NAGPUR, Maharashtra — The Uttar Pradesh government’s attempt to downplay the severity of the crime and blame the victim’s family in the recent Hathras case is unsurprising, say activists and lawyers who have been fighting for justice in other prominent cases of atrocities against Dalits.
In at least two major cases of violence perpetrated against Dalits in Maharashtra over the past five years, the blame fell on the victims’ family members after the media’s attention shifted, said lawyers Nihal Singh Rathod and Akash Moon, who are based in the state. Rathod is also the lawyer for some of the activists jailed in the Bhima Koregaon case.
In Uttar Pradesh, the Yogi Adityanath government, which has been severely criticised over its handling of the Hathras case, has repeated in the Supreme Court the state police’s claim that the 19-year-old woman was not raped. However, doctors at the hospital where the woman was first admitted have said that the forensic report cited by the UP Police is unreliable as it was based on 11-day-old samples.
The woman, who was allegedly raped by four dominant caste men who have been arrested, died in a Delhi hospital last week. Her death and the subsequent cremation by the UP Police in the dead of night, allegedly without her family’s consent, sparked nationwide protests.
While the woman’s family has alleged intimidation from the police and district officials, some media reports based on convenient “leaks” over the past few days seem to be pushing a narrative that her kin had a role to play in her death. One of the accused has also written a letter from jail where he claims to be innocent and that the woman was killed by her own family. The four men belong to the same Thakur caste as CM Adityanath.
Sheetal Kamble, an activist based in Maharashtra who did her Ph.D. on patterns of violence against Dalit women from TISS Mumbai, says that the Uttar Pradesh administration’s conduct in the Hathras case is the rule rather than the exception.
“I have dealt with nine such cases (atrocities against Dalit women) since 2014 and almost all of them had a similar pattern. The last stage in dilution of such cases is to term it as a land dispute and not a caste conflict. The pattern is clear—to prove that the victim’s psychological state is at fault or her character is bad. Another part of this pattern is to make the village hostile so that no fact-finding team or activists or independent investigators can reach the village,” said Kamble.
Kamble pointed out that the family members of the accused men have been demanding that the victim’s family take a narco test.
“As per the law, a narco test should be conducted on the accused, not the victims. Also, narco tests are banned in international law but are conducted in India just to deny rape allegations. It was the same pattern that was played out in the Hathras’ case,” added Kamble, who said the case received this amount of visibility only because Congress leaders Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi joined protests and met the victims.
Pattern in Maharashtra
In May 2014, immediately after the Lok Sabha election results were declared, a 50-year-old Dalit activist, Sanjay Khobragade, from Kawalewada village in Gondia district of Maharashtra, was set ablaze over a dispute on constructing a Buddha Vihar.
Khobragade suffered 94% burns and was admitted to the Government Medical College (GMC) in Nagpur, where he died after two days.
In two statements recorded before his death, Khobragade named five men and one woman from the dominant Pawar caste in his village as the attackers. A video in which he clearly names the perpetrators is still up on YouTube. When this reporter met him at the GMC hours before his death, he said that his attackers had asked him to wait until after the Lok Sabha election results and that they would teach him a lesson once “their candidate” got elected.
The candidate who became an MP from Gondia-Bhandara constituency that year was Nana Patole, who was then with the BJP. He joined the Congress in 2018, won the Sakoli assembly seat in the 2019 assembly election, and is currently the speaker of the Maharashtra assembly.
The Congress’s decision to give Patole a Lok Sabha ticket from Nagpur last year (he lost to union minister Nitin Gadkari) had been opposed by Dalit groups who cited his alleged support to the perpetrators of the Khairlanji murders.
Two weeks after Khobragade’s death, the Gondia police accused his wife Devakabai of killing him.
“The police first rejected the dying declaration of the victim and then implicated his wife in the case, accusing her of having an affair with a person in her neighborhood,” said Moon, who in 2015 moved a petition in the Bombay high court representing Khobragade’s son, asking for the case to be reinvestigated. While the petition was admitted, it’s still pending.
The police also claimed that the five men named by Khobragade in his dying declaration were not even present in the village when the incident took place.
While all six accused were immediately granted bail, the victim’s wife and a neighbor, who was also a Dalit, were imprisoned. The Indian Expressreported that the investigating officer told the court that Khobragade “was drunk and not in a stable state”. The police claimed that both Devakabai and the neighbor, Raju Gadpayle, confessed to the crime but the two later said in court that they were forced to do so.
“If you see the victim’s wife’s statement, you can clearly make out that it was a tutored one. She was tortured and threatened into making a confessional statement. Multiple videos were shot in which she was coaxed into making forced confessions and one such video was leaked to try and divert public attention,” said Rathod.
After a few months, human rights lawyers managed to get bail for Devakabai but she is still fighting the case—unfortunately no longer to get justice for her husband but to save herself.
In a similar incident, three members of a Dalit family were killed and their mutilated body parts were thrown in a farm in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra in October 2014.
The victims—42-year-old Sanjay Jadhav, his wife Jayashree Jadhav (38), and their son Sunil (19)— were residents of Javkheda village in Pathardi tehsil of Ahmednagar district.
Initially, two dominant caste men from the village were arrested. But after a few days, the police arrested Sanjay Jadhav’s brothers, accusing them of the killings. They are still in jail.
“It was one more clear case when the police implicated the victim’s family in the case to save the real culprits,” said Rahul Dambale, a Dalit activist based in Pune who took part in the protest triggered by the triple murder.
Dambale alleges that this pattern, of dominant caste people being exonerated in the murders of Dalits, has been repeated in Maharashtra in the past few decades.
“But if the victim belongs to the upper caste and the accused are Dalits, the system makes sure the strictest possible punishment is given to them. In 2014, Nitin Aage, a 17-year-old boy was kidnapped from his school premises in Kharada village in Ahmednagar and killed by upper-caste men. The court exonerated all the accused. Then who killed Nitin Aage?”
Amit Ambedkar, an activist from Uttar Pradesh, says the situation is far worse in his state, as exhibited by the conduct of the police and administration in the Hathras case.
“There was a case of rape of a Dalit girl in Lucknow in which the police implicated her own uncle and freed the accused. Instead of fighting to get her rapists punished, she had to fight to save her uncle. And this is for big cases—don’t even ask what happens in small cases of atrocities. They are not even registered, especially since 2017 (when the Adityanath government took over). There is a deliberate delay in the process of investigation which allows the culprits to walk free,” said Ambedkar, who is currently fighting a court case for protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act. HuffPost India could not independently verify the details of the rape case he referred to.
Kamble said that she found things were no better in Madhya Pradesh while working on a case in Dewas.
“We could not even focus on the conviction of the accused but had to first make sure the victims get security and some sort of compensation,” she said.
Both Dambale and Ambedkar think that the targeting of Dalit victims’ families has increased since the Narendra Modi-led BJP government took over at the centre.
“When brutal atrocities are reported during a non-Congress government’s rule, the accused often get police and administration’s protection. Under Congress rule, at least the prosecution case reaches the court immediately. They don’t keep it pending,” said Dambale.
But Nihal Singh Rathod and Akash Moon disagree.
“This (protecting culprits and implicating the victim’s family) is systemic. It happens irrespective of who is in power. Even in the Hathras case, they may come up with a certain counter-narrative and divert the case,” said Rathod.
Moon said this is a trend when it comes to atrocities against Dalits.
“We often ask ourselves if the lives of Dalits have any importance or not in this country. There is no human value left to Dalits. Almost every atrocity case which gets attention goes this way. From the police to administration, everyone is involved in this and even we are helpless because the law does not look beyond the document. Even in the Khairlanji atrocity case, only a few were convicted when the entire village was involved,” he said.
In the brutal Khairlanji massacre, four Dalits—Surekha Bhotmange (45), her daughter Priyanka (17) and sons Sudhir (21) and Roshan (19)—were tortured and murdered in 2006 by a mob led by men from a dominant OBC caste. The case was technically not termed as one of atrocity against Dalits as the police did not submit the caste certificate of the victims in the court during the trial.