Last fortnight, a courtyard in Ramnagar, a Dalit village on the periphery of Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur town, was filled with the sound of lamentation. A group of women wailed and beat their chests, mourning the mysterious death of Sachin Walia. The family claims that Sachin Walia was shot dead by Thakurs celebrating the birth anniversary of Rajput king Maharana Pratap. In Uttar Pradesh, Rajput and Thakur are roughly synonymous terms.

Among the men accused of killing Walia in a first information reported filed by his mother is Sher Singh Rana, the murderer of Phoolan Devi, the “Bandit Queen” whose life became the stuff of an award-winning film. Rana – who may himself become the subject of a Bollywood film – had been arrested for Devi’s murder but broke out of jail in 2004. He was arrested two years later and is currently out on bail.

Walia’s death on May 9 is more than a family tragedy. It has caused a political storm: Sachin Walia, 25, was the brother of Kamal Walia, the Saharanpur district chief of the assertive Dalit organisation known as the Bhim Army. Walia’s death has also put the spotlight on Sher Singh Rana’s iconic stature in western Uttar Pradesh and his role in the caste conflict between Thakurs and Jatav Dalits that has gripped the region.

Sher Singh Rana is so popular, songs have been written about him and tee-shirts with his face on it are being sold on the internet. Said Kan Singh Rana, president of the Uttar Pradesh Kshatriya Mahasabha, one of several Rajput groups in western Uttar Pradesh, “Sher Singh Rana is a hero for Kshatriya youths here.”

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Sher Singh Rana shirts  Photo credit: Sher Singh Rana
Sher Singh Rana shirts Photo credit: Sher Singh Rana

Tihar to Afghanistan

Rana’s rise to national prominence started in 2001, when Phoolan Devi was shot dead by three masked men in Delhi. By then, she had been elected as a member of Parliament. Rana is reported to have told the police that he killed Devi to avenge a massacre of 21 Thakur men she had led in Behmai about two decades earlier.

Three years later, he made a daring jailbreak. An accomplice pretending to be a policeman led Rana out of Tihar Jail on the pretext of producing him in court. Rana embarked a remarkable journey, threading his way through Moradabad and Ranchi to reach Kolkata. By then he had obtained a fake passport under the name of Sanjay Gupta. He used this to get a three-month visa to Bangladesh. After living in Bangladesh’s Khulna city for a while, he went to Dubai and then on to Afghanistan, in search of the grave of the 12th century ruler Prithviraj Chauhan. Chauhan is a Rajput icon. His defeat by Muhammad of Ghor in 1192 laid the foundation of Muslim rule in India.

Speaking to Scroll.in over the phone, Rana said he is certain that Chauhan’s grave is in Afghanistan. This ahistorical belief can be traced to Prithviraj Raso, a poem in the Braj language of North India that claims that Muhammad of Ghor took Chauhan to Afghanistan rather than killing him in India. Rana said that his quest was sparked by conversations he had in Tihar’s high-security ward with some “terrorists” who challenged him to bring Chauhan’s relics back to India.

“Though I was told that the relics of Prithviraj Chauhan would be there in Kandahar,” he said. “I later got to know from local sources there that he was actually buried in Dehyak, where I had to take help of some locals to organise a quick excavation drive.”

In a grainy video that is now on YouTube, Rana identifies a dusty mound as the grave of Chauhan. He claims he found relics of the Rajput king in the grave and gave them to Kshatriya organisations, which have preserved them at a memorial in Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh.

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Rana wrote about his journey in a book titled Jail Diary: Tihar Se Kabul-Kandahar Tak or Jail Diary: From Tihar to Kabul-Kandahar, released in 2012. He told Scroll.in that the book will soon be turned into a movie. “...Some producers have already approached me,” Rana said. Already, some news reports suggest that Nawazuddin Siddiqui or Ajay Devgn will play Rana’s character. Rana claims he has already spoken to Devgn’s team a few times.

In 2006, though, Rana’s adventures were interrupted by the Delhi Police’s Special Cell, which tracked him down in Kolkata. He was convicted of Devi’s murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014. Two years later, he was granted bail by the Delhi High Court.

Saharanpur in western Uttar Pradesh saw widespread clashes between Dalits and Rajputs last year. Photo credit: PTI
Saharanpur in western Uttar Pradesh saw widespread clashes between Dalits and Rajputs last year. Photo credit: PTI

Caste conflict

Rana was released as western Uttar Pradesh’s caste faultlines were deepening, with Rajputs and the region’s largest Dalit community, the Jatavs, pitted against each other. Given his past, Rana was hailed as a Rajput hero and placed in the centre of the conflict. His first major public appearance was in Simlana village, Saharanpur, in 2017, when he was invited by a Rajput group to celebrate Maharana Pratap’s birth anniversary. Like Chauhan, Pratap, a 16th century king from Rajasthan, is a hero for the Rajputs of western Uttar Pradesh. The Simlana event sparked clashes between Dalits and Rajputs in a nearby village, with the violence soon spreading to Saharanpur city.

While the state administration accused the Bhim Army of sparking the violence, local Dalit groups as well as prominent voices such as Jignesh Mewani, now an MLA in Gujarat, blamed Rana. He was, however, not named in any of the cases related to the violence, senior police officials said.

Rajput hero

The controversy burnished Rana’s stature among Rajput groups. He is in demand to be a speaker at communit events. “In the last two months, I have not been able to spend two full days at my home,” he claimed. He said that in recent months, he has travelled to Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.

His popularity has even permeated the cyber world. A YouTube song about him, written in the western Uttar Pradesh’s Khari Boli dialect, speaks of how “you have done a lot for your quom, community”. A rap verse details Rana’s exploits as a slideshow depicts Rajput imagery – palaces, turbaned kings, a boy smilingly unsheathing a sword.

“Government could do nothing but you killed the dacoit Phoolan
No one could do it, but you broke out of Tihar

You brought back the relics of Chauhan sahib, the Afghan did not scare you
You planted the flag of Rajput pride all across the country.”

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Partisan state

While Rana is a hero for Rajputs, he is intensely disliked by Dalits in western Uttar Pradesh. They accuse Rana of killing Sachin Walia, even though the police claim he was killed by a shot fired accidentally by his friend. There is, in fact, little to connect Rana to the death. No witnesses place him in or near Ramnagar when the young man was killed. Even Kamal Walia was unclear on why Rana’s name was mentioned in the FIR. “These men had threatened us earlier,” was all he has said.

Dalit activists, meanwhile, accuse the administration of acting in a partisan manner in the conflict. The Bhim Army’s chief, Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan, was arrested after last year’s clashes and charged with rioting. He was acquitted by the Allahabad High Court last November, but remains in jail under the draconian preventive detention law that allows imprisonment without charge. In April, Rajputs, with the help of the state administration, tried to bar a Dalit groom from even riding a horse to his wedding. It took national outrage for the state government to change its position.