Rights

Kutch: Murdered BAMCEF Lawyer Had a Long History of Anti-Caste Struggle

While the police claim Devjibhai Maheshwari's murder was motivated by 'anti-Brahmin posts' on Facebook, those close to him say the killing was planned and emerged out of anger against his work to provide land rights to Bahujans.

Mumbai: On September 25, Devjibhai Maheshwari, a senior leader of the All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF) and a senior lawyer in Kutch, was brutally stabbed and killed by a 22-year-old Brahmin man Bharat Raval. The initial reports and the police hinted that it was a “hate crime” committed by Raval following Maheshwari’s “anti-Brahmin posts” on Facebook. Raval was arrested a day later in North Mumbai.

But Maheshwari’s wife Minaxiben and his colleagues in the legal field insist that it was a well-planned murder, involving a whole network of people, emerging out of anger against his work to provide land rights to Bahujans in the district. In a complaint filed by Minaxiben, she mentions that  just days before the murder of her husband, Maheshwari was handling a land-related case of the Luhar community (an OBC caste in Gujarat), and every lawyer in Kutch had already been warned against taking the case up. Apart from Raval, she named eight other people in her complaint.

Minaxiben, a teacher in a government school in Rapar city in Kutch, refused to accept her husband’s body until the police looked into her complaint seriously. The body was finally cremated four days after his death, on September 28.

Thousands of people attended Devjibhai Maheshwari’s funeral. Photo: By arrangement

The Special Investigating Team (SIT) set up in the case following outrage from anti-caste groups and lawyers has arrested Raval and been questioning 10 more persons in the case. A senior official said that one accused, Mahesh Patel, who was also Raval’s employer in Mumbai, will be arrested today. Patel is accused of giving Raval shelter after the crime. Since Maheshwari belonged to a Dalit community, the police have invoked sections under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, along with murder and criminal conspiracy sections from the Indian Penal Code.

The Wire tried contacting Kutch (West) superintendent of police Mayur Patil several times but he couldn’t be reached. The article will be updated as and when the police officials respond.

Just a week before Maheshwari’s death, he had agreed to work on a case, a decision which made the savarna castes of his village feel challenged, his relatives and friends say. Members of the Sodha Rajput caste had tried to forcibly take over a community hall belonging to the Luhar (blacksmith) community in Rapar city.

“The community members were under tremendous pressure. They were beaten up by the Sodha Rajput men and were warned of dire consequence if they did not let go of the land. When the police refused to intervene and several local lawyers turned down the case, Maheshwari entered the scene,” says one of his associates and BAMCEF member Ashok Rathod. Sodha Rajput is one of the dominant upper castes in the Kutch region and Rathod says several cases of land grab and atrocities are registered against the community on a regular basis.

For more than two decades, Maheshwari was a part of BAMCEF, which is one of the leading anti-caste movements in India founded by Kanshiram in the late 1970s. The organisation, with a cadre-based approach, has played an important role in bringing the several small and big Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes under the umbrella “Bahujan” (or majority) identity. To take forward Kanshiram’s legacy, the organisation has continued to fight back against the atrocities and discrimination faced by Bahujans across the country.

Gujarat has a long history of oppression of the Bahujan castes, especially the Dalits. Upper caste members usurping land that belongs to the Dalit community is a common phenomenon and there have been several uprisings in the past few decades. Maheshwari’s work involved socially and legally fighting for the Bahujans’ land rights, says Hirji bhai, leader of the Bahujan Kranti Morcha. “Land disputes are commonly looked at as a civil matter, but Devjibhai believed that once the upper castes get involved, the matter no longer remains just civil; it changes into a criminal case soon.”

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Police overlook the complex nature of Maheshwari’s work

But the police in its initial response to Maheshwari’s killing completely overlooked the complex nature of his work. The police announced that the deceased had been posting “anti-Brahmin posts” on Facebook. This, BAMCEF leaders say, is a skewed understanding of the anti-caste movement. “What Maheshwari would write was a critical take on the Brahminical order. He did not write angry posts attacking individual Brahmins, but criticised how this caste-ridden society functions,” explains advocate Rahul Makhare, a senior functionary of BAMCEF in Maharashtra. And this, Makhare says, was used both by the police and later lapped up by the media just to dislodge the case from the original line of investigation.

Makhare’s criticism is not unfounded. Minaxiben’s police complaint mentioned the land dispute angle on the day of the death. The police had mentioned nine names too. But it was not acted upon, says Keshavlal Machhoya, a lawyer who has been associated with Maheshwari for several years and is now representing his family. Among the names in the FIR are Raval, Jaysukh Luhar, Khimji Luhar, Dhaval Luhar, Devubha Sodha, Vijaysinh Sodha, Mayursinh Sodha, Pravinsinh Sodha and Arjansinh Sodha. Two more persons, accused of harbouring and aiding Raval in travelling from Mumbai (where he worked) to Rapar and then back and have also been rounded up.

Machhoya also shares that soon after Maheshwari was attacked, two onlookers had jumped in to help him. “They carried him to two private hospitals, but they were turned away. He was still alive and profusely bleeding. The hospitals said they couldn’t admit him until a police case was registered since it was a medico-legal case. Finally, when Devjibhai was taken to the government hospital, it was too late.”

Devjibhai Maheshwari. Photo: By arrangement

Assert and reclaim

Maheshwari had an interesting approach toward asserting land rights. He believed in asserting and reclaiming. Across the country, many streets and lanes are named after politically influential people – most of whom are invariably upper caste. Maheshwari decided to name a small lane where his office was situated after Mahatma Jotiba Phule, both as a matter of political and social assertion, Rathod says. “A little over a decade ago, Devjibhai set up this office. I don’t know what this lane was called then. But he began calling it Mahatma Jotiba Phule road. In his visiting cards, while giving directions to people, he would call it as Phule road. In no time, the lane came to be known as Mahatma Jotiba Phule,” Rathod tells The Wire.

Maheshwari’s actions, Hirji Bhai says, made Phule’s name familiar to the people of the Kutch region. “Several mahamanav (great people) have remained restricted to their immediate geographic locations. Devjibhai knew the importance of invoking all anti-caste leaders in the daily discourse. And naming a street was part of that larger vision,” he adds. Maheshwari was also one of the senior lawyers at the Indian Lawyers Association, which was formed to consolidate and train anti-caste lawyers from Bahujan communities.

Devjibhai Maheshwari laid to rest. Photo: By arrangement

Maheshwari was unabashed in his criticism of the Hindu caste system. A staunch Ambedkarite, his public speeches and social media posts were focussed on the annihilation of caste. But that did not mean he did not have friends and supporters beyond his immediate social and political network. Maheshwari would travel across Gujarat, trying to build a social movement. In the process, he made several friends. On the day of his funeral, over 5,000 people gathered to say goodbye. “These were people from different walks of life. Bahujans, Muslims, savarnas everyone gathered and mourned his demise,” Rathod says.

Amid chants of ‘Jai Bhim’ and ‘Devjibhai Amar Raho’, his body was taken in a procession across Rapar city. He was cremated close to the tomb of Saint Matiya Dev, who the Matang community of Kutch follow. A blue flag with a dhamma chakra and ‘Jai Bhim’ printed over it was placed on his body.

Advocate Machhoya said that several bar associations in Gujarat have passed resolutions seeking swift action against the accused. “In Rapar court’s bar association, the lawyers boycotted work until arrests were made. It is overwhelming to see this kind of support. It also gives us the courage and hope to fight. After all, that is what Devji would have done, fight back,” Machhoya said.