Rakesh Jatav, 40, never held a permanent job. He was a daily wage worker who, for the last two decades, headed every morning to the Kumharpura labour intersection in Madhya Pradesh’s Gwalior city to seek work. The intersection was 300 metres away from his home in Bhimnagar, a Dalit colony.

On Monday, Jatav left home around 8 am with his steel tiffin box stuffed with four parathas that his daughter Kajal, 18, had prepared for him.

Around noon, a neighbour came running to Kajal and informed her that her father had been hit by a bullet.

As she reached Kumharpura, the young woman was stopped by the police. From a distance, she saw them lift her father’s body from a pool of blood and place it in a van. “I was too far away to see if he was breathing,” she said.

A bullet had pierced his chest.

Jatav was one of the three Dalit men killed in clashes between groups of Dalits and upper caste men in Gwalior district on Monday. Dalit groups had called for a nationwide strike that day to protest against a Supreme Court order which dilutes the law on atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. At least eight people have died in the violence – two in Rajasthan’s Alwar district, one in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar, two in Madhya Pradesh’s Bhind district and three in the neighbouring Gwalior district.

Like Jatav, the other two men too died of bullet injuries in their chest – Deepak, 22, a resident of Gallakothar locality in Gwalior city, and Vimal Prakash, 26, who lived in Sewaria Pul village, 40 km away.

Gwalior police claimed it had not fired a single bullet on the Dalits protestors. “The clashes happened because the Dalit groups went violent and started damaging vehicles and other property owned by upper caste people during the protest march,” said Ashish, the district superintendent of police. “In most cases, the upper caste groups retaliated.”

Many Dalits, however, said they were fired on indiscriminately, without provocation. The families of all three men who died said they were not even part of the protests.

The only photo of Rakesh Jatav that his family has. He is survived by his wife, Ramvati, and their three children. The eldest daughter Kajal's wedding was scheduled in May and the family was looking forward to it, before tragedy struck.

Bullet marks everywhere

Deepak’s family and neighbours said a group of around 100-125 upper caste men stormed into their locality, Gallakothar, and started firing guns, in the presence of the police. Gallakothar is inhabited largely by Dalits, except for a few houses on the periphery which belong to families from the upper caste Thakur community. Deepak, who owned an autorickshaw which ferried goods, was standing with his neighbours at a road intersection when he was hit by a bullet around 11 am, said his younger brother Sachin.

“I saw him crash into the ground,” said Sachin, 20, as he stopped himself from breaking down. “I could hardly open my eyes since the police had lobbed tear gas shells on the crowd. I lifted him up and put him on a cart and rushed him to the Life Care Hospital but they refused to treat him.”

Lifecare hospital is a private hospital located at the entrance of the lane that leads to Gallakothar. Its owner, Dr Atul Shrivastava, said the “violence led by Dalits” had compelled him to shut the doors of his hospital.

Deepak’s father, Mohan Mittal, 58, and most residents in his neighbourhood, however, said the Dalit residents of Gallakothar had not initiated the violence. “What could we do? To defend ourselves, we grabbed bricks and stones and pelted at the men as they approached closer with guns,” he said.

In Gallakothar, bullet marks could be seen everywhere, from walls and billboards to the shutters of closed shops. A bullet had grazed against the abdomen of a bull owned by Mittal’s neighbour, Ramcharan Jatav. On Tuesday, a veterinary doctor had come to the locality to treat the animal.

Sachin shows the only photo he had of his brother Deepak.

‘He wanted to be a police officer’

On Monday morning, Vimal Prakash, 26, was hit by a bullet when he was returning to his village after attending coaching classes in Dabra, a town located 40 km from Gwalior city.

“Vimal had graduated last year and wanted to be a police officer, for which he was attending coaching classes,” his brother Mukesh Jatav told Scroll.in over the phone. The family owns eight bighas of land in Sewaria Pul village. Jatav was working in the fields when he heard his brother had been injured. Within fifteen minutes, he rushed to Dabra. He saw his brother’s body lying on the ground. Before he could be taken to a hospital, he had died.

Jatav said Prakash had not participated in the protests. He was passing by a protest march when upper caste men opened fire on the Dalits. Prakash had landed at the wrong place at the wrong time.

What Dalit leaders and protestors say

On Tuesday, most parts of Gwalior city remained under curfew. Transport services were not working and the internet continued to be suspended.

Most Dalits live in the eastern part of the city in neighbourhoods like Kumharpura, Gallakothar, Bhimnagar, Gautam Nagar and Srinagar Colony. Ravindra Gurjar, the town inspector, said at least five protest marches organised by small Dalit organisations had converged here on Monday, around 10 am, with around 2,000 protestors on the road. There were no prominent leaders on the spot.

“The protest had no leader as such,” said a Dalit protestor, who did not want to be identified. “It was a protest of the Dalit masses.” The protests were peaceful until the upper caste men opened gunfire, forcing Dalits to pelt stones, he said.

Dalit leaders and activists agreed. “It was a pre-planned attack on Dalits,” said Sudhir Mandeliya, an activist who is associated with the Congress. “But the Dalits too were ready for a confrontation.”

Purshyottyam Tamotiya, a municipal councillor affiliated to the Bharatiya Janata Party, who belongs to a Dalit community, however, claimed the protests went out of hand because of misinformation. “Most protestors were brainwashed by the unpolished leaders into believing that the entire Prevention of SC/ST Atrocities Act was being abolished,” he said. “This led to aggression among the masses and they went violent when confronted with the upper caste groups on the roads.”

However, many Dalits who had participated in the protest said they were well informed. “We all feel that the law should not be diluted and the Centre must do something about it,” said the Dalit protestor who did not want to be identified. “Look at the way the upper castes have targeted us yesterday. Imagine what can happen if the law is diluted.”

Even animals bore marks of the gunfire seen in Gallakothar locality on Monday.

Another Dalit protestor claimed they were being unfairly targetted by the police. “It was supposed to be a peaceful protest until we were confronted by groups of upper caste men. Now the police are selectively hunting us down.”

What the police say

The police said they had filed 20 cases and arrested 65 people till Tuesday evening, including men from both Dalit and upper castes communities. “We have identified five Dalit leaders in connection with the cases,” said Gurjar, the town inspector. “They are known faces as they often mobilise people when it comes to issues concerning to the Dalit community.” But none of the five leaders had any criminal records, he added.

Among the 20 cases, the most severe charges were reserved for the three murders of Jatav, Deepak and Prakash, the inspector said, and one case of attempt to murder in which 15 Dalits had been arrested for assaulting a police official in Kumharpura area.

What the upper castes say

Several upper caste residents of the city maintain the Dalits started the trouble. The residents of Jayandraganj locality claimed to have witnessed groups of Dalit protestors suddenly turning violent and trying to break inside a hostel inhabited by students belonging to the Rajput community. The students then pelted stones from their balconies, they said. But they were unable to explain where the stones came from.

Dhirendra Singh Tomar, who lives near Gallakothar where Deepak was felled by a bullet, admitted that upper caste men had fired on the Dalits and justified the violence. “Why should they [Dalits] not suffer when they molested upper caste women on the roads in the name of peaceful protest,” he said. Tomar’s neighbours nodded in agreement. They lived in Tomar Building, a cluster of homes belonging to the upper caste Rajput community.

The police did not comment on the molestation allegations. It confirmed some of the residents of Tomar Building had been identified as the assailants who had fired on the Dalits in Gallakothar.

All photos by Aabid Shafi