Pune: On April 22, 2018, Pooja Sakat’s body was found in a well near her family’s temporary house in Vada, near Bhima Koregoan, Pune. P00ja, 19, was witness to over 150 men – including ones who had earlier threatened her family over a land dispute – torching their house on January 2, a day after the violence at Bhima Koregoan.
The police has registered a case of abetment of suicide against nine persons and arrested two. However, her family is alleging that Pooja’s death was murder, not suicide. They are also alleging that police inaction on their two earlier FIRs and one complaint emboldened the accused so much that they killed Pooja.
In turn, on April 25, the Indian Express reported, the Pune Rural police filed a case against Pooja’s father on charges of ‘intentional insult’ and ‘criminal intimidation’. The case is based on a complaint filed by a woman who is related to one of the nine accused, the newspaper reported.
On April 21, Jaideep Sakat, Pooja’s brother, had submitted a complaint to the Pune Rural police, saying that his sister had gone missing. The next day, Pooja’s body was found.
Suresh Sakat, Pooja’s father, sat grieving in front of a garlanded photograph of his daughter on a chair at the parking of the building in which his family in staying temporarily. His brothers, who rushed back to Bhima Koregoan after Pooja’s death, were speaking to the police and media and showing them documents.
The incident happened a day after violence in the area on January 1, when mobs attacked Dalits gathered there to commemorate the battle of Bhima Koregaon of 1818. Pooja’s death was not directly connected to that incident but could be a hate crime.
Suresh told The Wire, “My daughter was murdered by a few who wanted the plot I was staying on earlier. But I don’t want this issue to be mixed with the Bhima Koregoan riots, as the accused only used the riots as an excuse to evict me from the plot. They would have done it sooner or later. Since my daughter and son Jaideep were witness to the event, they wanted to kill them both.”
The Sakat family used to live on a 1,000-square-foot government plot at Bhima Koregoan on Pune Ahmednagar road. Suresh, who is a social worker, had his office in a section of their home.
Dilip Sakat, Pooja’s uncle, said, “Sudhir Dhamdhere, an upper caste lawyer, wants to buy a few acres of land adjoining our house at Bhima Koregoan. However, as we are Dalits and living in a tin-roofed house next door, he was not sure if he would get good value if he develops a property there. So he wanted us to leave. Currently, this land is owned by Vedpathak, one of the accused. As we were not giving in to his demands, he started threatening me last year. I had registered a complaint at the Shikrapur police station on November 18, 2017, though the police did not take the complaint seriously.”
He added, “On January 2, a day after the Bhima Koregoan riots, over 150 men including Sudhir Dhamdhere torched my house, using the riots as a cover. Pooja and Jaideep witnessed this event. Dhamdhere anyway wanted my house to be vacated, and he used the riots to do it. If the police had taken my complaint filed in November 2017 seriously, he would not have burnt down our home.”
On January 2, Jaideep lodged an FIR at Shikrapur police station against five men – Navnath Darekar, Somnath Darekar, Vishal Darekar, Goraksh Thorat and Ganesh Thorat – under the atrocities Act. Jaideep said, “After the FIR, Dhamdhere and his men started to harass us on a regular basis to withdraw the complaint. They were scared of both me and Pooja, as we had witnessed them torching our house. On February 2, they threatened me saying, ‘We torched your house. If you don’t take the complaint back, we will torch people too.’ After this threat, I lodged another FIR on the same day against Vilas Vedpathak and Subhash Ghawate at Shikrapur police station.” Pune Rural police did not respond when asked what action they took after this FIR.
Jaideep further said, “I have been visiting the police station regularly to find out whether the police has taken action against the accused or not. On February 15, I went to the police station, where I saw the accused were having a meeting with the police. Even before I could say anything, deputy superintendent Ganesh More threatened me, saying, ‘If you add more names to the complaint, I will falsely implicate you in some case and send you to jail’. The threat deterred me from following up on the case and I did not go to the police again till Pooja went missing on April 21. I registered a complaint about her going missing on April 21 and later lodged an FIR against nine people for her death on April 22.”
The family is fearful as the main accused, Dhamdhere, has not been arrested yet. The two people who have been arrested are in judicial custody.
Ramkrishna Patil, public relations officer, Pune Rural police, told The Wire, “Pooja committed suicide due to harassment by the accused and the civil case lodged by the accused against the Sakat family. We have arrested two men out of nine against whom the FIR was lodged. We are in the process of arresting the rest. The court has given judicial custody to both of them.”
Pune Rural police officials did not answer e-mails and messages about why they did not take action on the family’s complaints earlier.
Dilip said, “Currently, we are staying in a rented house. The government has not provided us with any accommodation, though some of the media is reporting that they have. The only help we have received till now is Rs 25,000 after the violence.”
Varsha Torgalkar is an independent journalist based in Pune.