A little after sunset on 2 June, an incident of caste violence broke out in Ruikhed village in Maharashtra’s Buldhana district. A 50-year-old Dalit woman was surrounded by a mob of over 30 men, who beat her, stripped her and dragged her on the ground. According to the woman, the mob, which comprised entirely of men belonging to the Maratha community, started beating her on an isolated stretch on the outskirts of Ruikhed. They then dragged her for nearly 500 metres, till the main access road of the village. They tore her saree, blouse and petticoat, leaving her clothes in tatters. Members of the mob also pinched her and slapped her several times. Fifteen minutes into the attack, the woman’s 22-year-old son told me, the men had stripped her of all her clothes. She fell to the ground, unconscious, and the mob of men left. The woman and her family said that they belonged to the Charmakar scheduled caste, and were accused of attempting to steal a pair of bullocks from a farm that belonged to a dominant-caste Maratha family.
The woman’s son told me that before the mob left the woman on the road, other villagers had started to gather at the scene of the crime and the participants of the mob “threatened them to not help my mother or they would have to face dire consequences.” He added that it took nearly 30 minutes for the police to reach the spot from the nearby Dhad police station, which has jurisdiction over the village and is six kilometers away from it. The woman’s husband, a 50-year-old agricultural labourer, and two sons—a 27-year-old and the 22-year-old—were with her when the mob arrived at the farm. The husband told me that the mob attacked him and his sons at a few metres away from where the woman was attacked but that they had somehow managed to escape with minor injuries. “We hid ourselves in the bushes. I saw my wife get beaten up and dragged by her feet. They stripped her naked. I could not dare intervene. I was afraid for my life,” the husband said.
On 10 June, I met the woman in the district’s government hospital, where she was still admitted and being treated for internal injuries and trauma. She told me the entire incident was a misrepresentation of differences within her family, which gave the mob of Maratha men an opportunity to subject her to violence. “My husband and my elder son had been having issues over the past few days. Their fight escalated that evening and my husband left the house in a fit of rage. He declared that he would hang himself to death.” The woman told me that she was terrified. “He was so angry. We thought he would just end his life. My two sons and I ran behind him and we mistakenly entered our neighbour’s farm.” The farm is across the road from the woman’s house. This, she said, led to the attack on her and her family.
That night, one of the Maratha families was celebrating their son’s wedding in the village. “Most men were in an inebriated state. Someone from the farm shouted, “Chor! Chor!”(Thief! Thief!) and everyone rushed to the spot,” Samadhan Ugale, the village’s police patil told me. Under the Maharashtra Village Police Act, a police patil is an official appointed to a village by the state government, who is responsible for assisting the district’s executive magistrate and police personnel with quasi-judicial and administrative matters in the village. Samadhan, the village’s 70-year-old patil, is one of the prime witnesses in the case. He told me that he had tried, but was unable to intervene and stop the ensuing violence. “I was pushed to the ground. I knew I could not have done anything on my own. So I immediately called the police,” he said.
Shashi Kumar Meena, the district superintendent of police, told me that the woman had named 23 men as the assaulters and the police have arrested all of them. His account differed slightly from the woman’s account and said that the men predominantly belonged to the Maratha community, apart from a few who belonged to Other Backward Class communities. They were booked under various sections of the India Penal Code (IPC) for the offences of rioting, outraging the modesty of a woman, causing grievous hurt as well as offences under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 2016 or Atrocities Act. On a complaint filed by Bharat Ugale, a 26-year-old member of the Maratha community who owns the land that the woman and her family had entered, the police also registered a case against the woman, her husband, and her two sons for an attempt to theft.
According to the 2011 census of India, Ruikhed village has a population of 2,712 people and between 21 to 30 percent of the village belongs to Scheduled Castes. Samadhan told me that the village predominantly consists of members of the Maratha community and includes members from OBC communities, Dalit families that follow Buddhism and another 25 families that belong to the Charmakar Scheduled Caste who did not convert to Buddhism. It was evident from my visit to the village that the Maratha community holds the reins in the village administration. The panchayat’s sarpanch, her deputy, the Tanta Mukti Samiti (alternative dispute resolution council) and the police patil, all belong to one extended Maratha family—the Ugales.
This concentration of power within the village was also reflected in the attack against the woman. Most persons involved in the assault are close relatives of the village heads. Vijay Ugale, the deputy sarpanch’s son, is one of the main accused people in the crime and was arrested a day after the crime. Bharat Ugale, who owns the cultivated land that the Dalit family had allegedly trespassed into, is the nephew of the village sarpanch, Meena Ugale. In this lopsided power equation, the 50-year-old woman told me, it was their caste that made the family an easy target. “We [the Dalit families] have never been in any decision making positions. They hold control over everything and expect us to follow them without ever questioning anything.”
Several people belonging to the Maratha community, however, told me they felt the attack on the woman was justified. Among them was Swati Ugale, Bharat’s wife. Bharat is also named as one of the main accused people in the crime. “This is not the first time that they stole our cattle,” Swati told me. “We’ve had enough. That night we caught them red-handed.” Swati said the family had come prepared to steal the cattle.“They had light torches in their hands. All four hid in different locations.” When I asked the 50-year-old woman about this, she said they were looking for her missing husband and could not possibly afford to lose time looking at the same spot. “We intentionally went in different directions looking for him.”
According to the woman, the members of the Maratha community harbor an animosity towards her because she contested in the panchayat elections four or five years ago. She told me her family’s political assertion was unacceptable to them. “I have been regularly raising objections against the village administrators. They cannot fathom that a Charmakar woman can question them.” She added that her family owns six acres of cultivable land in the village. “We do not need to steal for our living. They are intentionally spreading lies.” She asked me to consider the time when the alleged crime took place. “If one were to steal, one would have waited until midnight. It was only 7 pm and villagers were still awake. Why would we risk our lives?”
Meena, the police superintendent, said that the padlock of the cowshed was tampered with and it has been seized for further investigation. He continued, “But at this point, it is difficult to say whether they had just strayed into the field or had entered with a clear intention of theft.” He added, “We are only focusing on the mob violence and atrocity charge as that is of a graver concern.” “The investigation into the allegations against the woman and her family has been put on hold for now,” he told me again, when I spoke to him later on 28 June. He also said there were four cases of manufacturing illicit liquor and two cases of cattle theft pending against the woman and her family for over four years.“But these allegations are yet to be proved,” he added
Krishnarao Ugale, the head of the village’s Tanta Mukti Samiti told me that this was the first case under the Atrocities Act that had been filed in the village. The institution of the Tanta Mukti Samiti was established under the Mahatma Gandhi Tantamukt Gaon Mohim scheme, which the Maharashtra government introduced in 2007. Under the scheme, the village gram panchayat appoints a dispute resolution committee in each village, which consists of a “respected person” from the village as well as other heads of the village. The committee is assigned the task of resolving petty disputes that arise in the village.
Ganesh Ingale, a Dalit resident of Ruikhed told me that the “respected person is invariably from the upper caste.” He continued, “They are the majority. The village administration is in their hands, they automatically fit the criteria.” Ingale also said that this was the first case registered under the Atrocities Act, but added that minor skirmishes are occurred frequently in the village. “Disputes over encroachment of land belonging to Dalits by the dominant-caste residents, or refusing permission for building a Buddha Vihar”—a Buddhist monastery—“are common.” “These cases never reach the police. They are settled within the village.” When I asked him whether these settlements were agreeable for both parties, he said “It is better than dragging the case on for years in the court and spoiling the relationship with your fellow villagers.”
Every Maratha resident I met in the village confirmed the occurrence of the incident before adding that the men who were arrested were innocent. “My husband was not in the village. They [the police] called him to the police station under the pretext of inquiry and arrested him,” Shital Ugale, a 22-year-old resident of the village told me. Her husband, Sharad, a 27-year-oldelectrician, is one of the 23 persons arrested. Samadhan, the head of the Tanta Mukti Samiti and an eye-witness to the crime, told me he could not identify any one from the mob. “It was dark and I have weak eyesight,” he said. Later during the conversation, Samadhan added that he was worried for his relatives who were booked in the case. “My nephew and brother -in- law both are booked. They were not involved, but were falsely implicated.” When I asked him how he was so certain despite the darkness and his weak eyesight, Samadhan responded with a smile.
I spoke to Priyadarshi Telang, a lawyer and the convenor of the Dalit Adivasi Adhikar Andolan—an organisation based in Maharashtra that describes itself as a “non-parliamentary movement for Dalits and Adivasis” on its website—about caste violence in Maharashtra. He told me that the state has witnessed such vigilante caste violence before, and that in the sphere of such crimes, women end up being targeted often. “The woman’s supposed tainted character and past crime records are invariably used to justify the mob mentality,” Telang said. According to him, a mob would never feel instigated to attack “a village goon,” if he is from a dominant caste. “But if it is a Dalit family, and especially involves a woman, the mob would want to ‘teach her a lesson,’” Telang added. “This [the Buldhana incident] is a classic example of how caste-Hindus indulge in mob violence.”
However, according to Telang and Sharda Nawale, a feminist activist and a member of Rashtriya Ravidas Parishad—an organisation that works closely with the Dalit community in Maharashtra—certain activists too, become uncertain about their demand for justice once questions are raised about a victim’s integrity and personal background. Nawale was a part of fact-finding team of Dalit-rights activists in the state who visited Buldhana to inquire into the case. “Caste and gender bias makes it impossible for Dalit women to access justice. Her issue never becomes a matter of national importance. She has to fight a lone battle.”
The Buldhana incident is testament to Nawale’s words. Many Dalit-rights activists from Buldhana, such as Shankar Malwar and Ananda Umbarka, rushed to the village soon after the incident, but eventually, they withdrew their involvement in the case. “We did our preliminary inquiry and found out the woman did not have a clean record,” said Malwar of Bharatia Republican Paksha–Bahujan Mahasangh, a political party founded by Prakash Ambedkar. According to Telang, “activists carry similar biases as the society and shun the victim.” When I met the 50-year-old woman at the hospital, her sister-in-law and 22-year-old son both told me that people unknown to them have put tremendous pressure on them to withdraw the case. “They come to us posing as social activists or political leaders and ask us to take our complaint back,” her son said.
On 24 June, all the 23 accused people were granted bail by the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court. “The bail was granted on the basis of the investigation conducted so far. We have completed 70 percent of the investigation and soon will be filing the chargesheet,” BB Mahamuni, the deputy superintendent of police who is heading the investigation into the incident, told me. Meanwhile, the security in the village, Mahamuni said, has been beefed up since both the accused people and the survivor have returned. “We have provided protection to the victim and her family. Since it is not a conditional bail, the accused will be residing in the village, so we are taking special care,” he added. I attempted to contact the main accused persons Bharat Ugale and Vijay Ugale and another accused person Annantha Gajgane, after they were released on bail. They were unwilling to speak to me, and Bharat and family members of the other two told me that the police officers had directed the accused persons to not to the media.
The 50-year-old Dalit woman was discharged from the hospital on 18 June, and has been staying with her family ever since. “She has not stepped out of the house. She is afraid that since the accused people have been released on bail, they might cause us trouble,” her younger son told me over the phone when I called him on 27 June. On the same day, I tried to contact the sarpanch over the phone (I could not speak to her during my visit to the village because she was not in the village at the time). Her husband, Vishnu, picked up the phone every time and told me he handled press queries. “Media people talk to me,” he said, before adding, “Our village is back to normal now.” “Everything is under control.”
Sukanya Shantha is a Mumbai-based independent journalist who writes on law and social justice.