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Shadow Over Maha Village After Dalit Man's Suicide; District Has Past of Atrocities Against Dalits

Three men are accused of having beaten the victim and stripped him naked – before he died by suicide – because he participated in a local dance programme.
Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Kopardi (Maharashtra): In Kopardi, accessible through a solitary bus stop named Kuldharan, a sombre scene unfolds. With just 450 households, this drought-prone village stands apart from the main villages of Ahmednagar. Here, tragedy has befallen the family of Vitthal, a 37-year-old Dalit man who worked as a daily wage labourer.

Vitthal’s father sits outside their small home, encircled by a group of police personnel, Dalit rights activists and journalists.

Recent events have cast a shadow over every household in Kopardi, heightening tensions. Police presence is heavy and the area cordoned off – a response to both a recent death and the impending elections.

Vitthal, hailing from the Dalit Buddhist community in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district (renamed to Ahilya Nagar in March), died by suicide on May 2. His despair stemmed from an alleged brutal assault by three individuals from the Maratha upper caste.

The three are accused of not only subjecting him to severe beatings but also stripping him naked and confiscating his clothes and mobile phone.

His sole transgression was participating in a dance, an innocent act that due to his Dalit background, became a catalyst for his torment.

Kopardi is home to a mix of Buddhist and Maratha communities among others. The village has a single primary school, the Rehekuri primary school, located near the Rehekuri Blackbuck Sanctuary.

The surrounding area is dotted with farms, each claimed by different communities, including the Buddhists, Marathas and other backward communities.

Most of the SC/ST community in Kopardi are involved in labour work, either on farms or in government-designated projects like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

The majority of the land in Ahmednagar district is owned by the Marathas, who make up 40% of the district’s population of 4.5 million. In contrast, 21% of the population consists of SCs and STs, many of whom work on the fields owned by the Marathas.

Vitthal’s suicide note, where he names the accused in the case. Photo provided by author.

‘How could a Dalit dance amongst us?’

Kantilal Gopal Shinde, a 60-year-old resident of Kopardi belonging to the Dalit community, is Vitthal’s father. He had two sons, of whom Vitthal – Kantilal’s older son, also known as Nitin Kantilal Shinde – lived approximately 200 metres away from his father’s house with his wife Jayshree and their two sons, aged 11 and seven to eight years old.

Kantilal lived with his younger son, Sharad (also known as Shantilal Kantilal Shinde), his wife and their son.

In the police report he filed, Kantilal stated that on May 1, a yatra was organised for Bhairav Nath, followed by cultural events in the village.

The next morning, he was informed by villagers that his elder son had been in a confrontation with the three accused individuals.

According to the villagers, Vitthal was assaulted for dancing in the Tamasha – a traditional Marathi dance form – programme as he belonged to the Dalit community.

Vitthal tried to leave, but the accused intercepted him, took him to the cremation ground in Kopardi, stripped him naked and took away his clothes and phone.

Kantilal says, “When I rushed to his house, I found it empty, and later his wife discovered him hanging from the roof. A handwritten note in his pocket named the accused. It was a day that changed our lives forever.”

Sharad, who is 33 years old and works as a driver, states that Vitthal and his wife used to work as labourers.

He also denies claims in news reports suggesting any relationship between their family and the accused in the 2016 Kopardi rape case – where a 14-year-old Maratha girl was raped and murdered by three people – stating them to be untrue.

He mentioned the possibility of more people being involved in Vitthal’s humiliation, prompting the police to search for CCTV footage for further evidence.

Karjat police apprehend three accused in case; probe ongoing

Authorities from the Karjat police station have apprehended all three men allegedly involved in the case.

Dinesh alias Banti Babasaheb Sudrik, Swapnil Baban Sudrik, and Vaibhav Madhukar Sudrik have been arrested and charged under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. They have been remanded to judicial custody.

When questioned about the possibility of there being additional suspects, Karjat police officials said, “We are continuing our investigation into the matter.”

According to police inspector Maruti Muluk of the Karjat police station, “All three accused have been charged under the Atrocities Act and Section 306 (abetment of suicide). We had the accused in our custody for a day before sending all three to jail. The investigation is ongoing. The main accused, Dinesh, is the brother of the victim of the 2016 gang rape case.”

Sharad has denied the claim that his family is related to one of the accused in the rape case, and Kantilal says they have never supported any of the accused.

Part of the Dalit settlement in Kopardi. Photo: Akansha Deshmukh.

In contrast, the father of the main accused, Dinesh Sudrik, stated late on May 10 that “the police have framed false charges against my son. We have no connection to Vitthal’s suicide. My son is innocent; he never assaulted him, took his mobile phone, or stripped him. This case is being sensationalised and linked to an old case by the police, which is not the reality.”

Sudrik is also the father of the gang rape victim from 2016.

When asked why the accused were not kept in police custody for further investigation, a local police officer says: “Madam, elections are currently underway. Should we focus on this, or should we handle the elections?”

Raju Naik, a local trader who was involved in student activism in his college days in the Ahmednagar district, says that the tension between the Marathas and Dalits in Ahmednagar has historical roots and has been exacerbated by recent events, including the Maratha Kranti Muk Morcha protests.

He said, “The Maratha Kranti Muk Morcha, a series of silent protests by the Maratha community in Maharashtra, surged in Ahmednagar district after the heinous rape and murder of a 15-year-old Maratha girl in Kopardi village on July 13, 2016. This tragedy sparked widespread Maratha outrage, leading to the formation of the Maratha Kranti Morcha, which demanded justice for the victim and addressed broader community issues.”

Ahmednagar, with its significant Maratha population, became a focal point for these protests. The first march took place on August 9, 2016 and the largest gathering occurred in Ahmednagar city on September 23, 2016, with nearly 30 lakh people in attendance.

Apart from swift justice in the Kopardi case, the Maratha community advocated for educational and job reservations, and amendments to prevent “misuse” of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

These demonstrations also exposed deep-rooted caste tensions in the district, which has a history of caste-related crimes.

Thirty-one cases of caste-based atrocities reported to the police as of April

What is particularly alarming is that this incident is not an isolated one. Ahmednagar has a troubling history of being a hotspot for incidents of brutality against Dalits and tribals.

Over the years, the district has witnessed a disproportionately high number of such cases.

In August 2023, four young men, including two minors, from the Dalit community were allegedly subjected to a brutal assault. They were semi-stripped, hung upside down from a tree and beaten mercilessly in a village over suspicions of goat and pigeon theft.

Adding to the barbarity, they were forced to lick the boots of the accused, who even urinated on them.

In December 2023, a mob of over 100 people attacked two Dalit families in the same village. Armed with sickles, iron rods and stones, the mob vandalised houses, set properties ablaze and unleashed a wave of terror. 

According to Ahmednagar police data, from July to December 2023, there were 25 reported cases of atrocities against Dalits. The trend continued into 2024, with the number rising to 26 in February, 27 in March and 31 in April.

The victims belong to various communities within the Dalit and Adivasi spectrum, including Buddhists, Bhils, Pardhis, Thakars, Charmakars, Mehtars, Matangs, Buruds and Mochis among others.

As per the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, Ahmednagar district is designated as an area “prone to atrocities”. Seventy-four villages in Ahmednagar have been identified as areas susceptible to such acts.

The Ahmednagar Lok Sabha constituency is one of the state’s 48 parliamentary constituencies.

Comprising six legislative assembly segments – Shevgaon, Rahuri, Parner, Ahmednagar City, Shrigonda, and Karjat Jamkhed – all within the Ahmednagar district, the constituency is set to vote in phase 4 on May 13, with results to be announced on June 4.

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