Ahmednagar district of western Maharashtra witnessed yet another caste atrocity last weekend as a 23- year-old Dalit youth was beaten to death because his phone had the ringtone of a song praising Babasaheb Ambedkar. The police said that nursing student Sagar Shejwal was beaten to death at a liquor shop in Shirdi by seven men belonging to the Maratha and Other Backward Classes communities on Saturday after they heard his phone proclaim,  “Tumhi Karare Kitihi Halaa, Lay Mazboot Bhimacha Killa” ‒ attack as much as you may, long live Ambedkar.

Shejwal, who studied in Nashik, was visting his family in Shirdi last week to attend a cousin’s wedding. Since it had been several months he had met his friends, they decided to grab a drink, said 21- year-old Satish Gaikwad, who was with Shejwal at the liquor shop that afternoon along with 19- year-old Avinash Pachore. According to a statement Gaikwad made to the police, the three friends bought some liquor from BM Wines and were drinking in a space behind the store.

“Sagar’s phone rang,” said Gaikwad. “He had set a song on Ambedkar as his ringtone. Hearing the song, the men on the neighbouring table came near us and started abusing Sagar. One of them was so angry that he began hurling abuses at Sagar and asked him to switch the cell phone off. Sagar did not relent. This angered Kote even more. He held Sagar by his collar, dragged him towards his table and broke a beer bottle on his head.”

Fearing for his life, Pachore ran away from the spot, but Gaikwad stayed tried to shield Shejwal. He was also been injured in the scuffle. CCTVs around the shop have captured some part of the attack.

Four of the men have been arrested. They have been identified as Vishal Kote, Rupesh Wadekar, Somnath Wadekar and Sunil Jadhav. Three others are absconding.

“After beating Shejwal, the accused dragged him out to the street, put him on a bike and took him eight kms away on the outskirts of the city,” said deputy superintendent Vivek Patil, who is investigating the case. “He was further beaten, stripped naked and finally bikes were run over him several times.”

Patil said two accused Kote and Rupesh Wadekar have several cases of dacoity and attempt to murder pending against them. All seven accused have been booked for unlawful assembly, abduction, murder along with sections of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

Besides Gaikwad and the shop manager Sandeep Gorphade, another crucial witness has come forward and testified against the accused. “She saw the men drag Shejwal and finally run bikes over him,” said Patil. The arrested accused have been taken into police custody until May 25.

Police apathy

Along with the killing, an inquiry has been initiated against the police officers who had refused to visit the shop ‒ which is just 250 metres away from the police station ‒ soon after the phone calls were made. “As soon as the scuffle broke at 1.30 pm, I called up the police station,” said Ghorpade. “I was told police would be sent to the spot immediately. But no one turned up. Meanwhile, they had already beaten the victim and dragged him away.” On May 16, police inspector Pramod Wagh was on duty. The police visited the shop at 2.30 pm, an hour after the incident.

Shejwal’s family alleged that Wagh refused to set out on search until an air- conditioned car was provided to him. “We hired a car and provided it to the police,” said Sagar’s father Subhash Sejwal. “They did not bother to look for my son. My relatives found the body.”

Shejwal’s killing has thrown the spotlight on increasing caste violence in the Ahmednagar district. According to the social justice ministry’s website, Ahmednagar is among the 26 of Maharashtra’s 35 districts that has been declared “atrocity- prone”. This categorisation makes it mandatory for the state to take special measures to prevent caste violence.

“Ahmednagar district has become extremely sensitive in the recent times and most atrocities are brutal in nature,” said lawyer Priyadarshi Telang, the convener of the Dalit Adivasi Adhikar Andolan. “However, most of these cases are pending in the courts for years.” Telang added that despite though the Caste Atrocities Act has been in existence for several decades, Maharashtra has not set up a single special court to conduct these trials.

Shejwal’s is the fifth major caste-based killing in the district since 2013. In November, three persons from a Dalit family including a teenage boy were hacked to death in Javkheda village. On April 28 last year, 17- year old Dalit boy Sunil Aage was brutally killed and then hanged from a tree following a love affair with a minor girl from an upper caste in Kharada. In another incident of caste violence, three men from Mehtar community working as manual scavengers at a college in Sonai village were hacked and their bodies were dumped in a septic tank.