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'I was Harassed for Demanding COVID-appropriate Behaviour in My Village'

People gathering in the village without wearing masks. (Pic by special arrangement)

People gathering in the village without wearing masks. (Pic by special arrangement)

A man who had returned home to Kota during the pandemic reportedly faced hostility in his village for calling out mass gatherings during the lockdown.

A corporate professional was branded an informer and harassed after the district administration raided and penalised a social gathering in his village during the lockdown. He said the figurehead of the village publicly called him the mole, the Sarpanch (village head) confronted him for troubling the people, and the family whose function was raided also blamed him. He said this false narrative portrayed him as a nuisance to the fellow residents and caused much stress to him and his family.

Provoked, the youth shot off a defamation notice to the family that was fanning this narrative. He was mulling upon suing the others too but cooled down after the family signed a compromise letter and he could clear his name.

This episode unfolded in Rajasthan’s Kota district during the second wave of Covid. The youth, Dhanraj Lodha, 35, works with a multinational company in Mumbai. He has been working out of his village, Nimoda, for the past one year because of the pandemic.

He told 101Reporters that even when the number of Covid deaths was spiking across the country in April and May, Covid-appropriate behaviour was not enforced in his village. At a time when health experts were insisting on social distancing and wearing double masks, he said hundreds were mingling here with no mask in weddings and other functions.

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Unheeded pleas

In a WhatsApp group that has 69 members from the village, including the Sarpanch, Dhanraj repeatedly called for greater attention to the pandemic. He shared screenshots of some of these conversations, starting mid-April, with 101Reporters.

In these messages, he repeatedly appealed to postpone or restrict crowded functions, wear masks and follow Covid guidelines. He advised checking oxygen levels and temperature of the villagers to identify suspected Covid cases and shared news reports that the virus was killing many in their district. Gradually, his calls for action turned into caustic remarks.

His one message reads: “Our local administration has failed completely. Our village head has gone missing and has left people to fend for themselves. Weddings are being held in violation of Covid guidelines. I don’t see why we should not involve the district magistrate anymore.” He even sent tweets to the Member of Parliament from Kota and requested him to intervene.

Rajasthan government had ordered a statewide lockdown in mid-April. On April 25, a relative of Dhanraj, Satyanarayan Lodha, hosted his grandson’s tonsure ceremony and a reception in the village. Invitations were duly sent out. Dhanraj and his family did not go but more than a hundred people turned up and so did a team of the district administration. Subsequently, it levied a penalty of Rs 10,000 on the hosts for flouting Covid guidelines.

Conflict escalates

The next morning, Dhanraj crossed paths with the village figurehead, who is a landlord and also a former sarpanch. According to Dhanraj, the landlord asked him to quit calling out the Sarpanch and reasoned that the village head cannot fight with people for hosting functions. An argument ensued and the landlord proclaimed to the onlookers that Dhanraj had been complaining about village functions to the district administration. (This article is not naming the landlord on the request of Dhanraj for personal reasons.)

Immediately after this altercation, Dhanraj visited the family whose function was raided and asked them not to heed this allegation. However, they told him they had credible inputs that indeed he was the informer.

Within a couple of hours, Dhanraj got a phone call from Sarpanch Meena, who asked him why he was bothering the villagers. Dhanraj said the Sarpanch went so far as to ask him why he came back to the village. When Dhanraj argued that permitting social gatherings at such a time could kill people, Meena reportedly said people were going to die and neither of them could do anything about it.

Rumour gains ground

Dhanraj told 101Reporters he thought this was it but the rumour that he was the informer caught on and the villagers began growing resentful. He would be met with disapproving comments (“Why’d you report?”, “You should not have done this.”) whenever he stepped out. He said he overheard people dissing him even at a funeral.

Upon learning that Satyanarayan’s family was still spreading this rumour, he sent a legal notice to them. The defamation notice, dated May 20, gave them three options: render a written apology; pay Rs 15 lakh for causing distress; or face a case of defamation in court.

After two-and-a-half weeks and many mediation attempts, Satyanarayan and his son Surendra signed a “compromise letter”. It states they were misinformed but now they know that Dhanraj had not intimated the administration about their function. Further, it says they acknowledge and regret the trouble that Dhanraj and his family had to endure because of them.

Dhanraj told 101Reporters he was compelled to send the legal notice because had the rumour spread unchecked, it could have led to his and his family’s isolation in the village. He believes his move of sending the notice turned the tide and sent a message that he must be innocent, which is why he was ready to go to the court.

Different versions

Sarpanch Meena told 101Reporters he had called up Dhanraj to ask what his complaints were. He said Dhanraj should have brought his concerns about Covid guidelines to him or the other office bearers. He digressed when this reporter pointed out that Dhanraj had voiced his concerns many times in the WhatsApp group.

Further, Meena said he did not tell Dhanraj that people were bound to die and did not ask why he came back to the village. Also, he said the rumour that Dhanraj was the informer was baseless. “Main kaise maan sakta hoon ki yahi aadmi shikaayat de raha hai! Aur bhi toh ho sakta hai koi,” he said. (How do I know he’s the one complaining! It could be somebody else too.)

However, a village resident told 101Reporters that Meena spoke at length in front of him and a couple of others that Dhanraj alone was behind the raid on his relative’s function, perhaps out of a personal grudge. “Unhone kaha mere paas proof bhi hai.” (He said he even had the proof.)

He said the disinformation was turning the villagers against Dhanraj. Citing the village dynamics, this resident requested anonymity to avoid courting trouble. Another resident sought anonymity for the same reason and corroborated Dhanraj’s claim that the village figurehead branded him as the tattler in a public altercation.

Meena insisted that 101Reporters get more point of views and shared phone numbers of three people. One did not return the calls and the other two—one of them the village figurehead’s son—asserted that no dispute has taken place. But according to Meena: “Iss cheez ka 15 din tak poore gaon mein mahaul raha hai.” (This issue remained in discussion across the village for 15 days.)

Covid strikes

Some residents of Nimoda alleged that Covid-appropriate behaviour was neither followed nor encouraged by the village elders even during the lockdown. (Pic by special arrangement)

Fifty residents of Nimoda and a couple of adjoining villages were tested for Covid in May and 15 of them were found infected. This put the region’s positivity rate (the number of people testing Covid-positive for every 100 people who are tested) at 30%. The positivity rate of 5% is deemed too high, indicates high transmission of the virus and calls for greater restrictions.

However, residents of Nimoda told 101Reporters that hundreds of people—including the Sarpanch and the village elders—partook in social gatherings unabated through the lockdown.

A string of weddings had left one dead and 95 infected in a village in Rajasthan’s Jhunjhunu district in May.

Dhanraj said he was raising the alarm about the pandemic because he knows first-hand the agony it can inflict. His own family has been in mourning since December, when the virus claimed his mother’s life.

(The author is a Dehradun-based journalist and the News Editor with 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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first published:June 30, 2021, 12:30 IST