Activists are quick to point towards upcoming municipal polls as a cause for the protests turning violent, with local politicians wanting to use this opportunity to ensure votes.
Nashik: Nashik is on the boil for the sixth consecutive day following the alleged rape of a minor girl by a Dalit teen on Saturday, October 8. The police has prohibited the assembly of people across eight villages until peace is restored, while the sale of alcohol has been banned. Mobile data services have also been suspended for a few days.
On the evening of October 8, a 16-year-old Dalit boy allegedly raped a five-year-old Maratha girl in Talegaon Anjaneri village in Trimbakeshwar taluka in Nashik district. According to the FIR, the girl and her sister were playing in the courtyard of their house when the accused lured the girls away with chocolates. He then sent the older girl away to buy cold drinks and took the five-year-old to a dilapidated temple nearby. When the older girl returned she saw her sister being assaulted by the teen. The girl then ran away to inform their mother. Within minutes, the mother of girls came to the spot but the accused managed to run away.
Soon, hundreds of villagers assembled at the Trimbak police station where the girls’ mother lodged the FIR. Villagers also staged a dharna at the Nashik Civil Hospital where the girl was taken for medical tests. “Within five hours of the crime, the police arrested the accused and invoked IPC 376 for rape and relevant sections of [the] Protection of Children against Sexual Offences Act (POCSO),” said Nashik collector Radhakrishnan B.
However, angry villagers were not appeased despite the arrest of the accused and proceeded to torch his house, tractor and a few other vehicles that night. Residents from nearby villages like Anjaneri Phata, Ghoti and Wadovhare also staged a rasta roko that night.
The next morning (Sunday, October 9), villagers staged another rasta roko at the Talegaon Phata on the Nashik-Trimbakeshwar road.
Meanwhile, Girish Mahajan, Maharashtra water resources minister and guardian minister of Nashik, visited the victim’s family on Sunday morning. Condemning the incident, he promised that a charge sheet would be filed within 15 days, the accused would be tried in a fast-track court and Ujjwal Nikam would be the prosecutor in the case. However, meeting the family, Mahajan gave a statement to the media saying that the boy had attempted to rape the girl but had not actually raped her.
Police officials have pointed out that under the POCSO Act, inappropriate touch is also considered rape and hence the accused will be tried for rape even if it is roved that he only attempted to rape the girl.
Mahajan’s statement has worsened an already violent situation, with many incidents of rasta rokos being staged across the district, forced closures of highways, protest rallies and arson following his comments. Crowds even pelted stones at his convoy when he left the place.
At Talegaon, a mob set eight state transport buses and 15-20 private vehicles on fire. Police vehicles, including that of inspector general Vinaykumar Choube, were also set on fire. To disperse the mob, the police had to use teargas shells and fire some rounds in the air. In order to control the riot-like situation, the police invoked IPC 144, prohibiting the assembly of people. A quick response team and extra police forces were also deployed across the district to control the situation.
The worst hit was the Mumbai-Agra highway, which was blocked by angry youngsters from 12 pm until late night on Sunday. The Nashik-Igatpuri and Nashik-Aurangabad highways were also choked for nearly eight hours.
On the same day, chief minister Devendra Phadnavis promised a charge sheet would be framed within 15 days. He also urged the people to maintain peace and reiterated Mahajan’s promise of trying the case in a fast-track court.
NCP chief Sharad Pawar has also urged protesters not disturb the peace since the accused had already been arrested. Additionally, union social justice minister Ramdas Athavale and Maharashtra opposition MLA Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, among others, urged the people to maintain peace and not believe in rumours.
Although Monday passed by comparatively peaceful, angry mobs took to the streets again on Tuesday and Wednesday. Despite the ban on the assembly of people, a group of local politicians also gathered on the streets, but were soon taken into custody.
The damage to buses cost the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) Rs 2 crore and bus services were stopped completely from Sunday to Tuesday (October 11). Intra-city services were also stopped until Tuesday. MSRTC Nashik resumed bus services from Wednesday on all routes except the Mumbai-Trimbakeshwar route where buses were torched.
Anticipating that people would use social media to arrange rasta rokos, strikes and protests, the police suspended mobile data services. Ravindrakumar Singhal, commissioner of police, Nashik, confirmed that “internet services were closed down for an indefinite time as rumours were being spread through social media causing unrest among the public.”
Rural Nashik superintendent of police Ankush Shinde said, “we have arrested more than 50 protestors for riots, damaging public properties and heavy action will be taken against them. We are still in process to arrest people for breaking rules. Meanwhile, the court has given 21 people police custody.”
A senior police officer, who wished to remain anonymous, said the police warned local political leaders on Thursday (October 13) to control party members who were involved in creating a riot-like condition or they would face police action.
Social activists, however, are seeing the current situation as a Maratha vs Dalit battle that feeds into the wider politics taking shape in the state around caste. Three months ago, four Dalit youths raped and murdered a 15-year-old girl in Kopardi village in Ahmednagar district. Protesting the rape of the minor, thousands of people across the state have been holding silent rallies. This time, however, the Maratha community turned violent. Activists are also quick to point towards upcoming municipal elections and say local politicians want to use this opportunity to ensure votes.