PHOTOGRAPHS BY SUDHAKAR OLWE AND HELENA SCHÄTZLE
TEXT BY SHRADDHA GHATGE
“Pahila mala chambharin bolvayche, ata maanane taai bolavtat
(First they used to call me chambharin, now they call me taai)”
A young Dalit widow with two children, Asha Kamble was harassed by a Vanjari man when she refused his advances. Now in her mid-thirties, Asha
established herself as a tailor after her husband’s death 10 years ago. She went to the police four times to complain; every time, she was turned away. Once the man had, in a drunken state, knocked on her door at midnight and tried to force his way in. Asha didn’t let him in. She tied his hands to the door knob instead.
In March 2013, Asha was summoned by a 10-member village committee (the Vanjari man was present as well) which accused her 13-year-old daughter, Saloni, of theft and demanded that she either pay Rs. 20,000 or leave the village. Asha knew her daughter admitted to the crime under pressure, so she offered only Rs. 1,000 as penalty. Khadaki is dominated by Vanjaris and Marathas. Only a handful of houses belong to Buddhist-Dalits and Maangs.
“I told them that I couldn’t afford to pay, nor could I afford to leave the village. The next day they went to the cops to register a complaint against my daughter. The cops told me as she was a minor they wouldn’t register it,” says Asha.
Angered by police inaction, the wife of Bansi Chole (one of the accused) asked Asha’s landlord to evict her. She asked for 15 days to wrap up her business, but they demanded that she leave within two. When she refused, they got a few villagers to throw her belongings out of the house, she said.
“As they were doing this, I took my kids and went to the police station. Initially the cops didn’t entertain me. Later they noted the complaint but didn’t give me the receipt,” says Asha.
“After seven days, when police visited the village for the panchnama, I told them some of my belongings were missing. But they didn’t bother to note that,” says Asha.
Later police and relatives of the accused requested Asha to withdraw the case. One even offered to return her belongings and give her money. She says even the local MLA met her in this connection.
“They offered me Rs. 5 lakh and even said the house I stayed in would be transferred to my name free of cost. But I didn’t budge,” says Asha.
The police, Asha claims, fabricated statements from witnesses in a way that suggested that the case should be closed. Although they registered the case under the Prevention of Atrocities Act, a court dismissed the case. She has challenged the order.
THE KHURSANE BROTHERS
“Tyana raag alay ani ghabarayla jhalay amchi chalwal baghun”
(They are angry and are threatened by our growing activism)
“Dalit aspirations are a breach of peace,” B.R. Ambedkar said in his 1936 speech “Annihilation of Caste”. On December 7, 2016, around 7.30 p.m., 22-year-old Ajay Khurasane was beaten up by a group of upper caste people in the village square of Pohegaon in Ahmednagar district. When Ajay’s 20-year-old brother Ashok confronted them, they assaulted both with weapons, causing severe injuries. A long vertical scar marks the left side of Ajay’s face.
Although the Khurasane brothers are farm labourers, they were part of a tribal organisation working for the community, in a village dominated by Marathas, followed by Joshis, Maangs, Dhangars and Gondhalis. The upper caste communities in Pohegaon, which has 500-600 families, feel threatened by the tribals fighting for their rights.
Dalit activist Kiran Thakarey explains: “When we founded the organisation, the gram panchayat didn’t give us permission. We went to the police station and then we got permission. Founding it has boosted the confidence of women and the elderly, who have wanted it for the past 10 years but were scared of the bullying.”
As Ajay narrates the incident sitting in front of his house, Ashok, their mother Chandrakala and other villagers gather around. “I went to the village square from the market. My friend and I were chatting when one of the accused passed us. He thought we were talking about him. He got angry and gathered 20-odd people and thrashed me and threatened to burn my house down,” Ajay said.
Ashok came to the spot in an effort to make peace. “When we went to the accused’s place, instead of a dialogue, he and a few others started hitting us with a gupti (dagger),” said Ajay.
The brothers went to Shirdi police station. “We reached at 10 p.m. but our complaint was lodged only at 3 a.m. They deliberately delayed the process. The police told us that the situation could be blown out of proportion, so we should withdraw the case.”
The accused were arrested but released the following day. A day after that, they told the brothers, “The police cannot harm us. We have done the internal setting.” They are now out on bail. More than 15 people assaulted them, but the FIR named only six. “So far, police haven’t applied the Atrocities Act. We are waiting,” says Kiran. This was the first time someone had spoken up aginst the dominant family of the village.
“Maharana lai maaj aalay. Dakhavto tumhala tumchi aukaat, asa amhala mhanale”
[These Mahars are trying to be over smart, we will show you your place—this is what they told us]
The Udage family in Pune’s Chikali area has been living under threat and 24-hour police protection ever since Manik, the 25-year-old sole breadwinner, was hacked to death for celebrating Ambedkar’s birth anniversary on April 14, 2014.
In 2014, Manik, a local contractor and founder of Samvidhan Pratistha—an organisation established to promote Dalit cultural events—was beaten with a steel rod and stoned to death by four men from upper caste families. The provocation was his decision to organise an event in Morya vasti where the upper caste communities are dominant.
Besides, the four men who killed him, were local contractors threatened by Manik’s growing popularity. They used to ridicule Manik by saying that he should “remember that he is a Mahar”. But Manik was defiant.
One night the four men came to his hut dragged him out in his sleep, and took him away. “After two days of frantic searching we found Manik’s mutilated body,” says Shravan (in picture), Manik’s 22-year-old brother, who is fighting the case.
The Udage family’s struggles continue. Even though the accused are in jail, Shravan says trhey felt they were always being watched. Whenever Shravan passes Morya vasti, he is subjected to cold stares from the relatives of the accused who has been denied bail several times.
It was not easy for the family to get 24-hour police protection.
“Majha tondavar thukla ani tyacha gharchyansamor majha blouse fadla”
(He spat on my face and tore my blouse in front of his family)
From death over a land dispute to charges of murder, the Hathagle family of Anandwadi village in Beed district has seen it all in the past couple of years. Anandwadi is a small village with a Maratha majority. There are only 30-35 Maang houses. Manisha Khupse, a member of a Maang family which is not getting money due under the state’s Gharkul Yojana, confronted the upper caste political leader on the matter. The reply was a volley of abuse, she says.
The Hathagle family’s problems began when they got embroiled in a land dispute. The land, says Manisha—who goes by her married name—was bought by her father and uncle in 1983. Theirs was the first family from the lower castes to own a flour mill in an upper caste dominated village. The counter claim is that they encroached on the land. The dispute claimed her uncle’s life in 2013. One person was booked for murder. The environment in the village is tense.
Manisha, a 29-year-old widow with two children, has been fighting the cases since the dispute began. Things have started heading south for the Hathagle family ever since. The other party in the land dispute is Mirabai Baburao Chavan. “She has not only targeted our house, but lodged a complaint against 13 people stating that we encroached on village land, whereas everyone legally bought it and built pukka houses under Gharkul Yojana,” says Manisha. Mirabai’s son is the accused.
The verdict went in their favour and the accused was released after one year. Manisha claims Mirabai hired goons to harass the community. A few months after her uncle was killed, Manisha and nine family members were booked under Section 307 (attempt to murder) in a case she claims is false. “We were falsely booked on charges of attempting to murder Mirabai’s husband.” The family had to stay out of the village till the situation calmed down. The investigation, however, turned out to be a relief as the witnesses spoke in their favour.
Manohar Chalak, 40, and his family insist Manisha and her family don’t belong to the village and the land is not owned by them. Besides, Chalak claims Manisha got her caste certificate by filing fake documents. This claim has deterred police from lodging a case under the Atrocities Act.
Manisha says that when she confronted Chalak about the harassment he “abused me, spat on my face, tore my blouse in full view of the Georai court. He also said that I (a woman from the Maang community) should be raped in public, only then I will understand their power.”
“Majha mulicha jiv shulak karanamule gela”
(My daughter died for no reason)
Ten-year-old Rajashree would have been alive today if the Dalit basti of Bagh Pimpalgaon village in Beed district had got enough water last year, says her father Namdev Kamble.
Namdev holds the sarpanch and gram sevak responsible for his daughter’s death, as they did not release water to the basti for 10-15 days at a stretch. In February 2016, says Namdev, if there had been water in the house, Rajashree wouldn’t have gone to the well where she tripped and injured her head severely. She succumbed to the injury because Namdev, a farm labourer, could not afford the cost of treatment.
“We had to change three hospitals before Ghati government hospital in Aurangabad admitted her as we couldn’t afford the expense,” Namdev says.
Discrimination on the grounds of caste is commonplace in Bagh Pimpalgaon. The incident occurred when the drought in Marathwada had affected water supply. But the sarpanch, claims Namdev, would release water to the village twice a day, with the exception of the Dalit basti, which got it only once in 10-15 days. Despite his repeated requests, the basti was deprived of water.
Although police took note of Namdev’s complaint, no FIR has been filed and no action taken. “We didn’t receive any compensation from the government. I even visited Mantralaya in Mumbai, they said they would look into it. It’s been four months, but nothing has happened.”
Highlighting the lack of drinking water in zilla parishad schools, Dalit activist Kadudas Kambale says, “The schools should have adequate water for the children. After all, they provide them with mid-day meals, so they should obviously look at providing water.”
Rajashree, a fourth grader in the school, was a bright student and active in cultural events. She had eaten her mid-day meal in the school on the day of the incident but was thirsty. Reaching home, she found no water in the house and went to the well.
“This incident could have been avoided if we had got enough water for storage. This is not just a case of death by accident, but also a case of atrocity as the basti was denied water,” adds Kadudas.
Namdev and Kamble tried several times to file a formal FIR against the sarpanch and gram sevak. But “strong political backing” has shielded them.
“Porga kay sairat navta”
(Our son was not of loose character or in love)
The day before his 19th birthday, Rohan Kakade, a Mahar boy from Satara, was murdered by five Maratha men. One of them believed his sister was having an affair with Rohan. They beheaded Rohan, burnt his body and dumped it near Jadhavvadi waterfall.
Rohan’s father Satyavan and the young woman’s father Sunil were good friends. On April 30, 2009, Rohan didn’t return home after dropping his sister off at a medical store. The parents started a search when his phone was not reachable. It was late evening when they finally located Ashok, one of the accused, who said Rohan was last seen with Swapnil (main accused) and his friends headed for a swim.
The parents knew Rohan couldn’t swim so they took Ashok and went to the police station. Upon his confession, they found Rohan’s body. His mother Chandrabhaga stayed at the police station the whole night while his father returned with the body the following day.
Rohan was good at studies and the young woman, a family friend, would call him for help with school work. Rohan’s mother once saw a call from the young woman on Rohan’s phone after 1 a.m. Rohan told his parents that Sunil’s daughter called him occasionally.
But the young woman’s family said Rohan talked to her so they suspected an affair was brewing.
“We even showed them the telecom company’s records. This was our evidence that she was the one who called Rohan after 1 a.m. I told them if they thought my son is committing a crime, they could have gone to the police. Why did they kill him? She is Maratha and he is Mahar, this is the reason they killed him,” Rohan’s mother said.
In court proceedings, the defence lawyer argued that Rohan’s father worked as a bonded labourer in the house of the accused and that they were not friends.
“We made a lot of noise against this injustice but I don’t see any results,” says Chandrabhaga. “We even got media attention, but what’s the use when there’s no outcome?”
Two and half years after the murder, Rohan’s father died. His mother continues to fight the case.
“Fakta Babasahebanchi ringtone thevli mhanun maarla majha porala” (Because my son had a ringtone praising Babasaheb, they killed him.)”
Sagar Shejwal, a 24-year-old nursing student, was killed in May 2015 near Shirdi by a group of nine intoxicated Maratha men because they objected to the phone ringtone. The ringtone had a song in praise of Ambedkar. Shejwal was a Mahar-Buddhist.
In May 2015, Sagar had gone to Shirdi to attend a friend’s wedding. During the celebrations, he and two of his cousins visited a local beer shop where his phone rang a few times. Nine heavily-inebriated men were sitting outside. They confronted Sagar about his ringtone: “Tumhi karaare kitihi halla, lai mazbut Bhimacha quilla (You can shout as much as you want but Bhim’s fortress always stays strong)”. They demanded that he change the ringtone. Sagar refused. A verbal spat snowballed into a fight. Sagar and his cousins were thrashed. Although the cousins managed to run away, the nine men took Sagar to a forest near the Manmad highway. His naked mutilated body was found here.
Ashwini, Sagar’s older sister, said: “We all thought he had gone to the wedding, but we had no clue where he was at that moment as his phone was not reachable. We were looking for him everywhere. When our relatives went o the police station, the cops said they would not head out in the heat. They needed an air-conditioned car. So the relatives arranged for an air-conditioned car. However, they (police) were still not able to locate Sagar.”
The body was finally found when one of Sagar’s friends was able to identify one of the accused. When interrogated, the man gave away the location.
All the nine accused have admitted to their crime and are behind bars. The social welfare department compensated the family with Rs. 1,75,000.
A huge portrait of Sagar hangs on the wall along with that of Ambedkar and other smaller pictures from the family album in the hall of their one-room kitchen house at Rahata Phata colony. Anita Shejwal, Sagar’s mother, said: “The main accused was from Maratha community. Why do they have so much anger against us?”
“Doctorani janavarala lavtaat tase taake lavle tyana”
(Doctors treated him worse than an animal while stitching his wounds)
Sadashiv Salave (better known as Salave Guruji), a 69-year-old retired primary school teacher, and his son and nephew were beaten up by upper caste mob with sticks, swords and iron rods when Guruji intervened in a dispute between the two castes in Bagh Pimpalgaon, Beed district in 2009. Digambar Salave, Guruji’s other son who now looks after their farm, sat on a sofa recalling the incident.
It started with a small fight on June 24, 2009, says Digambar. “My nephew Ravichandra Salave had gone to deliver the afternoon tiffin to my father who was working in the field. It was there the perpetrator, belonging to Dhangar caste, started abusing Ravi and threw stones at him,” Digambar says. An injured Ravi then went to hospital to get himself treated. The police, claims Digambar, didn’t take any action against the accused when a complaint was lodged.
The following day (25th June 2009), Ravi’s father, Bhikachand, went to the man’s house to confront him for beating his son. The man and the main accused, Gangaram Vazir, called his men—belonging to Maratha, Dhangar, and other upper caste communities in the village—and started beating Bhikachand using sticks, weapons and swords. They followed him home and started abusing the Salave family. Hearing the commotion, Guruji came out of the house to resolve the conflict. The mob then dragged him and assaulted him with swords and iron rods.
“The mob was very violent. No one was ready to listen. Even Pravin, who went to help Guruji, was injured severely. Nobody reached out to help when they started thrashing us,” says Guruji’s wife, Satvasheela. The police stopped the Salave family from going to the hospital and insisted on recording the statements first. Later when they were taken to a government hospital, the injured were not treated properly, claims Guruji’s wife. “Then we moved Guruji to another hospital in Beed. Even there we were denied proper treatment. The doctors didn’t pay attention while stitching the wounds and treated him worse than an animal.”
Guruji died of suffocation. Of the 18 accused, nine were sentenced to 7 years of imprisonment, the rest were acquitted. They have now appealed against the acquittal of some of the accused.
“Ti matimanda ahe mhanun tila sodla nahi tar marun takla asta”
(She was ‘spared’ because of her handicap else they would have killed her.)
“The 18-year-old deaf and dumb, mentally-challenged girl was not murdered only because her handicap would not allow her to talk about how she was gang-raped or beaten” This is how Dalit activist and National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ) president Harish Kakade described what happened to a girl from Phaltan block of Satara district in March 2015, when she went missing. Her parents were at work and her sisters in school. Only her younger brother and grandmother were at home. She had stepped out during the day, but had not returned by late evening. After a fruitless search, the family went to the police station. They were asked to wait for 24 hours as they suspected the girl had run away. They didn’t take the fact of her mental illness seriously.
In desperation, the family shared her photo and details on WhatsApp and social media. The next day, someone from the Wadgaon police station called to say a girl in a bad state had been brought there. When their nephew Ganesh brought her back, she told her mother using sign language what had happened.
Two men from the Kunchikorave (nomadic) community had taken her on their bike to a field a few kilometres from her home. There they raped her and took her to another nearby field to confuse her so that she would not be able to identify the location. They were thrashing her when a labourer there spotted them. The men had fled. The man called nearby villagers in an effort to identify the girl. Unable to understand what she was saying, they took her to Wadgaon police station. Eventually, they traced her with WhatsApp.
Her mother said doctors at the government hospital initially thought the blood was from her period, but finally intervened to ensure the cops lodged the complaint. The victim identified the accused in the identification parade.
The Kunchikorave community is influential in the village, Kakade says. One of the accused got a life term, but the other was acquitted. The girl’s family says the police didn’t show her the second accused during the identification parade.
“Savarna lokanchyaach baajune jasta karun nyaay dila jaata”
(The discretionary power of the judiciary normally works in
favour of the privileged caste)
“On April 26, 2007, Madhukar Ghadage, a 48-year-old Dalit-Buddhist farmer of Kulakajai village in Satara district, was digging a well near a percolation tank. The land near the tank—which he had bought—is prized for its high water table. It is shared with four upper caste families who have their own wells here.
“We bought the land under Jawahar Vihir (well) Yojana and even obtained a no-objection certificate from the gram sabha,” says Tushar Ghadage, Madhukar’s son. “They [upper caste families] were not happy, but we were determined to dig it because we were doing nothing illegal.
“We decided to speed up the digging using machines. Around 7 p.m., my cousin Vaibhav and I returned home to get food and water for the rest.” Returning to the site Tushar saw some men throwing stones at the diggers. The workers abandoned Madhukar and fled. Tushar and Vaibhav ran to the rescue, but they too were assaulted. By the time they got him out, Madhukar was unconscious from loss of blood.
“We had to carry my father on a bike for almost 21 km because we didn’t get any assistance from the villagers,” said Tushar. When they reached hospital, Madhukar was declared brought dead.
In 2010, a sessions court acquitted all 12 accused, citing lack of evidence. Tushar challenged the judgment in the Bombay High Court in August 2010. “When the bench saw this case, they were shocked at the judgment,” he said. The case is now pending at the high court.
The Ghadage family is a pioneer of the Dalit Buddhist movement of 1956. Madhukar’s grandfather Abaji was the first Dalit in the village to get a job in the Railways. The family is relatively affluent and progressive, with many members working in government.
“One of my brothers completed a Masters in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS),” says Tushar, who has an M.A. from the same institution. “One cousin is a civil engineer, another has an M.Sc. in microbiology and another an M. Sc. in Zoology. None of the upper caste families can match the Ghadages. This is a reason of contention and jealousy.”
Tushar says the well-digging only triggered a deep-seated grudge. “If we submit, they win,” Tushar says.
“Majha porala vedya kutrayala jasa martaat tasa marla”
(My son was killed like one would kill a mad dog on the loose)
He was 17 when he died, hanged from a tree in Kharda village near Ahmednagar district’s Jamkhed town for talking to a girl from an upper caste community. Three men, including the girl’s brother, suspected the Mahar boy of having an affair and constantly harassed him in school.
Nitin was a Class XI student who worked part-time in a motorcycle garage. He was good at studies. On April 28, 2014, the day of his death, he had appeared for the Std XII preparatory exam from Government English Medium school in Kharda village.
According to his father Raju Aage, Nitin was beaten up in school. Neither the teachers nor the principal intervened. Instead they were told to take it outside. “They paraded him naked in front of the village, but no one stopped the atrocity. Most of the onlookers were Marathas. My son was killed like one would kill a mad dog,” says Raju.
Narrating eyewitness accounts, Raju said the three men broke Nitin’s arms, legs and threw him on the floor. Then they ran a motorcycle over his unconscious body several times. They dragged him to a brick kiln and inserted hot iron rods into his private parts. Later they hanged him from a small lime tree to make it look like suicide.
Nitin’s parents searched frantically for several hours before they found him hanging from the tree. “We took him to Jamkhed Hospital where his post mortem was done,” Raju said.
The family of the girl in question said Nitin was only beaten and not murdered. A relative was quoted in The Hindu as saying Nitin was harassing the girl, and was thrashed when her brother found out. “It was meant to be a warning. Nitin must have felt insulted and committed suicide.”
“The teachers are to be blamed. They are Marathas. Why didn’t they stop them? If they had intervened, my son wouldn’t have died,” says Raju Aage.
Although more than 10 people were involved in Nitin’s murder, police registered complaints only against three, including the girl’s brother. Later the others were arrested too. Of 13 accused, three juveniles were released, and three granted bail.
Three years later, the case is still going on.
Sudharak Olwe has been a Mumbai-based photojournalist since 1988. He has worked as a press photographer with some of the leading newspapers in India. In 2016, Sudharak was conferred the Padma Shri.
Helena Schätzle is an award-winning photographer who works as an independent photojournalist with the German media.
Shraddha Ghatge is a journalist based in Mumbai.
(The cover story of the April 2017 edition of Fountain Ink)