Ram Sevak Dhobi’s birth certificate is the only official record of his existence. He had none of the documents that the state confers on its own—no citizenship card, no school ID, no driving license, no deed to land. He was never photographed.

He lived in Parsahawa village in Asuraina VDC, in an area called Marchawa. He worked as a coolie in nearby Bhairahawa, and stayed there most nights. Marchwa has a bad reputation in the district. When you ask people in Bhairahawa what Marchawa is like, they’ll say it’s a lawless place close to border. To keep the law and order in Marchawa, there’s a police station, a thana.

It has been accused of torture. And murder.

The houses in Dhobi’s village are made of straw and mud. Black buffaloes wade in the mud pools along the roads, which are also muddy. Little children walk around barefoot, bare-chested. They run away from strangers, or cry when they see one.

In his house, his mother sits by a pile of husks. Near her lies a two-year-old child, malnourished and wasted, the size of a newborn. It seems he was born and stopped growing; the only thing getting larger is his grotesquely distended belly. The house is a shack: bricks glued with mud, topped with straw, propped with a few twisted sticks. It is also very crowded. With the parents, five brothers, their wives and children, the family adds up. There are sixteen of them. They sleep in rooms without doors. There are many villages like this in Madhes.

His mother has a blank expression on her face when she remembers him: “He was a good son. He came to say goodbye when we went to see his father off. Father was going on a pilgrimage to Bolbam Dham in Bihar. He cried, touched our feet and gave one hundred rupees IC, and came to see his father off as far as the thana. Out of all my sons, he helped around the house and the field the most. He was strong as a horse. No one could touch him. And he used to bring fruits for the kid when he came home. Now, I don’t even have a photo of him to look at. I don’t know what happened at the police thana. He drank with them sometimes. On that day, they say he brought an apple and passed it around. One of the police didn’t like what he said. There was an argument. They took him in.”

The father, who wears a permanent grimace, laments: “Everybody says that they saw the police arrest him, but no one will say that publicly because they fear the police. I cried in front of the DSP. Nothing happened. They refuse to investigate my son’s death.”

Ram Kesh Dhobi, 44, his eldest brother, adds: “Ham dehatko log, darai chaa. We village people, we are afraid. The shops outside the police station used to be open until eight. But on the day they arrested him, they were shut down at five.”

The women in Dhobi’s family, huddled together, look on, hiding their faces in the cloth of the saris pulled over their heads. They don’t speak.

Villagers gather around the father of the dead man. The Record

“This kind of thing doesn’t happen to the rich”

They found the body on August 12, 2013. A couple of boys were passing the fields near the irrigation canal early in the morning. According to them, that was when two policemen, passing by for some reason, pointed out what looked like a head in the water.

“What is it?” they asked, “Is it a dog? Is it a piece of rubber?”

It was Ram Sevak Dhobi. The village gathered around the pond.

“We suspected immediately. It was no accident. There was plastic on his mouth. And blood oozed from the nostrils and ears. He didn’t die of drowning, as the police claim, he hadn’t swallowed any water,” says one witness.

When the sun rose higher, it became brighter and the policemen returned, photographed the body, and left.  They insisted that the body be cremated immediately. They gave the villagers a saw to cut a sheesham tree and took the body to Duimohan Ghat to be cremated.

“He was a bachelor,” says a villager. “Our Hindu practice is to bury dead bachelors, but he was cremated. The police made us do it.”

“It’s only to us poor that things like this happen. It doesn’t happen to the rich,” Dhobi’s father says.

“There was a protest ten days later,” he continues. “We tried to submit an application to investigate the death, but the police came down on us with sticks. We blocked the village road for ten days. But nothing happened. The inspector, Prem Bandhu Pokhrel, got transferred, that’s all.”

“Where is the photo they took of him at the police station?” a young man asks. “There must be postmortems on dead bodies, especially if they’re found in mysterious circumstances. That’s the standard police procedure. Why didn’t the police conduct a postmortem?”

“When someone dies of drowning and you press the stomach, water comes out but when you pressed his stomach, what came out was blood. It looked like he was beaten to death,” says another neighbor.

Police defy court

Ram Sevak Dhobi was the third son of Chanarjit Dhobi. After repeated attempts to make the Marchawa Police, and then the district police, register an FIR and start an investigation failed, Chanarjit appealed to the court, requesting an injunction (paramadesh) against the police and the administration.

The defendants—the Rupandehi police, the Marchawa police, and the District Administration Office of Rupandehi—in the documents they submitted to the appellate court in Butwal, insist that Dhobi was never arrested. According to the defendants, a postmortem was not carried out because as soon as the police team led by Prem Bandhu Pokhrel reached the spot at around 6 a.m., and tried to follow the legal process, the father, mother, and relatives of the dead told the police that Ram Sevak Dhobi was a drunkard and it was unnecessary to follow the due process because it would only add up the costs. The documents say they then forcibly took the dead body from the police and cremated him. (See the court order.)

On December 15, 2013, the joint bench of Justice Pushparaj Koirala and Justice Manoj Kurmar Sharma at Butwal Appellate Court issued an injunction in favor Ram Sevak Dhobi’s father, ordering the defendants to “register the FIR and carry forward the investigation.”

Six months later, there has been no FIR registered, no investigation.

“The police defiance shows they feel they don’t have to obey the law,” says Dipendra Jha, and advocate at the Supreme Court who helped file the case. “They just want to protect their friends, and show utter disrespect for the life of a Madhesi Dalit.”

Shailendra Harijan, a human rights worker who has been regularly visiting the family of the dead, says that the Dhobi’s family has still not given up hope, and the villagers still talk about the man who died in police custody.

Cover photo: Ram Sevak Dhobi’s birth certificate. The Record