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Mumbai: The gram panchayat office of the nondescript Malewadi village in Solapur district of Maharashtra has been abuzz since August 20. Local journalists, activists, politicians and visitors from neighbouring villages have been dropping by to see how the two Dalit families in the village stood up to an over dozen caste Hindu bullies who refused them access to the village’s crematorium.
When the caste Hindus joined hands to stop the funeral of a Dalit man in the village, his family, as a sign of protest, cremated the body right outside the gram panchayat office.
On August 20, a 74-year-old man with disabilities, Dhananjay Sathe, belonging to the Scheduled Caste Matang community, passed away. His brother Dashrath Sathe, the village sarpanch, and other family members decided to take the body to the village crematorium, situated adjacent to the farmland belonging to people from the OBC Mali community.
When the caste Hindus refused access to the Sathes, they waited, negotiated and protested for over 18 hours. And finally, cremated the body right outside the panchayat office.
In a village with over 1,100 houses, only two houses belong to the Dalit community. Over 90% of the houses belong to the Mali community and a few to other OBC communities. Resisting the casteist diktats in such a skewed setup is precarious, and the Sathes have had to bear the brunt of retribution on several occasions.
Between April and August, this is the third instance of a caste-based atrocity, says Suman Sathe, Dhananjay’s niece. “It all began after my uncle Dashrath Sathe was elected village sarpanch. They (the caste Hindus) had expected him to abide by their orders and remain a silent sarpanch. My uncle did not. And that was the turning point in the village.” Since then, the family, she alleges, has been verbally intimidated, had casteist abuses hurled at them, beaten up and stopped from accessing the farmland belonging to the OBC community.
On August 20, when Dhananjay died of old age-related ailment, all that his family had hoped for was some private mourning time. “Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we had decided to not let many relatives and friends gather. My uncle died at 2 am and we wanted the cremation to be done by 10 am. But when we began to move the body to the cremation ground, we knew things won’t be as easy,” Suman says. The Sathes claim that their vehicle was obstructed and the accused persons threatened them with dire consequences if they did not retreat immediately.
The situation had soon turned volatile and the police were summoned to the spot. “But instead of supporting us, the police joined hands with the perpetrators,” a victim’s relative allege. The police, they claim, stood there as mute spectators and refused to accompany the victims to the crematorium, claiming their “vehicle had broken down”. Suman has video recorded the entire episode.
After the incident, the Sathe family headed to the police station to get a case registered under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. While the police reluctantly registered their complaint following pressure from political activists, two separate counter cases have been registered against the victims, “for the gathering at the time of the pandemic and for video graphing the police and posting it on social media,” Suman claims.
Nana Kadam of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi told The Wire that the atmosphere in the village has seen been volatile and the two Dalit households fear being targeted by the caste Hindus. The VBA has written to the district authorities seeking immediate action and safety for the victim’s family.
The Wire tried contacting the Akluj police authorities several times to find out more about the counter cases against the victim’s family but could not establish contact. The story will be updated once the police respond.
Meanwhile, the police are yet to act upon the victims’ complaints and initiate any action. “We have named 13 persons in our FIR. Of them, two persons – Vinayak Kudale and Rahul Kudale – are mentioned in the earlier FIRs too,” Suman says.
Maharashtra has had a long history of caste atrocities relating to access to village crematoriums. In most villages, the crematoriums are made available closer to the settlements belonging to the dominant castes’ houses, making it difficult for the Dalit families to access the cremation site without resistance. Desecration of a dead body, disallowing usage of grazing land to carry out the rituals and violent attacks on marginalised communities are commonly reported from rural Maharashtra.
The incident that transpired at Malewadi is symptomatic of the struggles that over 17,000 villages of Maharashtra face due to the lack of burial or cremation grounds. In most villages, the district authorities make use of barren land for burial. This land, invariably, is encroached upon by the influential castes of the village. The dispute in many parts of the state has even turned bloody. While some Dalit families concede and make use of their own patches of land for cremations, landless families face serious problems accessing the burial site in the village.
In 2017, in an identical case, a Dalit family was forced to cremate a body outside the tehsildar’s office in Selu taluka in Parbhani district after the caste Hindus in the village had denied them access to the cremation ground.