Three Men Lynched in Maharashtra, BJP Leaders Push Communal Angle

The Maharashtra home minister has pointed out that the attackers and attacked in Palghar did not belong to different religions and that the police would act against those using the incident to spread religious hatred.

Mumbai: Three days after the mob lynching of three men in Palghar, Maharashtra, the emergence of video footage of the brutal attack has given the incident a political colour with Bharatiya Janata Party leaders and Hindutva activists on social media using the fact that the victims were Hindu to allege the killings were part of “appeasement politics”.

Late evening on April 16, three persons travelling in a car were attacked by a group of men in Palghar and killed. The Palghar police have claimed that the three persons killed were travelling from Kandivili in western Mumbai to Silvassa and had passed through a village route, where they were stopped and attacked by over 70-80 persons.

The accused, the police say, are all local adivasis from Dahanu taluka in Palghar district.  The Kasa police station investigating the incident has claimed that the victims were attacked after the local villagers mistook them for “thieves”.

Of the three deceased persons, two persons—70- year old Kalpvrush Giri and 35- year old Sushil Giri—initially believed to be members of the Gosavi Nomadic Tribe but subsequently reported to be from Uttar Pradesh – were affiliated to one ‘Shri Panch Dashnam  Juna Akhaara’ in Varanasi. The third person, identified as Nilesh Telgade, was the driver of the car. The trio were travelling from Kandivili to Silvassa to attend a funeral and had to change routes from the national highway to smaller, inner lanes passing by a village since the district exits have been sealed due to COVID- 19.

Palghar is the northernmost coastal district of Maharashtra and borders Gujarat and the Union territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli.

Maharashtra district map. Credit: mapsofindia.com

The Palghar police have arrested 110 people in connection with the incident. Of these, 9 persons are juvenile. The adult accused have been remanded in police custody till April 30 and the juveniles have been sent to a children’ home, a representative from Palghar police station confirmed. Most were taken into custody on April 17, one day after the incident.

Most of those arrested belong to Gadchinchale village in Dahanu Taluka of Palghar district. According to the 2011 census, the village has around 248 households, all belonging to the Scheduled Tribes. The literacy rate of the village is only around 30% and most of them are marginal farmers or labourers working in industrial units nearby.

Initial media reports, based on the assessment of local police, indicated that one or more local tribals thought the three men travelling by car were “thieves”.

Video of incident surfaces

On Sunday, April 19, the incident suddenly took a political and even communal colour when video footage of the incident emerged and BJP leaders highlighted the fact that the men who were lynched were wearing saffron robes.

By evening, hashtags like #JusticeforHinduSadhus were trending on Twitter with over three lakh persons tweeting on the incident. Several BJP and right-wing leaders expressed their shock and dismay over the incident. Many Hindutva oriented social media handles sought to insinuate a ‘Muslim’ angle, prompting Maharashtra home minister Anil Deshmukh to tweet that the attackers and the attacked, in fact, did not belong to different religions.

“The police have been told to take firm action against those who, without reason, are trying to create a religious dispute”, he added.

Former Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis condemned the attack and demanded a “high level committee” be set up immediately to investigate the incident.

On Sunday night, the Uddhav Thackeray government – a coalition comprising the Shiv Sena, Congress and Nationalist Congress Party – said it would launch a high-level inquiry into the incident. Though the government has not said so, the evident dereliction of duty by the local police has been widely commented on. In the viral video, the policemen present do nothing to protect the defenceless men from the mob, which is armed with lathis.

Plight of nomadic tribals

Kalpavruksh Giri, the 70- year old victim, had worn a saffron gamcha around his shoulders and Twitter was quick to suggest he and the other sadhu had been attacked because they were Hindus.

Giri is a common name among Gosavis and based on an earlier lynching incident in which denotified tribals were killed, social activists and Gosavi community leaders claimed that two of the deceased belonged to the nomadic tribal community and were part of a religious sect affiliated with an akhaara or a religious group in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. “There are at least 16 subsects among the Gosavi community. Giris are one of them. Most of them are associated with the akharaas across different states,” sociologist Kalidas Shinde told The Wire.

Shinde, who also belongs to one of the sub-sects of the semi-nomadic Gosavi community, said that most persons among Gosavis wear saffron robes and lead a mobile life. “Not much is known about these men but it is usual to find people from the community leading a nomadic lifestyle. Public harassment is a common experience of most persons travelling from one village to another. They get looked at with suspicion,” Shinde said.

Bharatkumar Tambile, an official spokesperson of the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu NathPanthi Samaj Mahasangh, a right-wing organisation working among the nomadic and denotified tribal community in the state, said his organisation has already been on the ground trying to find out about the deceased. Tambile’s organisation was activated only after the incident took a communal angle and efforts were made to show that Hindu sadhus were attacked by the mob on the basis of religion.

Recently, in 2018, five persons were lynched in a tribal hamlet, Rainpada village in Sakri taluka of Maharashtra’s Dhule. The men, in that case too, were attacked following a rumour and the police said the locals had mistaken them to be child abductors.

The semi-nomadic Gosavi community has for long faced ostracisation, discrimination and violence. It is one of the 42 nomadic and denotified tribes of Maharashtra – the largest among all states. Some among the 16 subsects of Gosavis continue to wander in cities and villages of Maharashtra and other states.

Post lockdown tension

Palghar, which is a border district has been accommodating a large number of migrant workers at different labour camps set up across the district since the national lock down. The presence of so many “outsiders” had led to a tense atmosphere in the district and the police say attempts have been made to spread rumours here.

After the lynching incident, the Palghar police have issued several advisories. Several voice notes have also been sent out to people on WhatsApp. “We are trying to reach out to people in their local dialects and are trying to appeal to them that they should not indulge in any violent act. These are difficult times and spreading rumours at such times is the easiest,” an officer from Kasa police station said.

Note: In the light of news reports from Uttar Pradesh that identified the two sadhus as Brahmins from Uttar Pradesh, the headline and text of this story has been revised to correct the earlier claim made by Gosavi community activists that the two deceased sadhus belonged to their community of denotified tribals. Palghar police, which conducted the initial investigation were unable to provide The Wire with details of the lynching victims.