Priyanka to cops: I won’t eat... put me in jail
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s threat of a hunger-strike and the pressure mounted across Uttar Pradesh by local Congress units may have triggered Saturday’s capitulation by the Yogi Adityanath government, which allowed the Umbha victims’ kin to meet her.
By 6.30am on Saturday, 15 relatives of the 11 slain Umbha residents, killed allegedly by their panchayat chief and his goons on Wednesday, had arrived outside the guesthouse, 70km away, where Priyanka had been lodged after her arrest on Friday.
When Priyanka learned around 9am that they were being held at bay a few metres away, she left her overnight dharna spot on the guesthouse lawns, marched to the gates and demanded to meet the group. But the police wouldn’t let her.
She argued with the officers for about 30 minutes before returning to the lawns and telling the reporters: “The government was supposed to protect them but allowed the criminals to kill them. And now it is harassing their relatives when they are trying to meet me. I can’t understand the administration’s mindset.”
A journalist who apparently disagreed with Priyanka shouted back: “Who’s stopping you from meeting the villagers here?” She shot back: “Go there and see who is waiting to meet me and who is stopping them. You are just hanging about me.”
Priyanka sat down below a tree near the gates with the other Congress leaders. When the police asked her to move, she shouted: “Let all the (Umbha) villagers come and meet me, else I won’t budge. I won’t eat anything and continue the dharna. Put me in jail or let them come to me.”
By then the administration was under pressure with news arriving from almost every district headquarters about local Congress units having begun dharnas in support of Priyanka.
After another half an hour of chaos at the gates, with the 5,000-odd Congress workers chanting anti-government slogans, the administration blinked and let the relatives enter and meet Priyanka.
They did so in four batches of two, five, five and three, each spending 20 to 30 minutes with the Congress leader from 11.30 till well past 1pm. The women, who cried continuously, narrated to her the circumstances of the massacre.
“We had gone to the police to tell them the panchayat chief would kill us but they wouldn’t listen because the criminals have connections with the ruling party leaders,” one of the women told Priyanka as she embraced her.
In tears herself, Priyanka left the grounds and stepped into her room in the guesthouse, where she met the rest of the batches.
Priyanka later held an impromptu news conference outside the guesthouse with the victims’ relatives and said the Congress would give each family a compensation of Rs 10 lakh.
The villagers said “hundreds of goons” had come to the village on “more than 100 tractors” and “most of them were firing in all directions”. They alleged that hospital staff in Mirzapur and Varanasi had demanded bribes to treat the injured, who number close to 50. “The local administration patronised the criminals,” said one.
Priyanka said the attack had orphaned many children. She was later driven to Varanasi, from where she flew to Delhi.
P.L. Punia, a Congress leader who had arrived from Lucknow, said: “We have won the first round. We’ll keep fighting for the Umbha victims.”
In Delhi, the Congress alleged complicity between the Adityanath government and the killers who allegedly wanted to grab tribal land in Umbha, Sonbhadra district.
As the Congress held protests across the country, party communications chief Randeep Surjewala said: “Instead of arresting the culprits and providing relief to the victims and their families, the Uttar Pradesh government is wasting its energies on detaining Priyanka Gandhi”
He added: “The Yogi government illegally transferred the title of the land to the main accused, Yagyadutt Bhurtia, who is also the village head, on October 19, 2017. On July 24, 2018, the BJP government tried to hand over possession of the land forcibly to Yagyadutt.
“To pressurise the tribals, the police registered cases against (them)… on the complaint of Yagyadutt’s nephew Rajkumar Singh. On October 29, 2018, two more FIRs were filed. On July 6, 2019, the district authorities rejected the plea of tribal residents against the illegal transfer of the title.”
The tribal villagers had been tilling the land for generations but lacked ownership papers. Reports say a Bihar-cadre IAS officer had “sold” the land to Yagyadutt. Twenty-four people have been arrested.
Adityanath has blamed past Congress governments for the trouble, saying the land dispute originated in 1955. He has formed a committee to examine the matter.
Additional reporting by our Delhi bureau