The caste cauldron of Maharashtra (Part I)

(Report first published in November 2003)

Violence against Dalits in Marathwada

A Report by the Fact Finding Team comprising

Dr. Anand Teltumbde

Akram Siddiqui

Subodh More

Hashim Mohamma

November 2003

Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR), Mumbai

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Introduction

In recent months a series of incidents of killings and violence against Dalits in Marathwada shocked everyone. The issue raked up in the Maharashtra Assembly led to Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde offering to resign. People smelt it to be a reaction to a Dalit becoming the chief Minister of the State for the first time. Some tried to see it as a part of strategies of political parties on the eve of elections. Some analyzed it as a natural result of weakening of Dalits over recent times because of their political fragmentation. The recent Shiv Sena overtures to Dalits, with the slogan of 'Bhimshakti + Shivshakti = Deshbhakti' was also being linked to these happenings.

The foxing aspect of these incidents was that most of the Dalits in this series were from the Matang caste, which is not known to be as politically assertive as Ambedkarite Mahars (Buddhists), so as to have antagonistic contradictions with the Savarna castes. Atrocities on Dalits or their killings are not a new thing in Marathwada. Marathwada earned its dubious distinction by perpetrating numerous atrocities on Dalits and killing hundreds of them during the movement for renaming the Marathwada University after Babasaheb Ambedkar and even thereafter. But all these Dalits happened to be only Mahars or Buddhists as they call themselves. In the entire Maharashtra, the Mahars become the target of the Savarnas as they are the most assertive and politically organized people. As a result, any atrocity on the Dalits in Maharashtra, by default, meant atrocity on the Buddhists. It was for the first time that one heard of Matangs being significantly targeted by the Savarnas. It is well known that Marathwada has a significant population of the Matangs and in recent years they have also begun organizing themselves by variously iconizing a revolutionary poet Shaheer Ananbhau Sathe. But that in it self could not become a reason for such a violent reaction from the Savarna community as to kill people with inhuman ferocity. There was no indication that they had made a common cause with the Buddhists so as to incur the wrath of the Savarnas against themselves.

The incidents were complex enough to warrant a careful analysis. Most of the incidents happened on the issue of water at public hand pumps. Hand pumps are a common source of water in this drought prone region. The placement of these hand pumps, their upkeep therefore, becomes an integral part of these incidents bringing thereby the developmental nuances of the State into question. No attention has been paid to these aspects in this context. Already political parties had started looking at these incidents as their political opportunities. They coloured them as per their convenience. The Sonia Gandhi sponsored fact finding team of the Congress came out with its report that saw one of the goriest incidents as a clash between two anti-social elements.

It rightly met with indignation and condemnation by the Dalit organizations. Maratha Mahasangh openly called these incidents as fake and demanded annulment of Atrocity Act itself. Dalit Parties tried to take cudgels for the victims but because of their fragmentation they could not make much of an impact. As a matter of fact, their calculated concerns could not hide the underneath anxiety of maximizing their respective political gain.

It is then that CPDR decided to take up these cases for fact finding, by a team. The team comprised of the following persons:

1. Dr. Anand Teltumbde

2. Akram Siddiqui

3. Subodh More

4. Hashim Mohammad

The team visited Jalana, Bhutegaon, Dhansawangi Police Station, Sonna Khota and Aurangabad from July 25 to 28, 2003; talked to a number of people and collected facts on the incidents that collectively comprise the subject issue. The main incidents investigated are (1) Attack on a Matang family by a Savarna mob and burning alive of a Matang youth- Dilip Shendge at Bhutegaon village in Jalana district and (2) Attack on a Dalit family by the Savarna mob and consequently the brutal killing of one Dadarao Dongre at Sonna Khota village in Beed district.

1. Attack on a Dalit family and burning of Dilip Shendge at Bhutegaon

Socio-economic setting of Bhutegaon

Bhutegaon is a small, obscure village with a population of about 1800. It is situated some 30 Km from Dhanasawangi town, which became a Taluka after bifurcation of Ambad taluka of Jalana district in Marathwada region of Maharashtra. Ambad taluka has been infamous for its dominant feudal setting. Caste traditions run deep here and the writ of Maratha Landlords called Patils runs supreme in the entire taluka. Jalana district to which Ambad and Dhhanasawangi talukas belong, has a dubious distinction of having the maximum cases of atrocities on Dalits in the Marathwada region. Among the eight districts of this region in central Maharashtra, Jalana tops with 19 of the total 46 crime cases involving attacks on Dalits registered in the last six months. Last year, in all, 18 cases of atrocities against Dalits were registered in the district but this year during the first five and a half months itself, there have been 14 cases. Out of them, Ambad-Dhansawangi talukas accounts for five cases.

It is surprising that this very region had sent Dhondiraj Kamble, a Matang person as its representative to Legislative Assembly way back in 1970s when the caste traditions were far more rigid than now. Most of Marathwada is drought- prone and suffers from acute scarcity of water. This year, about 39 out of a total 76 talukas in the Marathwada region have been declared drought-prone with an average rainfall of 780 mm. The government has put up hand pumps in every village but many of the hand pumps do not work, either because of water table having gone too low or the pumps being out of order. As a result, caste clashes on the issue of water taking place at the hand pumps, have become a usual feature of Marathwada.

Bhutegaon has 75% Savarna Maratha population. It has 14 households belonging to Buddhists, 18 households to Matangs, and one household each to Bhoi (fisherman), Muslim and Kumbhar (potter) communities. Savarna Maratha community owns most of the land in this village. Dalits are landless labourers, few owning small pieces of fallow (gayaran) land. They depend upon the Savarna landlords for farm jobs for their livelihood. A male farm labourer gets Rs. 40 per day and in the cropping season it is raised to Rs. 50; the female labourer gets Rs. 15-20 as daily wages. In the cotton picking season, the wages are based on piece rate of Re. 1 per Kg.

Bhutegaon has a school up to the seventh standard. As a result, most of the village population including Dalits is literate but it has scarcely gone beyond SSC-level. Even in education, the distribution is skewed in favour of Maratha community. They are better educated, many are graduates and at least one has a post-graduate degree. Nobody needs to tell a stranger which part of the village belongs to them. Their houses are made of stones and bricks and are far bigger than the hovels on the outskirts which belong to Dalit community. Dalits do not have entry into their houses or their temples. Over the years, rigidity of tradition appears to have loosened but not to the extent where its contours are not visible. Untouchability is still practiced in its quintessential form.

Fed up with this feudal oppression and harassed by repeated droughts, some Dalit families from this area fled to Mumbai and dissolved themselves into crowds of slum dwellers. Four years back, the only source of water for Bhutegaon Dalits was the Dudhna River, which was a 40-minute walk away. Though there was a well in the village, it was situated in that part where the upper caste Bhutekars lived. It was not accessible to lower castes. When the government installed 12 hand pumps, none of them were put up in the Dalit colony. The Dalits therefore relied on one pump which was closer to them in the temple area of the village. While the Dalits would not be allowed to approach other hand pumps in Bhutekar area, Bhutekars claimed not only access to all the pumps but also a privilege to be the first on any of them.

Shendge family, which was the victim of the May 14-incident, belongs to Matang caste. Way back in 1972, Shahurao Shendge along with his wife Shantabai and son Ramesh, had migrated to Mumbai during the severe drought that year. They lived in Damupada slum in Kandivali since then. They had two more children at Mumbai- Dilip, who was burnt alive in the incident, was 25 and Lata is 16. Shendge brothers mainly earned their living as plumbers and also operated an auto rickshaw. Shahurao had some five acres of land at Bhutegaon which he had given to his brother for cultivation and a hut at the edge of Bhutegaon. Apart form memories of Bhutegaon as their native place, Shendges had hardly any relation with the place. The family however had come to Bhutegaon for the marriage of Dilip which was to take place on May 27, 2003. The main reason was the demolition of their hut in the Damupada slum by the BMC authorities around the time Dilip's marriage was fixed. Shantabai, Ramesh, his wife Nanda, and Lata arrived in Bhutegaon on April 13, 2003 to make arrangements. Dilip arrived a month later, on the May 13, 2003. The incident happened the very next day, on May 14, that made the to-be bridegroom Dilip, a veritable martyr in the Sanatan caste struggle.

Our Investigations

As we reached Bhutegaon on Saturday, July 26, 2003, we did not have to ask anyone for Dilip Shendge's house. A newly constructed memorial that appeared grossly oversized for the hovels that provide it a backdrop, told us where to stop and whom to talk to. We stopped and read the board. It read "Dalit Mahasangh". It was placed there by Maschindra Satak and Kapil Patil of 'Samajik Nyaya Morcha'

As we entered the courtyard, Ramesh Shahurao Shendge seated us on a cot as his wife washed utensils just a few feet away. Some five to six persons surrounded us within a few minutes, one of whom was Shiwaji Bhoware- husband of Indumati Bhoware who is a Sarpanch of Bhutegaon Gram Panchayat. Ramesh and Shiwaji narrated the entire sequence of events as follows:

It was May 14, 2003. The Bhutekars had a wedding on that day. They were collecting drinking water for the occasion from all possible sources. There are 12 hand pumps in Bhutegaon, all in the Savarn area as the source of water. Only two of them worked. One was deep inside the Savarna area and the other was on the outskirts, near Narayan Bhutekar's farm and closer to Dalit colony. It was mainly this pump that the Dalits fetched their water from. They lived just a lane away from this hand pump.

At the edge of their colony as well as the village, was a cluster of huts where the Shendge family lived. The Shendge brothers and sister in Mumbai had grown up in Mumbai and did not know much of the Bhutegaon customs. They were not rich, but the setting the metropolis of Mumbai had placed them in, was not socially oppressive. They could be first to fetch water on the Municipal tap. It allowed them to intermingle freely with any one in the Basti. Bhutegaon that never let the Dalits recover form the internalization of their inferior social status vis-à-vis Bhutekars was left far behind. Mumbai had cleansed this migrant Matang family of its inferiority and filled it with cosmopolitan sensibility. Bhutegaon however remained fossilized with its caste traditions. It would not change. When the Shendges from Mumbai came to Bhutegaon, it refused to acknowledge them as anything other than the lowly Matangs. It expected them to behave as the Matangs in Bhutegaon did.

Ramesh had brought his scooter from Mumbai for the ease of going around for distributing invitation cards to relatives in the surrounding villages. The wedding was fixed on May 27. Ramesh gave us one invitation card which has now turned useless to him. The Shendge family was looking forward to having a good family event. But for the fateful incident of May 14, Dilip would have been on the top of the world on the day we were talking to Ramesh and other Shendges at Bhutegaon. Dilip was no more. He was punished by Bhutegaon for his defiance of caste code. He disappeared as one plus to the uncountable victims of the caste killings in India. What remains of him is the terror and chilled ire among his kin, shockwaves in the diminishing world of those who hope to see equality and fraternity reign in society, petty struggles of politicians to capitalize his death to their advantage and a big memorial that would soon be forgotten.

May 14, 2003. That day Lata, a younger sister of Dilip Shendge goes to the hand pump to fetch water. Being mid summer, all the village hand pumps are dry except two. One of them fortunately is the one from where the Dalits usually fetched their water. That day happens to be the day of marriage of one of the daughters of Bhutekars. They require more water and hence come to collect it from this pump too, besides the one in their own area. There is a queue at the hand pump and Lata stands there. When her turn comes, she steps forward to fill her vessel. Two youth from the Bhutekar family, Vitthal and Datta in their early 20s, however stop her and abuse her in the name of her caste. A verbal exchange breaks out between Lata and them. It grows into taunting, teasing and unseemly physical skirmish. This happens around 2.00 to 2.30 pm as per Ramesh who revealed the sequence of events to us.

Lata comes back home and reports the matter to Dilip. He gets infuriated with rage and heads off to the hand pump with Lata. There he abuses Datta and Vitthal Bhutekars and gets into physical fight with them. Several people of Bhutekar rush to the spot and start beating Dilip and Lata. Dilip fights back but Lata gets badly beaten. Some one kicks her in the stomach and she falls unconscious. Ramesh and Nanda who witness the incident desperately plead with the Bhutekars to stop the fight. They beg of them for a cart to take Lata to the doctor. Shantabai touches their feet to no avail. Although, the fight ends with Lata falling unconscious and intervention of some people of Bhoi (fisherman) caste, the Bhutekars have had enough from Dilip. (Ramesh proudly told us that he had really thrashed them). The Shendges return home. The news of a Matang beating up the Maratha Bhutekars spreads like wildfire among the guests who have come for the marriage. The Bhutekars' insult gets multiplied. It is just too much to swallow. They become mad with anger. They wait just to conclude the wedding ceremony and see off the bride.

At around 5 pm, the entire Bhutekar mob of some 20 people with sticks and axes reach Dilip Shedge's house. Dilip's mother shuts him up inside the hut and blocks the door. One Shyam Bhutekar climbs on the top of the hut for entering through the roof and in the process gets his leg broken. The crowd pushes Shantabai aside and around 13 persons thrust into the house and start beating Dilip with sticks. Others hold back Ramesh and other family members. Dilip's mother and sister rush for saving Dilip and get themselves badly beaten. Soon they drag Dilip out of the hut into the courtyard. Ramesh Bhutekar, the most educated person in Bhutegaon, who is a professor in a college in Jalana, pours kerosene on him and sets him ablaze. Dilip's mother and sister rush to save him and also get burnt. Dilip, Lata and their mother all in excruciating pain of burns are put on a bullock cart with the help of Deputy Sarpanch, Bhagawat Gulabrao Kale and then on a bus to a Jalana Hospital. The grueling journey through rough terrain and scorching heat of 41 degree Celsius comes to an end at around 8 pm. Dilip dies in the hospital five days later, on May 19, 2003, with 97 per cent burns. Dilip's mother has 20 per cent burns on her hand and stomach and his father has slight burns on his hands. They, along with Lata are still in the hospital.

At the hospital, the Police register the case. Dilip shouts out the names of his attackers and vows to take revenge. Police from the Dhansawangi Police Station in whose jurisdiction Bhutegaon falls, appear in Bhutegaon at around 12 pm. No arrests are made. Next day at around 12 am, the police arrest six people- Asaram, Sudam, Karbhari, Shamrao, Kisanrao and Babasaheb, all Bhutekars. Arrests again take place on May 19. In all, 13 people are arrested, the last one on May 23, that of Ramesh Bhutekar.

Shiwaji Bhoware told us that beating up of the Dalits was not an unusual occurrence in Bhutegaon but it never went to the extent of killing. Around two years ago, one Eknath Dagdu Shendge (45) was taken to the flour mill and was badly beaten by Asaram Muktaji Bhutekar, Rama Bhagaji Bhutekar and Shamrao Babasaheb Bhutekar. Eknath tried to report the incident at the police station but was stopped by the Bhutekars. They threatened him of dire consequences if he dared to complain against them.

Shiwaji, who belonged to an OBC caste, enthusiastically narrated how casteism is observed in Bhutegaon. He said that there was virtually no transaction between the Dalits and the Marathas. The Dalits swallow all the insults of the Marathas as they depend on their jobs for livelihood. It was foxing at first sight, to find such a progressive person in a backward village like Bhutegaon but soon we were reminded of his Sarpanch wife who belonged to the Shiv Sena. Shiwaji was representing the political dynamics of Bhutegaon. The Bhutegaon Gram Panchayat had seven members out of which four belonged to the Shiv Sena and three to the NCP. The political affiliations seemed to defy the caste lines. The Shiv Sena had one member from the OBC, one from the Dalits and two from the Marathas. NCP had one member from the OBC and two members from the Marathas. The Dalits and the OBC appeared to be leaning towards the Shiv Sena and Marathas were divided between both, the Shiv Sena and the NCP. As for them, this division did not come in the way of their caste equation.

The dying declaration of Dilip does not have any names. Shantabai's testimony contains contradictory statements. At the time of recording the dying declaration of Dilip, Ramesh was asked to leave the room by the Police. Ramesh, however, could still hear the statements. Dilip had told the police the names of Ramesh Bhutekar as the person who burnt him and others who had beaten him. However, the recorded statement reportedly does not contain any names. There were several eye witnesses to the gory incident including the members of Shendge family but the Police have not recorded statements of any of them.

We could not meet any member of Bhutekar family in the village as most were already behind the bar and others unavailable at that point in time. We talked to some Savarna people who were sitting in the school verandah near the hand pump. They regretted the incident as unfortunate happening but claimed that it was of its own kind. On asking about the caste practices, they coolly told us that these customs have continued unobstructed; neither had they tried to change them nor the Dalits wanted otherwise. They said if the Dalits wanted to enter their temples, they would not stop them. Indeed, the Superintendent of Police reportedly led Dalits for the first time into the local temple after the incident. One Matang person retorted that it was all hollow now that they are caught in a trap. Otherwise, they would not treat Dalits as even human beings.

Facts of Bhutegaon: Our analysis

The incident is simple to comprehend. Over a period of time, stories will get constructed to mutate the truth. Already we have heard rumours about such constructions, that when people came to his hut in large numbers, Dilip shut himself in, poured kerosene and set himself ablaze. He came out of the house and ran to embrace his target so that they also get burnt along with him. Apart from there being scores of witnesses to this gory incident, such stories are getting fabricated. Leave alone the truth; even a fool would consider them puerile. The incident highlights the base caste prejudice of the traditionally powerful castes against the Dalits. The observance of traditions lends them a sense of security that their dominance is unchallenged. In corollary, the increasing Dalit assertion is taken as the challenge to their traditional rule. Here, the Bhutekars wanted Lata to concede to their right, to take water first. A girl grown up in Mumbai could not take it. Her protest was reason enough for them to do whatever they did. They put soil into her pitcher. Not only did they taunt and tease her but they also indulged in physical assault. She fought back but could not match the village bully.

She reported the matter to her brother who naturally reacted in rushing to the spot and thrashing the fellows. After all, he was not a Matang of Bhutegaon to swallow it. How he did it is not consequential. As per one account, published in Saptahik Maharashtra (June 9, 2003) by Prof. Raisaheb Dhavale, Dilip went with a cold drink bottle in his hand and attacked Datta and Vitthal Bhutekars with it. Ramesh for instance, did not tell us these details but he did say that Dilip had thrashed them. It was too much for the Bhutekars to take. A son of a lowly Matang who did their Siledarki not many years ago, had temerity of raising his hands on the Bhutekars! It was a rebellion against their lordship over the village. It had to be nipped in the bud with exemplary terror. And they did it by setting Dilip ablaze.

In such a widely witnessed incident, a question mark is placed as to whether Dilip was burnt or he got himself burnt. Organizations like Akhil Bharatiya Chhava and Maratha Mahasangh have taken processions and did demonstrations claiming that the incident was fake. They are trying to project that Dilip had AIDS and hence he got himself burnt. Their representative Pritamkumar Shegaonkar demanded that the Atrocity Act should be annulled (Dainik Mahanayak, Aurangabad, 11.06.03). In this way, confusion is being created to diffuse the issue. Already, there are differing versions of the incident which would come in handy to hushing up the matter.

Certain things are highlighted by this incident

First, it is a case of ferocious atrocity against a Matang boy. Usually, the Dalit assertion is identified always with the Mahars (Buddhists) in Maharashtra who carry a legacy of the glorious anti-caste struggle launched by Babasaheb Ambedkar. The other Dalit castes had not yet identified with this struggle. The series of incidents of atrocities against Matangs in this belt perhaps points towards rising consciousness among the Matangs who are getting galvanized around a revolutionary Communist poet- Shahir Annabhau Sathe who happened to belong to their caste. Annabhau Sathe had written a famous song attributing his revolutionary consciousness to Babasaheb Ambedkar and thus can be a conduit for the Dalit consciousness among these populous Dalit castes. If true, this should be considered as a very positive development towards Dalit unity.

Second, the incident highlights the contradiction between the cosmopolitan sensibility of a Dalit and the traditional caste prejudice of the Savarna castes. Lata and Dilip Shendge represent the former and the Bhutekars of Bhutegaon, the latter. The former tends to dissolve sub-caste identity and strengthens democratic consciousness whereas the latter looks backwards in desperation to safeguard its traditional hegemony. With the increasing crisis faced by the rural areas, with increasing globalization, the relative insecurity of the Savarna castes is bound to increase and with it, the incidence of atrocities.

Third, it signifies the fact that our education system is incapable of inducing either modernity or human values. The highest educated person of Bhutegaon- Ramesh Bhutekar, who is a professor in a Jalana college, was in forefront in beating up Dilip and he distinguished himself in inhumanity, by pouring kerosene over Dilip and setting him ablaze. The source of his temerity can well be found in his traditional caste-positioning in the village as well as in contemporary political patronage (he is said to have support of a NCP bigwig Shri Tope of Jalana in whose college he is a professor).

Fourth, howsoever naked may be the incident of atrocity, it can still be suppressed if you have the right connections. Despite the political and press exposure to this gory incident, the case documentation appears already doctored to dilute the crime. Dilip's dying declaration reportedly does not have any names although everybody knows that he had been shouting out their names and swearing to avenge their crime over four days that he struggled to survive his 97 per cent burns. Likewise, the statement of his mother also has been reportedly distorted. If the conviction rate for the atrocity cases against Dalits bears any indication, the Bhutekars of Bhutegaon may be already relaxed.

Fifth, some people link it to the party politics. As it appears, the Marathas are more aligned towards NCP whereas the Dalits are leaning towards Shiv Sena. While most of the party leaders have visited Bhutegaon after this incident, none from the Shiv Sena has done it despite its heightened propaganda on the unity of Bhimshakti and Shivshakti. It exposes the true content of this slogan that while the Shiv Sena wants Dalit votes, it will never touch the basic contradictions between the Dalits and Savarnas and antagonize the latter. Even in the heat of this move, it has not hesitated in showing its anti-Dalit fangs by taking out a big procession in Vadvani town of Beed district against the Dalits (detailed later in the case of Sonna Khota).

In essence, these incidents happen day in and day out everywhere in India. It is a case of enforcement of caste superiority with terror against the emerging Dalit assertion. Dalits are inured to it in villages. But it is not unusual even in towns and cities. It happens in modern offices where the Dalits are just tolerated so long as they reflect subservience to their upper caste bosses. No sooner its lack is perceived, they are variously harassed. It is a matter of scale that differs. The flames engulfing and killing Dilip Shendge were seen and therefore made news but there are innumerable Shendges in India who are being roasted silently in the conflagration of caste culture!

Dhansawangi Police Station

We went to get the police version from the Dhansawangi Police Station. We were surprised to see all kinds of people sitting anywhere and none like police. On our asking for the police in-charge, some one brought one person in uniform. He was Devidas Birhade, Police Constable in charge of the police station in the absence of Nikam, the API. PI was supposed to be heading the Police Station. In no way did the Police Station reflect the anxiety associated with the unprecedented law and order problem that had arisen in its jurisdiction in the form of two gruesome Dalit killings barely within two months and the numerous other incidents of atrocities. Everything appeared normal and relaxed. As per Birhade, Dhansawangi taluka has 95 villages and only 36 policemen. There was only one lady police attached to the Taluka police station. We enquired about the incidents of Bhutegaon and Murti. He picked up the FIR register and read out the FIR for Murti-incident that took place on July 9, 2003. The FIR was registered on July 10, 2003 under IPC Arts. 302, 307, 324, 323, 504, 506, 34 etc. and 3 91) (10) Atrocity Act. The complainant was Lakhan Ankush Thorat (14) and the accused were Bapurao Deorao Surashe, Sandipan Bapurao Surashe, Vatsalabai Bapurao Surashe, and Prayagbai Madan Surashe, all residents of Murti village.

Birhade could not find the register for Bhutegaon. He told us that police bandobust had been made at both the villages. When we told him that we had been to Bhutegaon and we did not find any police in the village, he was puzzled. He said, the team comprised of one head constable and three constables and they were supposed to be there. Both the incidents were being investigated by CID Crime Branch and Birhade gave us contacts of Murli Bhosle, Hingoli who is investigating into the Murti incident and Salunke, Nanded for the Bhutegaon incident. There was nothing much that could be obtained in terms of the facts of the case from the CID and hence we did not attempt to meet them.

Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR), Mumbai

Contact: P. A. Sebastian, President, CPDR, 104, YMCA, 12 N. Parekh Marg, Colaba, Mumbai-400039. Phone: 9820142752.

[Courtesy: PUCL, December 2003]