numerous applications to the police. The police did nothing, and the local MLA had a tacit understanding, being from the same caste as the goons.”

Ajay said the six men who clubbed his father to death were out on bail after barely six months. Two among them were later involved in the murder of Nanjibhai’s teenage son and Ajay’s younger brother, Rajesh.

“At first, police did not even try arresting my father’s killers. Only because we refused to cremate his body, then did they act,” Ajay said. “When we finally got protection after my father’s murder, police still never lived with us. Later when my brother was killed by some of the same men, that’s when police started staying with us 24x7.”

Kaushik Parmar said “the majority of our society” believed that “these SC/STs will make false complaints to benefit”, even though that was “far from the truth”.

“There is a less than 5% conviction rate in cases under the Atrocities Act so what benefits will we get by making false cases?” said Parmar. “Police are also reluctant to register complaints because they think this way.”

Parmar alleged caste discrimination was “institutionalised” and was evident even in the judiciary. “Recently in Gujarat’s Banaskantha and Patan districts, judges made multiple observations that Dalits ‘misuse’ the Atrocities Act and demanded recovery compensation from Dalit complainants instead,” said Parmar.

MAGP’s Jog agreed. “Amrabhai Boricha had merely asked how NREGA funds were being spent, a basic right to be made available to the public,” she said. “But the minute Amrabhai filed an RTI, he was beaten up and they broke his legs. This injury forced police to register a complaint on the Atrocities Act. Those men then killed him because they wanted to stop the Atrocities Act case from proceeding.”

Mevani noted that the Atrocities Act worked only as a preventive measure but failed in cases where “authorities are acting hand-in-glove with the offenders”.

The story of Ajay Sondarva’s struggle amplified this sentiment. “They bribed my father to compromise, but he refused and was killed. My brother Rajesh filed 3-4 Atrocities Act cases but no state authority acted,” he said. “But these Darbars killed him as well. Just months after Rajeshbhai’s murder, one of them out on parole tried to run his car over me, that too amidst police presence.”

As protests against such murders increase, attempts by families of victims for justice, let alone closure, are largely unsuccessful.

Still unable to step outside his home in Sanodar village, Amrabhai Boricha’s son Mahesh asked: “Even if they give us compensation, what happens? I worked on RTIs with my father but stopped out of fear. My sister was an agricultural labourer, there’s no way she can step outside now. She is the sole eyewitness to my father’s killing. It takes just a moment for them to kill her too, then even my father’s case will be closed.”

Ajay Sondarva, like some others, is determined to continue his father’s work.

“I have also filed RTIs like my father. There’s no choice but to continue our work demanding accountability, I will not back down,” he said. “They will threaten, but I will continue, we must continue.”

(Sabah Gurmat is a student of law at the University of Delhi and a freelance journalist.)