“Here, have a sip of water. Just one sip, please.” I was holding out a bottle of mineral water to Sangeeta Bhonsle, a young woman with matted hair, a dishevelled sari and a tear-stained face.
Moments before, Sangeeta had been lying limp on the grass in a dusty field, and I had helped her sit up. She looked at the water bottle with a pained expression, and I brought it closer to her lips in the hope that she would drink. But she pushed my hand away, let out an anguished cry and threw herself back on the ground.
“I can’t!” she cried. “My husband is gone, he will never eat or drink again, how can I drink anything?” Next to her, two more women joined in the mourning, beating their chests and calling out the names of their own deceased husbands.
I stared helplessly at the grieving widows, wishing in that moment that I was anything but a journalist.
It was July 2. I was in the town of Pimpalner in Maharashtra’s Dhule district, faced with the task of reporting the horrific lynching of five men by a murderous mob of villagers who suspected the men were kidnappers. The incident was one of the deadliest in a series of similar mob lynchings reported across India in mid-2018: murders triggered by viral Whatsapp rumours about gangs of “child-lifters” out to abduct children, kill them and sell their organs. In just two months from May to July, more than 20 people were killed and many more injured in such mob attacks.
In most cases, the victims were “outsiders” – migrants or travellers passing through a town or village. In Dhule, the men targeted by the mobs were members of the Nathpanthi Davari Gosavi nomadic community from Solapur, known for travelling around the state and begging for alms in the name of their deity.
Within hours of the news of the lynchings hitting the headlines, my colleague and I boarded an overnight bus from Mumbai to Dhule. Working clinically, we planned our route from the district police headquarters to the village where the men were killed, and to the hospital where their bodies were still lying in the morgue. We calculated that the victims’ families will most likely be at the hospital, and we were counting on them to give us details about the sequence of events that led to the lynchings.
I had reported from sites of tragedy many times before, and out of habit, my brain had categorised the grieving families as a “source” – one of the many formulaic sources of information needed to compose a comprehensive news report. I had learnt, over the years, to quietly stow away my own emotional reactions to their grief and loss.
Out of habit, therefore, I had simply not braced myself for the scenes I was about to witness in Dhule.
‘Why did they do this?’
We found the families of the lynched men almost as soon as we entered the town of Pimpalner. They had been camping in an open field ever since they arrived from Solapur, and the field was now crowded with television media vans, reporters, cameramen, local political workers and other bystanders.
In the midst of this commotion sat the bereaved women, their wails filling up the air. Inda Bhonsle sat with her head in her hands, calling out her husband’s name while a toddler lay in her lap. Sangeeta Bhonsle and her sister-in-law Narmada were sprawled near a makeshift tent, weeping inconsolably for their respective husbands. Sangeeta’s mother Kalpana Ingole stared vacantly as she told me of her triple tragedy: she had lost a son, a son-in-law and a brother.
As I was speaking to Kalpana Ingole, Sangeeta suddenly fainted and fell back on the ground. The women in her family started to revive her, and I could feel myself choking up as I joined them. Sangeeta opened her eyes a minute later and we made her sit up. I had a water bottle and a packet of biscuits in my bag, and I offered both to her.
“Have some water, you need to drink some water,” I said. She refused. “How about a biscuit?” I asked. She refused again.
Kalpana urged her daughter to sip water, but Sangeeta broke into sobs again. “My husband is gone,” she kept repeating, turning first to her mother and then to Narmada. They nodded, and then each woman withdrew into her own lonely shell of sorrow.
Soon, local social activists from Pimpalner arrived with kettles of tea and bags full of biscuits. While their children eagerly ate the biscuits distributed to them, the women continued to refuse tea, water and food. “Please, you really need to eat,” I told them. “If you faint again, you will need to go to a hospital. You need to stay strong for your children.”
Kalpana asked: “How could they just kill my son without finding out anything about him? Why didn’t they stop to think before killing my brother? If they had asked, my son had all his papers to show them. He had his Aadhaar card too. Why did they do this?”
I had no answers. All I could do was put my notebook and pen aside and give the ageing woman a hug while she cried. I was conscious of the many TV news cameramen walking around, recording the women’s rawest emotions without really asking for their approval. Was I really very different from them, asking questions every time the women stopped crying?
A patronising state
The previous evening, when the five victims’ families heard about the lynchings and rushed to Pimpalner civic hospital, the doctors permitted only a couple of young men from the families to enter the morgue and identify the bodies. The women – wives, mothers, daughters – were barred from entering the place even though they wanted to.
“When they told me my husband had died, I did not believe it. And now they are not letting me see my husband’s face,” cried Santa Malve, another widow. I felt a wave of indignation wash over me at the thought of this unsolicited paternalism by the doctors. Did the women not have a right to see proof of their loved ones’ deaths, after they had been killed so ruthlessly and inexplicably?
But local authorities were not done patronising the bereaved women. That afternoon, when my colleague and I returned to the open field after reporting from around the district, we found the victims’ families packing up their belongings into two large trucks. Leaders of their community – all men – had travelled from Solapur to Pimpalner that morning, negotiated with Dhule district officials and had settled on a compensation amount that the state government would pay the affected families. The community leaders had now agreed to take the victims’ bodies back to Solapur for their last rites, and district officials had made immediate arrangements for ambulances and trucks to transport all members of the nomadic tribe out of Dhule.
I approached Sangeeta and the other women as they climbed into the back of a truck, still crying inconsolably. They were doing as they had been told by the senior men of their community, but they had no desire to leave the open field in Pimpalner. With a shudder, I realised that the women had still not been given an opportunity to see the bodies, which had been sent away in Solapur-bound ambulances directly from the morgue. The women were being packed off without a chance for closure, and the image of their tormented faces retreating down the road stayed with me for a long time.
In this series, Scroll.in reporters look back at their experiences while reporting a significant story in 2018.
Read more in this series here.