On the night of June 7, 12 Dalit families left a village in Maharashtra’s Latur district, citing caste atrocities and ostracism by people belonging to the dominant Maratha caste. Among those who fled was the village sarpanch. They took shelter in the abandoned hostel building of an engineering college around 18 kilometres from their village.

“Why should we go back?” asked Shalubai Shinde, the sarpanch, when Scroll.in met her and others on Saturday. “There is only danger for us there.”

On Sunday, the district administration persuaded nine of the families to return to the village. But Shinde and her family have refused to go back.

What led to one of the largest exoduses of Dalits from a village in Maharashtra in recent years? Scroll.in travelled to Rudrawadi village in Udgir block in Latur to find a pattern of long-simmering exclusion that finally resulted in their leaving.

Old tensions

There are no markers at the lane turning in to Rudrawadi on the highway that runs between Udgir and Nanded. It is a small village by any standards, with a population of only around 700 people. Most of the residents and all the landowners are Marathas. Matangs are the only Dalit community there. They own no land and almost all work on the fields of Marathas as agricultural labourers.

Relations between Matangs and Marathas in Rudrawadi have always been tense, say the Matangs. Every Matang person this reporter spoke to spoke of the insults and attacks they have silently endured for decades.

“Though I am the sarpanch, I have no rights at all,” said Shalubai Shinde. “When there are meetings they don’t allow me to sit on a chair. Or they hold meetings without calling me. I am a sarpanch only by name. How many days are we supposed to sort out things and let them go?”

Matangs are not allowed entry into the village temple either, they say. If they want to conduct any ceremonies, they must do so only at the bottom step of the temple. The Marathas of the village denied that this was the case, saying that people of all communities have always been allowed entry into the temple.

On May 8, when tensions flared up, it was reportedly because of a marriage ceremony conducted at the foot of the temple.

“We had gone to perform some of the ceremonies at the bottom of the steps outside the temple,” said Vaidyanath Shinde, father of the woman whose marriage it was. The woman has since left for her marital home and so was not one of the refugees. “We did not even enter the temple but some people [Marathas] came up to us and asked us why we came to the temple at all for our ceremonies.”

That night, the lights were turned off in the Matang area of the village, Shinde and others alleged. On May 9, people of the Maratha community allegedly scared away the cooks who had come from outside the village for the wedding.

On May 10, however, the friction took a violent turn. The 16-year-old son of Tukaram Shinde, another of the refugees, was sitting at a shop next to a dhaba owned by a Maratha. Some Maratha youth allegedly asked Shinde’s son why he was looking at them. Shinde’s son said he was doing no such thing and was simply sitting with members of his own community, Shinde said. They got into a fight and one Maratha person got scratched on his neck.

Later that evening, a large group of around 50 Marathas allegedly came to Shinde’s house, dragged his son out and assaulted him and others. Scroll.in has accessed a video purportedly of the event that shows a large group of people accusing a small group of others of having weapons. The group then goes up to a house and begins to beat on the door. They drag an individual out of the house.

The audio is not clear as several individuals are shouting at the same time. A woman shouts, “Don’t get violent or I will call the police.” A man shouts that their child had attacked him. Tukaram Shinde is in this video, folding his hands and saying the incident has happened, please let it go. The video ends mid altercation, as someone warns that this cannot happen again.

Tukaram Shinde alleged that at first the Marathas reportedly did not allow the Matangs to leave the village with any vehicle to take their injured for medical help, Shinde finally managed to leave and get help from police. On May 11, the police filed charges of rioting and under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against 23 people in the village, including the deputy sarpanch Dhanaji Rajaram Atolkar who is a Maratha.

Tukaram Shinde. Photo: Mridula Chari

Social boycott

Outraged that the Matang community had dared to file a case against them, the other villagers began to boycott them. All services in the villages were reportedly denied to the community. They were not allowed to access shops or even buy fodder for their cattle. Maharashtra outlawed social boycotts in June 2017.

By May 21, a local human rights organisation, Samajik Nyay Andolan, got involved in the case. Only at this point were 12 people arrested, though they got bail in 15 to 20 days, said Deputy Superintendent of Police Shridhar Pawar. After people of the Matang community villagers held a rasta roko at Udgir town on May 24, the tehsildar of the block distributed three months’ worth of rations to them. Some had to conduct distress sales of their cattle, putting buffalos and goats on the market at half the going rate.

After the situation did not improve, the Matangs finally decided to leave on June 7, returning briefly on June 9 to gather their belongings.

Seeking rehabilitation

Scroll.in met Shinde and the other refugees on Saturday, in the premises of the disused college near Udgir town, and visited Rudrawadi, where the district administration is hard at work in trying to demonstrate that everything is normal.

The engineering college in which the Matang families found shelter was built several years ago by a social service organisation on “gairan” or government-owned common grazing land. After the college shut down around ten years ago, the land and buildings fell into disuse.

The hostel building where each family had occupied two rooms is in an advanced state of disrepair. The staircases had no railings and wires hung down from the ceilings.

“When we came here, all the women spent an entire night and day cleaning out the trash and old bottles that had piled up here,” said Shikhabai Shinde, an elderly lady and grandmother of the teenager who was assaulted.

But though they might want to settle on this land, the district administration does not want them to do so. On Friday, officials from the tehsildar’s office pasted a notice at the hostel building. The situation is now peaceful in their village and so they should return to their homes, the notice says. And on Sunday night, the district administration held a four-hour meeting with them to persuade them to return to the village.

“Some people have incorrectly told them that they will be rehabilitated by the administration,” said G Shreekant, District Magistrate of Latur district. “I can say that this rehabilitation will not happen. We are in the state of Phule, Shahu and Ambedkar, where all communities live with one another. Social boycott cannot happen in this state.”

He added later, “The Matang community people want to get rehabilitated. I will never let it happen for one reason. If you keep running how much will you run? [...] It will set a very bad precedent in Maharashtra and the entire country that after being ostracised, the administration supported them and rehabilitated them. Even if we call it rehabilitation in their language, they have still been ostracised by their village. We cannot let this happen.”

The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission of Maharashtra is set to conduct an inquiry with the administration, affected families and at the village on July 5 and 6.

There is no clear signpost pointing the way to Rudrawadi.

Peace meeting

On Saturday evening in Rudrawadi, there was an air of tense anticipation. The Collector and other Revenue department officials were scheduled to hold a peace meeting to sort out issues there.

While waiting for the meeting to begin, the Marathas denied all the claims of the Matang community.

“Outside organisations have raised this issue to defame our village,” said Murlidhar Patil, a resident of the village. “There was no ostracism at all. They are lying about everything. And journalists have taken money to write about this.”

Asked why, if there was no social boycott, the tehsildar had distributed rations to the villagers, Patil replied that she too had been deceived by lies.

“Why would we attack them?” he said. “With them gone, our sowing in the fields is incomplete. We only always help them.”

Only one Dalit family had remained in Rudrawadi. This family refused to talk to this reporter. “We have nothing to say, please leave us out of this,” one of them said.

Pawar, the police inspector at Ahmedpur police station who is handling the case, lent support to the Marathas’ claim.

“They [the Matang community] left village only 25 days after the case was filed,” said Deputy Superintendent of Police Shridhar Pawar. “They did a dharna in Udgir suo motu and demanded rehabilitation only after other organisations and political groups told them they will get plots of land if they do so.”

Tukaram Shinde countered this claim.

“We are not part of any organisation,” he said. “We just do daily work. If we can’t even fill our stomachs daily, what organisation will we be a part of? Any day they can tell us, ‘Come to Latur.’ That will cost Rs 100. Then what are we supposed to eat?”

He added: “How can we stay silent in the face of this persecution? Otherwise why would we risk our lives to pursue this case?”

Some of the accused who were released on bail, he says, have threatened to return to jail only after killing at least four members of the Matang community. The district administration, however, says that the situation is now normal.

“If there is any social ostracism, we will definitely take action, but this has not happened,” said District Magistrate Shreekant. “These people were simply scared that they had filed a first information report and now what will happen to them them. Obviously they are scared since there are only a few families there. I have asked them, ‘How can I do away your fear?’ I can give police presence, I have counselled local villagers that they cannot retaliate. So nothing will happen.”

He added, “This village has also received an award from the President for being an ideal village. I don’t say this is a criterion that something has not happened, but it is corroborative that this village has a very good social culture.” (Critics note that Khairlanji where four Dalits of one family were murdered in 2006, also received an award for being free of any disputes two years after the incident.)

Latur district magistrate G Shreekant arrives at Rudrawadi for the meeting.

Not convinced

The families who have not returned, including Tukaram Shinde’s and Shalubai Shinde’s families, are not convinced by these assurances. It has not been easy for them to stay outside the village without work. Many have sent their children to relatives’ homes while they stayed in the engineering campus near Udgir. Yet even though they have shifted out of their home village, they have had to face yet another social boycott.

“When we went to work on the fields of another village, we worked for seven days before they too ostracised us,” said Shalubai Shinde. “They stopped us from working, asking what if we create trouble for them too? What are we supposed to return to?”

Shreekant for his part denied that any incident had happened at all in the village, neither social boycott nor temple entry. The only incident he admitted could have happened – for which there is a first information report – is that an individual of the Matang community was assaulted. However, he refused to speak about this case saying it was under sub judice.

“Nothing has happened to make them scared,” he said. “We have given them an assurance that anyone who does anything wrong we will take action against them. The other villagers have welcomed the nine families who returned with sweets and shawls.”

He added: “The administration and police are here to protect them. This is why we have said in the village also that nothing like this will happen and if they do anything, we will use the full force of law to take action against them.”

But the three families who remain outside do not accept this. “We have no trust at all in the promises of the village,” Shinde said over the phone on Tuesday. “The accused are still out on bail. After so much hooliganism, why should we go back? I don’t want anything from the village, not my position, not anything.”

The Panchayat office in Rudrawadi. Photo: Mridula Chari