On November 30, most of the Mohanganj area of Gohri village was eerily quiet. Both the Thakurs who dominate this village on the outskirts of Uttar Pradesh’s Prayagraj town and the Pasi Dalits who form a minority were shaken by events that had taken place a week earlier.

Four members of a Pasi family – a couple, their 25-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son – were killed in their home on the night of November 23. Police officials have now confirmed that the 25-year-old woman was raped before she was murdered.

After the bodies were discovered on November 25, a series of arrests followed. The relatives of the murdered family named Thakur residents of the village with whom they had a long-standing, often violent, land dispute. The police detained 11 members of Gohri’s Thakur community. Most of the other Thakur men in the village have fled in fear.

“We have had a land dispute with them since 2019,” said an elderly relative of the murdered family, referring to Thakur residents of the village. She added bitterly: “We filed a case against them but the police never did a thing about it. This allowed them to threaten us and beat us up again and again to pressure us to take our complaint back.”

“The abuse and violence had become normal,” she emphasised. “Eventually they killed four of our family members.”

Thakur families, for their part, accuse the Pasis of lying. “They are from a lower caste – what kind of people do you think they are?” said 75-year-old Nirmala Singh, as she sat outside her house patting cakes of cow dung into shape. Her son, Amit Singh, daughter-in-law, Babli Singh, and grandson, Akash Singh, had all been picked for the murder of the Pasi family.

Days after the Thakurs were detained, the police changed tack. They released eight of those detained and arrested a new suspect – 19-year-old Pawan Saroj, who is also a Pasi and a resident of the nearby Korser village. The police claimed Saroj had confessed to raping the 25-year-old woman as well as murdering the whole family after she refused his advances.

For a fleeting moment in election-bound Uttar Pradesh, the incident made headlines, as Opposition leaders raised an outcry and called the state government anti-Dalit. But the attention soon faded, leaving the village of Gohri, already riven by caste conflict, simmering with fresh tensions.

The bleating of goats owned by the Pasi family of four first alerted others to the crime.

A violent land dispute

With the family of four murdered, only two Pasi Dalit households remain in Gohri village. The relatives of the four murder victims live in one of the households.

On November 30, the bylane leading up to this home was guarded by two policemen. While the rest of the village is shrouded in silence, there was a tense knot of activity here. Local politicians, relatives and mediapersons were still trickling in to offer condolences or find out more about the crime.

To some of these visitors, the family recounted the story of the land dispute with the Thakurs.

For years, the Pasi family has sparred with two Thakur families over part of a small plot of land, measuring 12 biswa or 0.4 acres. The Pasis claimed cattle owned by the Thakurs were destroying their crops, grown on that patch of land.

Matters came to a head on September 4, 2019, when the matriarch of the Pasi family complained to Nirmala Singh about the crop damage. That evening, the Thakurs went to the household where the Pasi matriarch lived to assert their claim to the disputed land. Angry words turned to violence.

An older member of the Pasi family, who had to get eight stitches on his scalp after the scuffle, recalled the Thakurs storming into their house saying, “How could you Pasis come to the home of a Thakur? How could you complain?” His wife said they pulled her by the hair and hit her.

On September 5, 2019, the Pasis filed a police complaint against seven Thakur men, alleging assault and death threats. No action was taken. The next day, the Pasis allege, the Thakur men returned and threatened to kill them again.

Finally, on September 7, 2019, an FIR was registered and the seven Thakur men were booked for rioting, unlawful assembly, voluntarily causing hurt, criminal intimidation and for offences under the Schedule Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

More conflagrations followed. In September 2020, the mother and daughter killed on November 23 were allegedly beaten up by the Thakurs. The relatives of the murdered family have filed away statements detailing the incident. But the statements do not have dates, nor do they have signatures to show they were seen by the police.

“We submitted the complaint to the Phaphamau police station as well as the Saraon police station but they did not even receive our complaint,” said one member of the Pasi family. One official at the Phaphamau station reportedly said “the incident is true”, but refused to file a complaint since “peace has been maintained”.

When Scroll.in visited the Phaphamau station, police officials claimed they were not aware of any complaint in 2020. At the Saraon police station, they refused to confirm or deny whether such a complaint had been made.

A member of the Pasi family holds up an FIR filed against two Thakur families.

Tensions escalated again this year. On September 21, the Pasi family alleged, 10 to 12 Thakur men from the village entered their homes and tried to make them take back their complaint. “They hit me again,” said the man who had got eight stitches in 2019. “There were more people this time. They also broke the gate.”

“We called the police,” said an elderly woman in the family. “There were eyewitnesses who told them that the incident happened. But the police official kept telling us that we should say that the beating happened outside the gate and not inside, only then would he register an FIR or acknowledge the complaint.”

The explanation offered is that more stringent sections of the Indian Penal Code would be applied if it was alleged that the Thakurs had broken into private property. Finally, an FIR was filed a few days later, with criminal trespass listed among the charges.

About a week after the second FIR was registered, one of the Thakur women had threatened them again, recalled the elderly woman from the Pasi family. “She said she didn’t mind losing a bigha of land, but she would destroy us and not let us live here,” said the elderly woman.

Three of the men named in the 2019 assault complaint and two of the men named in the September 2021 complaint are now accused of murdering the family of four and raping the 25-year-old woman.

Nirmala Singh claims the Thakurs were framed.

‘They are jealous of Thakurs’

The chargesheet based on the September 2019 FIR was finally filed on November 25, the day the murders were discovered and over two years after the original complaint was filed.

Nirmala Singh acknowledged the land disputes but claimed the Pasis were trying to trap them in police cases. When asked why they would do so, all she could say was, “They are jealous of Thakurs. They are lower castes and think in an indecent way.”

Since her son, grandson and daughter-in-law were detained, she has had to cook and tend the cattle herself. According to the police, they are among those released later but they are still absconding from the village. “No one wants to help me and that is because of fear,” Nirmala Singh alleged.

Wives and mothers of the other accused men echo her prejudices against the Pasis. “They rear chickens, pigs and other wild animals, that is all they are good for,” said the mother of Neeraj Maurya, one of the men detained after the murders were discovered.

Sixty-five-year-old Shakuntla Devi, whose sons worked in Mumbai and are currently detained in the murder case, claimed they had been dragged into the dispute only because they mixed with the Thakur families actually involved in it. Even these social relations were shaped by caste. It was only natural, Shakuntla Devi argued, that they would mix with people of their own caste or other so-called upper castes.

“We cannot ask the Pasis for water, drink their water or go to their home,” she said.

Rajkumar Yadav, the sarpanch of Korser village, believes Pawan Saroj is being blamed for the crime as he is also a Pasi Dalit.

Allegations of police bias

Among the Pasi residents of Gohri village, there is anger against the police. They allege the police not only refrained from acting against the Thakurs but also colluded with them.

After the murders came to light, they triggered protests by Opposition parties, who called the Uttar Pradesh government anti Dalit. Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi also visited the relatives of the murdered family. Only then did the government suspend two policemen: Phaphamau station house officer Ram Keval Patel and head constable Sushil Singh, whose beat included the perimeters of Gohri village.

“These policemen would spend all their time partying with the Thakurs from 2019,” said a relative of the murdered family. “If they had done their job as they should have, we would not have lost our family members.”

A policeman from the Phaphamau police station tried to defend his colleagues: “The policemen had no role to play in the matter but since they were the responsible people at the police station, they have been removed.”

He also tried to explain that the police socialising with Thakur families was no evidence of bias. “It is the job of the police to go to the spot and sit, eat and drink with people,” he said. “This is the way they collect information. They do not do this with the intention of helping anyone.”

Nevertheless, the current police probe appears to be focused on Pawan Saroj. On November 28, Prem Prakash, additional director general of police, Prayagraj Zone, announced Saroj had been arrested on the basis of circumstantial evidence and some text messages. According to Prakash, the murdered girl had texted “I hate you”, to which Saroj had replied, “Good morning”.

Pawan Saroj's family is bewildered.

A character certificate

Saroj’s family lives in Korser village, a couple of kilometres from Gohri. Days after his arrest, they were tight-lipped and worried, lost about what to do next. While local politicians rushed to visit the Pasi family in Gohri, this household got scant attention.

The 19-year-old is a daily wage labourer like his father, Rajkumar Saroj. His mother, who had been ailing for years, died in 2018. Father and son had tried to set up a shop selling chickens but business was bad because of the pandemic so they shut it down in April 2021.

“My son would work all day,” said the bewildered father. “I do not know where he was on those days, at night he had come home. I do not know about any girl. I do not know what he did in his free time. I only know he is my son and I am doing what I can.”

Rajkumar Saroj would vacate the chair he sat on and squat on the floor every time someone from a so-called upper caste visited their home. He carried a sheet of paper in his hand. This was a character certificate for his son, signed off by the village sarpanch, Rajkumar Yadav. It said Yadav knew the teenager well – he had a “very simple nature, is tolerant and has a clean image.”

When probed further, Yadav was evasive at first. “I have never really spoken to him,” he said. “I only know whose son he is. I do not know much more.”

But he was convinced the police case against the teenager was biased. “See, they are making the accused Dalits as well as it’s an SC/ST case,” he said. “This is a Thakur government and all the accused are Thakurs.”

But the Thakur residents of Gohri were angry – they did not see why their relatives were being called for interrogation when Pawan Saroj was already arrested. “When the police have cracked the case, when the person who has committed the crime has been caught, why are they harassing us?” demanded Shakuntla Devi. “He is from their own caste.”

Pawan Saroj’s loudest defenders were the relatives of the murdered Pasi family in Gohri. An aunt of the 25-year-old girl who was murdered said her niece had completed her higher education and would not have stayed silent about being harassed. “Why would she not tell us? Why would she not block him?” her aunt demanded.

All pictures by Aishwarya Iyer.