NEW DELHI — A village chief and a group of higher-caste men opened fire on poor farmers in northern India and killed at least 10 of them in a land dispute, police officials said on Thursday.
The bloodshed unfolded on Wednesday around noon in a village in Sonbhadra District, about 500 miles southeast of New Delhi. Experts said it was one of the deadliest land disputes in India in recent years.
Officials said that men from the Gujjar caste — a midrank caste, and the dominant one in that area — were bent on taking possession of about 100 acres of land that was being used to farm rice.
When a group of Gond tribal members, who are often at the bottom of India’s complex social hierarchy, protested, the Gujjar men showed up with tractors and guns. Their leader was the village head, and after heated arguments the village head and his accomplices opened fire, the police said.
“Hand-to-hand battle also took place, and many people were injured,” said Ankit Kumar Agarwal, the district magistrate in the area.
Experts said the case exemplified the pressures on land in India, where 1.3 billion people are crowded into a space about the size of a third of the United States. The violence may also reflect the state of caste dynamics in rural India, even today, many years after government policies have been introduced to protect historically marginalized people.
Experts said that abuses were still routinely meted out against lower-caste and tribal people (India’s Constitution includes special protections for what it terms “Scheduled Tribes”).
“Tribals are one of the most landless communities in India,” said Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava, a journalist and co-founder of Land Conflict Watch, a data project that analyzes these disputes. “Traditionally, it was easy to take over their land, kick them out.”
The authorities said that all of the people killed — seven men and three women — were Gond members but that some Gujjar men had also been injured in the fighting. The police said the combatants had also used wooden sticks, cleavers, spades and iron rods.
Gujjars are hardly at the top of the overall caste ladder, and are far below the Brahmins, who are considered the highest. In some places, Gujjars complain that they themselves are discriminated against because of their caste. But in Sonbhadra District, they own much of the land.
The authorities said the village head and some of his relatives had bought the land several years ago but that the Gond people whose community had been farming it for decades refused to give it up.
Police officials said that they had arrested 24 people but that the village chief was still at large.