Conspiracy of silence: How Maharashtra Dalit rights activist became victim of atrocity and law enforcers protected the powerful

Reproduced below is Video Volunteers community correspondent Alka Mate’s report on how law-enforcement agencies hampered the course of justice following the murder of Sanjay Khogragade, a Dalit rights activist of Maharashtra, over a caste-based dispute. It highlights the case from the perspective of Khobragade’s family and activists who are working with them.

At 2:30 am on May 17 six people from a ‘higher caste’ tried to kill Sanjay Khobragade, a Dalit rights activist, over a caste based land dispute. They set him on fire while he slept in his house. With over 80-85% burns on his body, he passed away while at the Civil Hospital in Nagpur, Maharashtra on 23rd May. Today, the six individuals that Sanjay named in his dying declaration are out on conditional bail while his wife Devakabai is in custody. She is being framed for burning him with the help of Raju Gadpayle, their neighbour. The police have accused Devakabai and Mr. Gadpayle of burning Sanjay to hide their extra-marital relationship. Not one person in the entire Dalit hamlet of Kavalewada believes this theory.

The six people from the ‘higher’ Powar caste murdered Sanjay because of a community dispute that has been going on for three years. He had been leading the demand of the Dalit residents of Kavalewada village, Maharashtra to build a Buddhist community centre for Dalits. The land in question was granted to them by the government in 2012. The ‘higher caste’ community does not want this and instead wants to build its own temple there. For three years now Dalits in the village have been insulted and abused by the ‘higher-caste’ people over this issue; in 2013 they burnt down Sanjay’s tea stall by the latter. The family is still fighting that case in court.

The Dalit community believes that the events of 17th morning were planned because the Powar community had heard that the impending ‘No Objection Certificate’ to build the community centre was going to come through in favour of the Dalits. When Madhuri Tembre and others entered Sanjay’s house in the wee hours of 17th May, they doused him with petrol, as he slept. He awoke when he felt the petrol on his body; he saw all six clearly as they set him on fire. He was able to name them to the police and to his friends and family.

“We all know that by killing my father, the ‘higher-caste’ community wanted to set an example that Dalits should not speak up,” says Pradeep Khobragade, Sanjay’s son who is now left fighting for justice for his parents.

Among the Dalit rights groups and the community it is believed that the story about Devakabai and Raju has been made up to protect the six accused who have powerful political connections with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. From his hospital bed Sanjay had identified Madhuri Tembre-Village head; KrushipalTembre- Block Level General Secretary-BJP; Prakas Rahangdale; Bhaulal Harinkhede; Punaji Thakre and Hemant Thakre aka Tanu Thakre as the perpetrators.

Before his death, Sanjay named these individuals in at least three known video testimonies recorded by Dalits rights groups. The police have refused to acknowledge and take into account this statement as the dying declaration. Registering this as the dying declaration is crucial in this case to bring justice to the Khobragade and Gadpayle families.  What has instead been produced in court as Sanjay’s dying declaration is a document written by a Revenue Officer (Tehsildar) and a policeman, who is also Madhuri Tembre’s brother. This document mentions that Sanjay merely ‘suspects’ the six individuals; it became the basis on which they were granted conditional bail. This document was never signed by Sanjay.

The police didn’t come to Kavalewada when they were called on 17th morning after the incident. It was only on 18th May that they registered a case of attempted murder under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code and the six accused were put in custody. Legally, the case should have been registered under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act (PoA), 1989. The Khobragade family filed an application at the Gangajari Police station to this effect, but it was ignored.

There is a loophole here: While the family says that the case was never filed under the PoA, the District Collector has claimed that it has been. Even if the District Collector is correct, how are the six accused out on bail? To be booked under the PoA is a non-bailable offence, which makes it difficult to be let out. The six accused were given judicial custody on 18th and were let-out the very next day. The Gondia lower court granted them conditional bail on May 27.

Meanwhile, the police picked up Devakabai and Pradeep from the Nagpur Civil Hospital on 19th May. On the way to the police station the male officers slapped and verbally abused Devakabai in front of Pradeep. They had no concrete evidence to link her to the crime. Raju Gadpayle was picked up from his house that evening without even being given a reason.

“They slapped my father and threatened him… if you don’t admit to this, we’ll make sure your son loses his job. I met him in jail, he said they beat him a lot on his spine. He can’t even sit… They hung him upside down and thrashed him,” says Raju’s younger son, Ankush Gadpayle.

In a case like this it is mandatory to have an inquest (Panchnama), this hasn’t been done either. For the next few days Devakabai and Raju were kept in police custody, in the same lock up. Both later testified in court that the police tortured them to force them to admit that they killed Sanjay.

The story of the Khobragades and Gadpayles exemplifies what many Dalits face as they try to seek justice for atrocities committed against them. Religious and political power it seems, can easily throw the law off its course. A report from the National Human Rights Commission says:

“A large number of cases which deserve to be registered under Protection of Civil Rights Act or the SCs & STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Act are not actually registered under these Acts, either due to ignorance of law or under pressure from the interested parties. Investigations in even those limited number of cases [are] often earned out in a slipshod manner and with considerable delay.”

Conviction rates for crimes registered under the Prevention of Atrocities Act in Maharashtra stood at 0.5% in 2010. Statistics from different sources reveal that crimes against Dalits are on the rise. The State Minister for Employment Guarantee Scheme, Nitin Raut made a statement in May 2014 that, compared to previous years 548 more cases of atrocities were registered in Maharashtra during 2013-14.

It seems, the police and district level administration have conspired to cover up this case of Dalit atrocity and have therefore carefully plotted to highlight this as a murder plot hatched out of an extra-marital relationship.

Pradeep reiterates the injustice he has seen:

“I want to ask this: Why has the police not taken cognizance of my father’s testimony and filed it under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act? Why are my mother and Raju being framed instead of action being taken against the six accused? Does being Dalit mean that my family deserves no justice?”

Caste atrocities will continue until law enforcers continue to protect the powerful; they will continue if we maintain the conspiracy of silence. We need to raise our voice in support of not just the Khobragade family but also against all caste-based atrocities.These must be treated seriously for the heinous violations of human rights that they are.

Video Volunteers is currently supporting the Khobragade family and other Dalit rights activists in Maharashtra to unearth the facts of the case. We have started a petition on asking the District Collector, of Gondia Amit Saini and Superintendent of Police Deelip Sedke to:

  • Take cognizance of Sanjay Khobragade’s dying declaration on video where he names the six accused and do a fair and just investigation of the case
  • File this case under the Schedule Caste/Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act 1989
  • Immediately release Devakabai Khobragade and Raju Gadpayle
  • Make the investigation report public


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