When a minor girl was raped and murdered in Kopardi, in Western Maharashtra, last year, photographer Sudharak Olwe sensed that a storm was coming. The girl was a Maratha and the men allegedly involved in the crime, were Dalit. Just as Olwe had anticipated, the story became about the two communities involved, rather than about the question of children’s safety.

Marathas across the state soon launched a full-blown agitation demanding justice for the victim. State machinery was activated swiftly and the case was put on trial right away. Yet, the “silent protest” turned violent in several places, especially northern Maharashtra, where Dalit houses were torched, properties damaged and Dalit youths injured. The protest for justice soon shifted its focus to demand for reservation for the Marathas. In this disarrayed discourse, something more deliberate was taking shape, said Olwe. “A deliberate attempt was made to create a negative narrative around the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and an impression of its ‘misuse’. The only way to expose this lie was by building a strong repository of facts.”

Olwe, a Padma Shri recipient, recruited two young researchers – Sujit Nikalje and Shraddha Ghatge. The three set out looking for cases of atrocities across the state, where justice was still a faraway dream. Nikalje, a committed student activist, is pursuing MPhil at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Ghatge left her journalism job to work with Olwe on the project.

Tushar Ghadage’s father Madhukar (48) was killed on April 26, 2007, in Kulakajai village in Satara district allegedly by 12 upper caste men for digging a well on a land shared by members of all caste. All 12 accused were acquitted by the Sessions court for want of evidence.

The story thus far

According to Olwe, 51, finding cases was not difficult. “Each village had its own share of stories of caste atrocities to tell.”

To begin with, the team focused on only extreme violence – instances “where people are maimed and killed, where women are sexually violated, and their bodies mutilated”. So far, they have documented nearly such 30 cases. “We want to bring to [the attention of the] public that no matter how brutal the violence, the struggle for justice is excruciatingly long and painful.”

Ghatge’s observations are borne out by the National Crime Records Bureau, an agency responsible for collating crime data. Even with its growing list of caste-based brutalities, the conviction rate in Maharashtra has remained abysmally low. In 2015, for instance, Maharashtra had a conviction rate of less than 4% for crimes reported against Dalits and Adivasis.

To speak of “misusing” the Atrocities Act, Nikalje said, feels like a vulgar joke. “Forget about the misuse, even in ‘open and shut’ cases, the trial drags on for years, accused are released on bail, some acquitted due to poor investigations and, meanwhile, families of the victims are displaced from their villages,” he added.

The Udage family in Pune’s Chikali area has been living under threat and 24-hour police protection ever since Manik, the 25-year-old sole bread earner of the family, was hacked to death for celebrating Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s birth anniversary on April 14, 2014. In 2014, Manik, a local contractor and founder of Samvidhan Pratistha – an organisation established to promote Dalit cultural events – was brutally beaten by a steel rod and stoned to death by four men from upper caste families. He was subjected to this brutality because he decided to organise a grand event to celebrate Ambedkar jayanti in Morya Vasti where upper caste communities are dominant. The trial is pending in Pune Sessions court.

Nikalje recalled a 10-year-old case from Kulakajai village in Satara district. Madhukar Ghadage, a 48-year-old educated Dalit-Buddhist from Kulakajai, was allegedly killed by 12 upper caste men for digging a well on shared land. “The case dragged on for years,” Nikalje said, but in the end, all 12 were acquitted for want of evidence.

Ghadage’s family today lives in the village, with constant threats and intimidation.

Nitin Aage, a 17-year-old Mahar boy from Kharda village in Jamkhed, was brutally killed and hanged from a tree for talking to a girl from an upper caste community. Three men, including the girl’s brother, from the same upper caste community suspected that Nitin had an affair with her and constantly harassed him in school. On April 28, 2014, the perpetrators allegedly beat him in front of the school, but the teachers and principal, instead of intervening, told them to take their matters outside school premises. The perpetrators, Aage's family claims, are roaming free as the cops failed to arrest them despite the repeated court warrants. They are shown “absconding” in police records, but Aage’s family says one of them passes by their house even today.

The more things change

Olwe has put his own resources and money into the research, which is heavily dependent on anti-caste activists and lawyers working across the state. Some cases were chosen through media reports, many through the contacts of local activists. “We started with Western Maharashtra, covering some cases in Pune, Ahmednagar and Satara and also a few in Beed district in the Marathwada region,” Ghatge said.

Nikalje pointed out a peculiarity the group observed, particularly in the Ahmednagar and Satara districts: “In the past decade, cases from Ahmednagar have gained some media traction. The place is infamous for the brutality unleashed on Dalit youths for their alleged links with upper caste girls. But so far no justice has been done in any of these cases.” The killings did not rattle civil society, added Nikalje. “Several boys have been killed cold-bloodedly. But there was no civil society furore or media campaign.”

Rajashree would have been alive today if the Dalit basti of Beed district’s Bagh Pimpalgaon village had received enough water last year, claims her distraught father Namdev Kamble (in picture). Rajashree, 10, succumbed to serious a head injury which she received while fetching water from the well. Namdev holds the village sarpanch and gram sevak responsible. He thinks had there been water in the house Rajashree wouldn’t have gone to the well. The sarpanch, claims Namdev, didn’t release water to the Dalit basti for 10-15 days. Three days later, Rajashree succumbed to the injury as her father couldn’t afford proper treatment for her.

Satara, a semi-urban district with a sizeable migratory population (in some pockets, Dalit communities are in majority), still records a high number of atrocities. “Most of this violence erupts here out of the victim’s struggle for land and water rights,” Nikalje said.

Maharashtra has had a vibrant history of anti-caste struggles – neo-Buddhists and Dalit communities have asserted their rights for land, education or legal recourse against discrimination in the state. This, in Olwe’s view, is the trigger for most atrocities. “In most cases we have documented thus far, the victim was a Buddhist Ambedkarite involved in either emancipatory work for his community or he was struggling to make his life better,” Olwe said.

On April 30, 2009, a day before his 19th birthday, Rohan Kakade, a Mahar boy from Satara, was murdered by five men from an upper caste community. He was suspected of having an affair with one of the accused’s sister. The perpetrators chopped off Rohan’s head, burnt his body and dumped it in a hilly area near Jadhavwadi waterfall. Two and half years later, Rohan’s father passed away, but his mother continued fighting the case, only to see the accused acquitted.

Ghatage noted that in most cases, the motives sounded flimsy, but deeply rooted in hatred. “Why else would Sagar Shejwal, a 23-year-old Dalit youth, be beaten to death in Ahmednagar, for keeping a mobile ringtone praising Ambedkar?” Ghatge asked.

The study also points out the lack of administrative support and counter cases filed against victims. When inflicted with violence, it takes a great deal for the victim’s family to approach the police. “By the time they manage to gather people and visit the police, a counter case is already filed against them by the accused, dissuading the victims from seeing justice,” Olwe said.

A way forward

The project plans to complete documentation for at least 100 cases by the end of 2017. This will depend on the resources available to Olwe. “We want to make this project interactive,” he said. “Through exhibitions and advocacy with the administrators, we want to work towards justice for these families.”

One such attempt was made in February, when Olwe and his team put up a three-day photo exhibition at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai. “Most victims are dependent on the state public prosecutors and police,” Olwe said. “They need lawyers and a robust support system to pick up the threads of life. We are trying to build that support system.”

Sagar Shejwal was beaten to death because his phone ringtone was a song praising Babasaheb Ambedkar. Shejwal, a 24-year-old nursing student, of Mahar (Buddhist) community, was brutally killed in Shirdi in May 2015 by seven upper caste men at a liquour shop over the ringtone. The song was “Tumhi Karare Kitihi Halaa, Lay Mazboot Bhimacha Killa” ‒ attack as much as you may, long live Ambedkar.