Almost two weeks after the gruesome murder of its Dalit deputy sarpanch, Manji Solanki (51), by a group of upper caste men (Kshatriya community) recently, life in Jalila has moved on. The only ostensible sign of the caste hostility in the village is the handful of policemen stationed outside Solanki’s house, chit-chatting, sitting on a charpoy, idling on their smart phones, and the silence around the Khachars — the accused.
The policemen insist that the situation is “under control”, even as streets remain vacant and people stay indoors.
Deepak Solanki, younger brother of Manji, says, “They are scared of the Khachar (Kshatriya) families and they won’t utter a word. The villagers are nice enough to have come to our house to pay their last respects to my brother. Two Khachar families were once the most powerful people in our village. Their presence still evokes fear among all. Nobody wants to upset them”.
To demonstrate what he meant, Deepak asked a visitor, who belonged to Thakor community and had come to pay his respect to Manji, to speak about the Khachars. The man bit his tongue, folded his hands and left the spot.
Jalila, a village under Ranpur Taluka of Botad, has a population of over 12,000, which is divided among Patel, Koli, Kshatriya, Thakore, Dalits, Pandits and Muslims, in that order. Patels and Kolis constitute roughly 40% of the population, Kshatriya 20% and rest is roughly divided in other groups. While Dalits have 80 houses, the Khachar (Kshatriya) community has 20.
Villagers are majorly into agriculture with a few exceptions of cab drivers, weavers and sheep herders. Due to a large number of Patel residents choosing to travel overseas for work, Jalila has earned the title of “NRI village” in Ranpur.
On June 19, a group of nine persons, all belonging to Kshatriya community, allegedly hit their car against the motorcycle Manji was riding, and later assaulted him with sticks and pipes. Manji was on his way home from Charanki village and died on way to hospital. Before his death, the victim recorded a video statement of him naming the accused, based on which police arrested all nine of them for murder.
On the day Manji Solanki was cremated, people from all communities, including some from the Khachar family, visited his house to pay their respects to the man who was the deputy sarpanch of the village since 1995. Four days after his death, the village saw a meeting of thousands of Dalit activists who had come from every part of Gujarat and neighbouring state Maharashtra, to seek justice for the slain leader.
Villagers don’t want to talk about the Solankis or the caste equation in the village. Even as the village became the focus of activists, media personnel and police, majority of the villagers remained indoors and the few who stepped out were tight-lipped. Pravin Thakor, a farmer in Jalila, sings praises of the slain deputy sarpanch, saying, “Our village receives 24-hour electricity and there is 100% underground sewage system due to the efforts of Manjibhai.”
However, when asked about his murder and subsequent caste based tension in Jalila, he just termed it as “unfortunate”.
Sunil Anand, an Ahmedabad-based former state revenue officer explained to The Indian Express that he has closely observed the happenings in Jalila since the deceased Manji Solanki used to get his affidavits and application typed by him.
“Zeeluaapa Khachar (arrested in the case as the prime accused) is the patriarch of two families in Jalila and he runs a mafia-style business of bootlegging in the village. Whenever any case of assault or attempt to murder is filed against all nine men of two families, usually one or two persons end up going to jail for a few months while the rest continue harassing the complainants. This cycle has continued for decades in Jalila,” says Anand.
When asked about the allegations by the victim’s family and friends, deputy superintendent of police (SC/ST cell) in Botad, ZR Desai, said, “One of the nine accused, Bhagirath Khachar, has two cases of prohibition act violation against him for possession of liquor. However, till now, police have not found any substance in the allegations of the family being involved in large-scale bootlegging.”
Like the rest of the Dalit families, the Solanki family was also self-employed as farmers until 1995 when Manji decided to contest elections for the first time.
Deepak Solanki remembers, “It was the time when Khachar family was unequivocally chosen as sarpanch after every five years as no one dared to contest against them. My brother used to say that he wanted to give freedom to Jalila from these goons and that is the reason we entered politics. He won his debut election in 1995 and has been the deputy sarpanch since then.”
As years passed by, the grip of Solanki family over village politics tightened, as Manji’s mother Kaali Devi was elected as sarpanch in 2005 and his wife Geeta Solanki is the current sarpanch since 2010. However, as political victories came easy to the Solanki family, so did envy and ire of the Khachar families.
Soon after Manji won in 1995, the taunts began. “They (Khachar families) used to abuse us and ask why were we contesting on general seat when there is a panchayat seat reserved for Schedu-led Caste in nearby Alampar village.
They used to say that we Dalits should remember our place and do not try to compete with them. My brother always replied to them saying that he belongs to Jalila and he will contest from here itself. Moreover, people from all communities voted for him,” said Deepak.
The Patidars — the dominant community in Jalila — are supportive of the Dalits, and that is how the Solankis won election after election. Dayal Sutaria, a Patidar and former sarpanch of Jalila, says, “Patidar community member became sarpanch in the 90’s and since 2005, the village has voted for the Solanki family. This irked the Khachar families to the extent that they started assaulting Manji and his family”.
People of Jalila claim that they saw good governance in Manji’s work as the village received underground sewage system, community centre, better infrastructure for schools and 24-hour electricity. While the Patidar and other upper castes were affluent, the fate of Dalit community also changed for good in the past two decades.
“Manjibhai used to work tirelessly for the people and has been single-handedly credited for getting the sewage system project completed in time,” said Ramesh Anand, a cab driver of Jalila who hails from Dalit community.
However, circumstances changed in 2010 when threats and casteist abuses turned into serious cases of assault. “My father was attacked four times since 2010 by the accused group and each time, he escaped death. However, on June 19, they ensured he didn’t escape. First, they mowed him down using their car and then assaulted him with sticks and rods. We were denied security by the police,” said Tushar, Manji’s son.
Weeks before his death, Manji Solanki was pushing hard to get police protection for him and his family. He sent multiple applications to the superintendent of police, district collector and Director General of Police (DGP) Law and Order in which he claimed threat from those who assaulted him in the past.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Harshad Mehta, superintendent of police (Botad) said, “The Solanki family will be given 24 hours security every day till the family feels that there is threat to their life. We have also deployed additional force in the village.”
Despite the popularity of their departed leader, the people of Jalila are hesitant to come out in support of his family seeking justice and police protection. The decades-long sense of fear prevalent in the village has taught them to remain quiet in the face of atrocities and go about their daily lives, hoping that the hullabaloo might get over one day.
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