Rights

A Destroyed Dalit Settlement in the Heart of Maratha Country

The message from the ‘upper’-caste villagers was clear: we can destroy everything you’ve achieved in one evening.

A vehicle burnt in the mob attack on Panchashil Nagar. Credit: Kirtikumar Shinde

A vehicle burnt in the mob attack on Panchashil Nagar. Credit: Kirtikumar Shinde

Satara, Maharashtra: I entered Chhaya Danane’s home through a front door that had been kicked so hard that more than half of it had gone. The windows panes had been smashed and the TV too. The computer – the prized possession of Chhaya’s two sons who are graduates, unlike their parents – was beyond repair. Still, the two young men in their 20s were fiddling with the CPU, trying to see if they could make it work. The beds were without mattresses. These had been dragged out of the house and set on fire by the mob that had descended on Panchashil Nagar on the night of December 6, shouting derogatory swear-words at Dalit families and raising a slogan that has resounded through Maharashtra in recent months: ‘Ek Maratha, Lakh Maratha’.

Last week, I was the first journalist from outside the district to visit Panchashil Nagar, a Buddhist Dalit settlement of about 300 people that is part of a larger village, Chinchner Vandan, 9 km from the district headquarters, Satara. The attack on this settlement has earned only cursory reports in Marathi and English newspapers, perhaps because in the hierarchy of atrocities it is ranked as “minor” because no one was killed. It became clear as I heard the testimonies of the victims that this is precisely what the perpetrators had intended: to terrorise and humiliate a community that has made a long, painful journey to respectability by systematically destroying its possessions, while avoiding actions that could bring the concentrated fury of the state and the media upon them.

If the media’s perfunctory reporting of this carefully-executed hate crime by 200-odd young men on the anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar’s death was one good reason for travelling from Mumbai to Panchashil Nagar, the other is the deafening Maratha silence over this vicious attack on Dalits in the heart of Maratha country. Hundreds of thousands of Maratha protestors have poured onto the streets over the last few months to demand reservations in education and jobs, changes to The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which they say is misused by Dalits to bring cases against them, and death for three Dalit youths who brutally raped and murdered a Maratha teenage girl in Khopardi in Ahmednagar in July. You would imagine that crimes against Dalits would also figure somewhere in this conversation, but it is a one-sided one. It is as if such crimes have never happened. So, on December 14 when lakhs of Marathas, among them 160 MLAs, gathered in Nagpur to press Maratha demands, not a word was spoken about the Panchashil Nagar attack that had occurred just a week before.

As you approach Chinchner Vandan, the first thing you see is a board with Jai Shivaji on it. It soon becomes clear that the village, with a population of about 3,000, is dominated by Maratha families that are mostly from an army background. A hundred metres away from the main village lies another archway, taking you into Panchashil Nagar. The first visible sign of tension is the policemen standing guard and their insistence on recording your details before letting you through. This particular location of Buddhist Dalit settlements – at a small distance from the main village – is something I noticed time and again on my way here. It speaks of the social reality in these parts: Dalits Buddhists are not treated as untouchables but they are still separate. So, in Panchashil Nagar, the places where Marathas live are called the gao or village, whereas the Dalit areas are called the vasti, the settlement. Yet, amid these caste-drawn boundaries, the villagers in the “proper” village and those in the “settlement” buy their groceries from the same shops and the women wash their clothes in the same river‫.

On entering Panchashil Nagar and mingling with its residents who share not just the same faith but a common surname – Danane – it becomes apparent that while several are educated and have government jobs, others are daily wagers, working on the fields of Maratha landowners. With its community temple and its tiny vihar with an idol of Lord Buddha ensconced in it, its homes with brightly painted interiors and garlanded portraits of Ambedkar and the Buddha, this is not a place of desperate poverty. In varying degrees, the residents of this settlement have been living comfortable lives. Or at least they were until the night of December 6.

The attack on the settlement originated in a love affair gone wrong. Siddharth Danane, who lived in Panchashil Nagar, had murdered his Maratha girlfriend Aruna Mohite on November 30. From police statements, media reports and local accounts, it is apparent that they had been in a relationship for two years and that Aruna, fearing her family’s wrath at this inter-caste relationship, had married her cousin but had continued to meet Siddharth. A heated argument at their last meeting resulted in Siddharth killing Aruna, a crime to which he confessed after the police tracked him down and arrested him on December 5. While any number of such gendered crimes are committed, some Marathas clearly saw both the affair and the murder as intolerable signs of Dalit self-assertion that had to be stamped down. It is perhaps not a coincidence that these actions were taken at a time when the air has been filled with slogans of Maratha pride and arguments that betray seething resentment at Dalit social mobility.

Within an hour, the mob had done its job, pelting stones at houses, smashing doors and windows, destroying furniture, setting four cars, nine two-wheelers and one auto-rickshaw on fire. The message was clear: we can destroy everything you’ve achieved in one evening.

At 10:30 pm, Jeevan Danane, a teacher with a masters in arts and education, was among the thousands gathered from across the country at Chaityabhoomi, the Ambedkar memorial in Mumbai, for his death anniversary, when he received a call from his terrified mother, who was alone at home. “The Marathas have burnt our car,” she said, shivering so hard she could barely speak.

Mohan Danane, a retired employee from Satara zilla parishad’s health department, hid under the bed when he heard the slogans of ‘Jai Bhavani, Jai Shivaji’ and ‘Ek Maratha, Lakh Maratha’ amid sounds of destruction. As for Chhaya and her husband Arun, a 57-year-old wireman with the Maharashtra State Electricity Board, they just fled, and when they returned to their home and saw its state, they collapsed in a heap, crying.

“Siddharth has confessed to murdering Aruna and he ought to be punished. But why is the whole village being punished?” asked Aaba Danane, a local leader of Prakash Ambedkar’s Bahujan Mahasangha and the district head of the Bharatiya Bauddha Mahasabha. This is not a question either the sarpanch of Chinchner Vandan or the police patil (local police representative) have cared to address. Neither had visited the settlement, walking distance from their homes, even once in the week following the December 6 events.

Aaba Danane with his family. Credit: Kirtikumar Shinde

Aaba Danane with his family. Credit: Kirtikumar Shinde

On the other hand, after vehicles were set ablaze, Satara SP Sandip Patil did reach the Dalit settlement, followed by a few fire-safety vehicles.The fires were being put out until the small hours of the morning. Fortunately, Aaba Danane’s nephew, Sunny Danane, recognised the mob leaders and, with the help of three social activists from Satara, managed to file an FIR against the attackers. The SP responded promptly by arresting 33 villagers, almost all between 20-25 years of age, under various sections of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. He gave a stern warning against the use of social media to incite further tensions.

The SP’s swift actions have been unanimously praised by Dalits. Yet, uncertainties persist. There are harsh economic realities to contend with. As Sachin Gaikwad, one of the Satara-based social activists who helped the residents of the settlement file an FIR, pointed out, “Many of the Dalit families are dependent on Marathas for their livelihood.” There is also the reality of Maratha dominance of the police and bureaucracy. How smoothly will the legal case progress against the 33 is a question being asked in Panchashil Nagar.

Amid such worries, the visit of the chairman of the Maharashtra SC/ST Commission, a retired judge called C.L. Thool, in a car with a red beacon, was not reassuring. He seemed to reinforce existing hierarchies when he  visited the main village before visiting the Dalit victims. Watching him interact with the Dalits, when he did arrive, I was struck by how formal and hurried his approach was. And while he did clarify some points of law, with regard to filing FIRs and so on, he also issued some astonishing directives. He wanted the people from the settlement to be provided with their own police post, their own grocery shop and grain processing unit “so that Dalits will not have to depend on people belonging to the Maratha community.” The people of Panchashil Nagar heard him out in silence, but after he left, their unease was unmistakable. What we want is justice, they said, not our separate grocery store.

Kirtikumar Shinde is an independent media professional and publisher based in Mumbai.