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15 Aug 2020, Edition - 1859, Saturday

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Despite heavy police presence, Dalit families in Nashik village attacked by mob are yet to return

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Maratha protestors vandalised homes of Talegaon’s nine Dalit families after accusations that a teenager from the community had molested a child.

An uneasy silence has descended on Talegaon, a village in Maharashtra’s Nashik district. Dussera, usually celebrated with great fervour, seems to have left this village untouched. Despite the official school holiday, there were almost no children playing on the streets on Tuesday afternoon. The few adults on the street displayed a strict reserve.

On Saturday evening, a Dalit teenager here allegedly molested a Maratha child. Soon after the child was taken to a civil hospital in Nashik, rumours began to fly out on Whatsapp. After the rumours came a call to gather.

On Sunday, more than one thousand members of the Maratha caste, possibly from across the state, descended on the Nashik-Agra highway, off which Talegaon lies. Together, they burnt 20 official vehicles, including police cars and buses.

They entered Talegaon and vandalised the homes of the village’s nine Dalit families. All of them have fled and are yet to return.

The state has swung into action to impose calm. To prevent rumours from spreading, the district administration ordered mobile internet services to be suspended for 48 hours – the first time such an order has been issued in Maharashtra. On Monday, police officials were thick on the highway and in Nashik city, 25 kilometres from Talegaon.

The violence comes after a series of silent rallies Marathas have been holding across the state to demand reservations in educational institutions and official jobs. These rallies, with no visible political leaders, have been marked for their particular emphasis on not being violent.

Sunday’s protests sharply ruptured that pattern.

Remnants of violence

In Talegaon, most residents declined to be photographed. Many refused to be identified. Nobody wanted to disturb the deceptive tranquility any further.

This tranquility is maintained in part by the police presence in the village. Officials have been stationed at the entrance of the village, screening all new cars that entered. Villagers said that one entire van of police officials had been assigned to protect a statue of Shivaji, the warrior-king who is a Maratha icon.

A smaller number is on duty at the Dalit quarter, where around 40 people lived. The police reached the quarters well after its residents had been forced to flee. The police here refused reporters entry into the area and also prevented this reporter from photographing it.

A large wooden house stands at the corner where the road curves into the Dalit area. Outside is a large blue tractor. At the foot of the tractor were an empty steel vessel and some discarded clothes. These are the visible signs of the Maratha vandalism of the Dalit quarter. Just out of sight from the police picket is the house that had been torched. A man named Kundli Khatikde was hit on his head and needed stitches. Inside the houses, television sets had been broken, vessels dented, entire homes thrown into disarray.

Forced to flee

On Sunday afternoon, Digambar Tiwle got a call from his brother-in-law, a resident of Talegaon. There were rumours that a large mob was heading to their village and he was concerned.

Twenty five Dalits, including ten children, took a vehicle from the village and went to a settlement five kilometres away. Others went to Nashik. Nobody knows where the parents of the teenager have gone.

Nobody has attempted to return to their homes since Sunday.

“The police told us that we should not return to our houses for two more days,” explained Sandeep Chavan, a resident of Talegaon who is not related to the accused teenager. “They said it was not yet safe.”

But Sandeep Chavan and his relative Ratan Chavan are among a group of people who have silently returned to tend to their farms. The tomatoes on their four acres of land were ripe for picking at the time the violence broke out.

As they sat gathering and sorting tomatoes, they were all reluctant to speak of the events that led them to leave their village.

Their silence is rooted in the sobering odds. Forty Dalits, a significant number children, faced thousands of angry Marathas, most of whom they did not know. What else could they have done but flee? With the police present to protect their houses after they had already been damaged – and not them – they now wait for tempers to cool.

“We came back only because our tomatoes were here,” said Ratan Chavan. “We were otherwise staying in Nashik, but if we had waited any longer, we would have lost these crops as well.”

He added: “This village has always been peaceful. This is the first time anything like this has happened.”

The incident

“Our village has always been very peaceful,” echoed the grandmother of the child who was allegedly molested. “This boy’s mother works on our land. We even ate at each other’s houses.”

The mother of the child had brought her two daughters to visit their grandmother during the Navratri holidays. At around five pm on the evening of October 8, the mother and the grandmother went to fill water at the communal tap. They left the two daughters, four and a half and six years old, playing in a common area.

The teenager is alleged to have come to the two girls and beckoned first to the older one. She refused to come to him. He then gave her Rs 5 to buy a Pepsi. She left her younger sister behind. When she returned around ten minutes later, she saw the teenager apparently touching her sister. She ran crying to her grandmother, who came immediately.

That evening, they took the child to a hospital in Trimbakeshwar, where she was discharged because the doctors said there were no injuries. Later that night, with the help of a Nashik municipal councillor, the family got her admitted into the Nashik Civil Hospital, where she has remained ever since.

The trouble began, says the child’s father, when they realised there was no female doctor at the civil hospital. The man, who runs a travel service with six cars, sent out a call for help to his contacts in Nashik. Once the news filtered outside the hospital via Whatsapp, there was no controlling it.

‘Punish the individual, not the community’

At the hospital on Tuesday, the scene was calm. Police were stationed outside and at the entrance to the ward where the child has been admitted. Outsiders were strictly refused entry.

“Our older daughter was there and she is the reason our younger one is still alive,” claimed that father. “They are children and we know that they will both forget this. It is we who will remember this all our lives.”

The father says he has refused to meet all ministers, MPs and MLAs because he says he does not want to politicise the incident. The government has given him Rs one lakh as compensation, with the promise of Rs two lakh more under its Manodhairya scheme for rape survivors.

“We want him to be punished and for this not to happen again to anyone else’s daughter,” the girl’s father said. “But just because the man is bad, it does not mean that the entire community is at fault. It just should not happen that because he is young, they will put him in a remand home and he will eat the food there and come out in two months.”

People’s reports of the teenager’s age varies. Some say he is 15 because he is in class 10. Others say he just turned 16. Others, crucially, say he is 17 – which will make him eligible to be prosecuted under the amended juvenile justice laws for sexual assault. He has been arrested and special prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam has been assigned to his case.

But even as the protests led to the state assigning the case to a fast track court, doubts have emerged about whether the child was actually harmed. When Girish Mahajan, caretaker minister for Nashik, visited her in the hospital and said that there was no evidence that she had been raped, outrage ensued. Protestors threw stones at his car on Sunday. This news was later confirmed by the state.

Said Digambar Tiwle, the relative of the Chavan family: “If a mob could throw stones at a minister’s car, what will Dalit people do? If they had not run, they might have been dead now.”

Mridula Chari

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own

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