The death of a teenager who was set on fire by three people, including two brothers, who accused him of stealing vehicle batteries has acquired a communal colour in Pune.
While the 17-year-old’s father has alleged that his son was burnt alive after he identified himself as a Hindu, a purported video of the boy confirming the allegation while on his death bed has gone public.
Some pro-Hindutva groups, meanwhile, have demanded an investigation by the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), claiming that the manner in which Savan Rathod was killed “matched the methods” of Islamic State militants.
On Thursday, members of Rathod’s Banjara community and Hindutva groups met senior police officers and threatened to launch an agitation on January 27 over the death. Also, a magistrate court extended police custody of the three suspects — Imran and Zuber Tamboli, and Ibrahim Sheikh — until January 25.
According to the police FIR — the 17-year-old is listed as the complainant — Rathod was set on fire with petrol by the three suspects in a narrow lane in Kasba Peth in the afternoon of January 13 after they accused him of stealing. He succumbed to his injuries last Friday.
The boy’s father, Dharma Rathod, has now disputed the police charge. “Savan left home about a week before his death following a petty quarrel with his sister. After coming to know about the incident, I reached Sassoon hospital (where Savan was admitted) on Thursday evening. I asked him what happened…. From what he told me I believe that assailants did ask him whether he was a Hindu and then burnt him alive after he said ‘yes’,” said Dharma.
While police said there was no record of any offence registered against the boy in the past, some members of the Banjara community claimed to have recorded a video of Savan at the hospital.
The purported video shows him as saying: “I was working with my family in Pandhapur. I had a dispute with them and came to Pune looking for work…While I was urinating, three persons objected and asked me my name. I said Savan Rathod. They asked me if I am Hindu? I said ‘yes’. Then they poured something over me from a can and set me on fire.”
Those recording the video then ask Savan if he feels he was burnt because he is a Hindu. To this, Savan is seen nodding his head.
Said advocate Ramesh Rathod, representing Banjara Kranti Dal, “When we went to the hospital on Thursday evening… Savan’s situation was bad. So we asked police to record his statement before he dies. But the cops refused, saying he himself was the complainant. So I recorded his dying declaration on my cellphone in the presence of his father and other activists. He did not mention anything about theft. Maybe, police fear that revealing the facts would create communal tensions.”
When contacted, DCP Tushar Doshi said, “We probed the backgrounds of all three suspects. No communal links have been found so far. They have committed a gruesome crime. But there is no evidence to say the intention behind it was communal.”
Doshi added, “After nabbing Savan, the assailants questioned him for battery theft for a few hours. We confirmed at least two spots where they took Savan, suspecting he had sold stolen batteries here. Then they forcibly made him drink petrol and set him on fire… Savan Rathod’s video at the hospital could be an afterthought as he did not mention anything of a communal nature when FIR was lodged.”
Police said Sheikh is a tempo driver while the Tamboli brothers operate a scrap-material shop in the Kasba Peth area. Police said Zuber was earlier booked in an attempt to murder case a few years before.
On Thursday, Banjara activists handed over an application to probe the extremist links of the suspects and a CD with the purported video to police at the Faraskhana station.