At 2:30 am on May 17, six people from a “higher caste” tried to kill Sanjay Khobragade, a Dalit rights activist. They set him on fire while he slept in his house. With over 94% burns on his body, he passed away at the Civil Hospital in Nagpur, Maharashtra on May 23. Today, the six individuals that Sanjay named in his dying declaration are out on bail while his wife Devakabai is in custody. She is being framed for burning him with the help of Mr. Raju Gadpayle, their neighbour. The police have accused Devakabai of being in a relationship with Mr. Gadpayle. Not one person in the entire Dalit hamlet of Kavalewada believes this theory.
“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.
Video Volunteers’ Community Correspondent Alka Mate brings the first report that highlights the case from the perspective of the Khobragade family and the Dalit rights activists who are supporting them. Her report and investigations on the matter reveal how law-enforcement agencies have thus far neglected their duties and gravely hampered the course of justice.
Among the Dalit rights groups and community, it is common knowledge 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, Krushipal Tembre – Block Level General Secretary (BJP), Prakas Rahangdale, Bhaulal Harinkhede, Punaji Thakre and Hemant Thakhare a.k.a Tanu Thakre as the perpetrators.
Before his death Sanjay named these individuals in at least two known video testimonies recorded by well-wishers and also in the First Information Report (FIR) on May18 (a day after the attack). The police have refused to acknowledge and take into account this dying declaration. Further, the FIR was not signed by Sanjay, which is again a violation of the law. These two were only the first in a series of malpractices that the Khobragade family has faced over the last few weeks.
The police never came when they were called on the morning of May 17. It was only on May 18 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. They were kept under judicial custody and were let out the next day. Bail was granted to them only on May 27.
There is a loophole here. While the family says that the case was never filed under 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 POA is a non-bailable offence, which makes it difficult to be let out.
Meanwhile, Devakabai and Pradeep were picked up by the police from the Nagpur Civil Hospital on May 19. 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. In a case like this it is mandatory to have an inquest – this wasn’t 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 and forced them to admit that they killed Sanjay.
The story of the Khobragades 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 law off its course. In this case, the Police Inspector responsible who took the FIR is related to Madhuri Thembre, one of the accused and the village head.
The police and District level administration are all conspiring to cover up this case of Dalit atrocity and have therefore carefully plotted to highlight this as a domestic dispute.
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 is a place where they have celebrated the rituals of the community for years. 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. The family is still fighting that case in court.
The events of May 17 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 Dalits. When Madhuri Tembre and others entered Sanjay’s house in the wee hours of May 17, 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 later able to name them to the police and to his friends and family.
Pradeep reiterates the injustice he has seen, “I want to ask this – why has the police not taken cognizance of my father’s report 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, even though my father has named them in a testimony on video? Does being Dalit mean that my family deserves no justice?”
We have all just elected a new government on the promise that it will bring development to our country. As a nation, we cannot develop until caste atrocities like this continue and until law enforcers continue to protect the powerful. We need to raise our voice in support of not just the Khobragade family but also against all caste-based atrocities. Atrocities against Dalits must be treated seriously as crimes against human rights.
Video Volunteers is currently supporting the Khobragade family and other Dalit rights activists in Maharashtra to unearth the facts of the case. They have started a petition to ensure they get justice on the link below.