Just weeks after a Dalit man occupied Raisina Hill as the 14th President of India, in an extreme case of caste-based discrimination, members of an upper caste community allegedly assaulted a Dalit leader in Maharashtra. They smeared cow dung on his face, poured petrol on his body, and chased after him for a kilometre, beating him with bamboo sticks after he protested against Dalit residents not being allowed to cremate their deceased in the village’s common crematorium.
Five other residents were also allegedly beaten up, and the Kankavli police have registered a case of assault against around 50 members of the upper-caste community.
However, Pradip Bhalekar, the social activist who had filed a petition in the Bombay high court challenging actor Sanjay Dutt’s early release from Yerwada Central Prison in the 1993 blasts case, admitted a petition in the high court, calling for stricter action against the accused, stating that caste-based discrimination was extreme in the Chinchavli village of Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg district.
Dalits are still not allowed to enter the homes of the upper caste in this village. The utensils they use are laced with dung, and for the past four to five years, they are not being allowed to cremate their dead in the village’s common crematorium because the upper caste residents cremate their deceased there. Discrimination in death is unpardonable. A dead person has no caste or religion.Pradip Bhalekar, Social activist
Bhalekar had also challenged the Mumbai police’s “biased” investigations in inmate Manjula Shetye’s murder case.
Tanaji Kamble, 50, zilla president for the area, stated that the crematorium row started around five years ago. The upper-caste and Dalit residents of the Chinchavli village were using separate crematoriums, which were located a few feet from each other. However, around five years ago, the owner of the land, which housed the crematoriums, decided to set up his farm on the land, and asked the crematoriums to be moved. Although the upper-caste community quickly moved to a new land on the outskirts of their village, aided by the Gram Panchayat with funds of Rs 10,000, the Dalits could not afford the new space. For the past five years hence, Dalits were travelling to other villages, tens of kilometres away, to perform the last rites of their near ones.
Through a Right to Information Act query, we learnt that the government had paid for the new crematorium of the upper-castes. If the government has built a space, it does not belong to one individual or one community, it belongs to all residents of the village. But members of the upper-caste community just wouldn’t allow the Dalits to cremate their dead there. It was beneath them, that their dead would rest alongside those of the lower caste.Tanaji Kamble, Zilla president
For the past five years, Dalit residents of the village would often bring up the issue with the upper-castes, however, they were always shunned away, said a resident of the village. The Dalits tried to negotiate with the upper-castes for a corner in their crematorium, however they weren’t forthcoming. The upper-castes make for the majority of the 1,200 people in the village, and aware that they couldn’t defeat the upper caste with pleadings or might, the Dalits started approaching the relevant authorities. Kamble learnt of the issue during one of his visits to the village.
Kamble escalated the issue to the Prant Adhikari (assistant or deputy district collector), and the latter called for a meeting on 10 August in the village. Around 25 to 30 Dalit residents of the village were invited by the officials to voice their grievances. Kamble, too, was summoned.
However, soon after four Dalit residents recorded their statements, Kamble arrived at the office, and was confronted by a crowd of around 50 upper-caste men. The upper-castes allegedly smeared cow dung on his face, and started hurling obscenities.
“We could hear people shouting outside,” said Rupesh Kamble, 26, a Dalit resident of the village, who is employed with a Mumbai-based private firm, “They (the upper-caste members) were armed with bamboo sticks. They were shouting at Tanaji Kamble, accusing him of complaining against them. He tried to calm them down, saying that the matter could be discussed and resolved, however, they didn’t listen, and charged at him with the sticks. When we tried to rush to his rescue, the upper caste members locked us inside the room, where our statements were being recorded. But five of us, including a woman, found a way out, and approached the crowd. We were beaten too. Even the lady wasn’t spared.”
Tanaji Kamble stated that during the confrontation, the accused fished out a bottle of petrol, and poured it on him. They threatened to burn him alive, constantly abusing him for being a Dalit leader. Tanaji, who was petrified by now, started running away from the group of fifty men, and was chased for at least a kilometre, being constantly beaten with sticks and blows.
I’m diabetic, and a heart patient. After a kilometre or so, I couldn’t take it anymore, and lost consciousness. But they kept on beating me. I don’t know when my wife reached the spot, and begged them for mercy. But they didn’t listen. After a few minutes, when they were probably satisfied that I was dead, they abandoned me, and left. Dalit residents and my wife then rushed me to a local hospital.Tanaji Kamble
Tanaji was later shifted to another hospital, and is still recuperating there. Although his condition is now stable, he has been kept in the hospital under observation.
Caste-based discrimination in the village, reads Bhalekar’s petition, has been prevalent for years. “Around fifteen years ago, a man named Deva Chambhar was assaulted with sticks and knives in a similar manner over caste-based differences. The man had to leave the village with his family,” the petition alleges.
Bhalekar stated that although this recent case was clearly that of attempted murder, the Kankavli police have only registered a case under section 324 of the Indian Penal Code – causing hurt by dangerous weapons or means. He alleged influence from senior leaders of the upper-caste community, which, he said, was keeping the police from pressing stricter charges.
Inspector SS Khot, in-charge of the Kankavli police station, told The Quint, “We have registered a case against the concerned accused. The sections invoked are in accordance with the nature of the victims’ injuries. We have also pressed charges under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Further investigation is in progress.”
However, residents of the village state that after the police complaint, life has become even difficult for Dalit residents.
They’ve shut our shops, and have refused to sell groceries to us. For the smallest of items, we have to go to villages 40 kilometres away. They’ve instructed auto rickshaw drivers not to ply us, and now, every time we need public transport, we have to walk to the highway, which is 5 kilometres away. Dalits are receiving phone calls threatening them. People are so scared that they’ve turned their phones off.A village resident, who did not wish to be identified
Bhalekar seconded the revelations.
“And all of this, only for the right to rest in peace,” he said.
(The writer is a journalist, and author of the true crime book, “The Front Page Murders: Inside the Serial Killings that Shocked India.’)
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