Mumbai: The mood was sombre at the Mumbai Marathi Patrakar Sangh on April 7, as victims of caste atrocities lined up to narrate their stories one after the other. Over 20 of them had travelled from different parts of Maharashtra to narrate their stories of struggle at the Atrocity Victims’ Council organised in the city.
The day-long session, organised by Sudharak Olwe, a photojournalist and Padma Shri award recipient, was a part of his over two-year-old ongoing project of documenting stories of caste atrocities and the struggles faced by victims while seeking justice.
A 29-year-old woman, who worked as a police constable for 12 years, was recently suspended from service after she complained against two seniors and one local journalist for gangraping her. The survivor stood on the dais and narrated her ordeal: “I was a divorced woman, who assertively talked in the police station and was very good at my work. For upper-caste men, when a Dalit woman asserts herself, she is looked at as an arrogant person inviting trouble. I was being targeted and called names for a long time. But last year in November, under the pretext of asking me to run some errands, the police inspector called me to his police quarters and him along with his two friends – one constable and a local journalist – raped me.”
The woman broke down as she continued her testimony. She further said that the men had videotaped the act and blackmailed her for months before gangraping her again. When she finally mustered enough courage to complain against the men, she was accused of lodging a false complaint and was eventually suspended. Her case is being handled by a Beed-based NGO Jagar Pratishthan run by Manisha Tokle and her husband Ashok Tangade, who have been handling cases of atrocities in the district. “They have only managed to take away my job. But they can’t take away my dignity and my determination to fight back. I shall fight till the end,” she later told The Wire.
Asha Kamble, also from Beed, spoke of ostracisation and attacks on her by caste Hindus in the village. As she warded off the sexual advances made by the caste Hindu men in the village, Kamble, a single mother, said, the oppressors turned their focus on her teenage daughter. “They would accuse her of theft and asked us to leave the village. Even the police did not support me.”
As Kamble continues to fight her case, the villagers have now retreated. She says that they fear legal action can be taken against them. “It is only because of the Prevention of Atrocities law that I could restore my dignity. If nothing else, the oppressors are afraid of being sent to jail,” she added.
Also present at the event was Raju Aage, whose 17-year-old son Nitin was found hanging from a tree in Kharda village in Jamkhed taluka of Ahmednagar in April 2014. Nitin was allegedly killed by Maratha men over suspicion that he was in a relationship with a Maratha girl. However, when the case came up for trial, one after the other, witnesses turned hostile and the court acquitted all nine persons accused in the case.
“How can the court expect the witnesses to depose against those men who have both muscle and money power? The state does nothing to provide protection to the victims or the witnesses, and eventually they give in to the threats and turn hostile in court,” Aage said. His lawyers have appealed the acquittal in the higher court. “They (caste Hindus) can’t fathom the fact that our children are studying and are defying the caste system. They will find different ways to finish us,” he added.
Saturday’s session was in response to a Supreme Court judgement last month diluting the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (POA Act) citing its “rampant misuse”. The apex court in its recent order has claimed that the special Act was used “as an instrument to blackmail or to wreak personal vengeance”. This judgement has already attracted sharp responses from anti-caste scholars and activists. Last week, a Bharat Bandh was called, with several northern states observing a complete shutdown to protest against the apex court’s ruling. Olwe felt that along with the protest, it was also essential to focus on “hard facts” to defy these “baseless claims”.
In support of Olwe’s initiative, several activists, researchers, lawyers and doctors have come ahead and offered to form a support group at the district level across the state. Bhalchandra Mungekar, an economist and a former MP, who was present at the sessions, said, “Active work needs to be done to dispel the myth of ‘misuse’. Instead, we as a progressive nation need to speak of annihilation of caste.”
Olwe, along with his team of researchers, lawyers and doctors, have been meeting victims in different districts and are also in the process of creating a victim support fund to enable them to fight their legal cases without any obstruction. “The accused most often hire high-profile lawyers and the state does not even provide a special public prosecutor as prescribed by law. We need lawyers and activists to stand by the victims in their legal fight,” said Vaibhav Gite, an anti-caste activist.
Besides the testimonies, action plans for further engagement with the judiciary and the state were also discussed. “This is not the first time that someone has claimed that the legislation gets misused. Even during the Maratha morcha (rally) in the state in 2016, the community had claimed that the law was misused against them. This has been a common discussion among the upper caste. But the fact is that the law is not even used effectively, leave alone being misused,” Olwe told The Wire.
These testimonies of the victims will be compiled and presented to the governor. “We want their stories to be known to the court too. We will be submitting it to the governor and will urge him to file a review petition in the apex court on behalf of the state,” Olwe added.