SITTING UNDER A tree in the front yard of Nanji Sondarva’s house in Manekvada village of Rajkot district, a group of Dalits listen in rapt attention to two police constables.”Karma spares none. If one does good deeds, god walks up to him and greets him, just like he did to Dasi Jivan ( a 17th Century Dalit poet from Gondal who is known for his devotion to Lord Krishna, with whom a lot of folklore is associated). But alas, we are the ones skinning carcasses (figuratively, those ‘involved in worldly things’),” says one them as if delivering a discourse. The Dalit men nod in approval. The policemen are part of the security provided to the Sondarva home after Nanji, an RTI activist, was allegedly murdered last year.
On May 22 this year, Rajesh, Nanji’s 19-year-old son, was allegedly murdered by a group of men from the Kshatriya community in this village of Kotda Sangani taluka in Rajkot district in the wee hours. It was a year after his father’s murder on March 9, 2018. Police had booked Mahendrasinh Jadeja, husband of Beenaba Jadeja, a sitting Congress member of Kotda Sangani taluka panchayat and son of then Manekvada sarpanch Bhikhubha Jadeja, as well as five others for murdering Nanji. The motive was attributed corruption allegations that Nanji had levelled about development projects in Manekvada village. He had sought information about them under the RTI Act. The six were granted bail a few months ago. Once out of jail, Mahendrasinh and Ajayasinh alias Ghanubha Chandubha Jadeja, the two prime accused in Nanji’s murder case, intercepted Rajesh near Manekvada when he was returning from Rajkot and clubbed him to death with the help of six others.
The Criminal Investigation Department (CID), which is investigating Rajesh’s murder, says the youth was murdered as he was trying to get Ajaysinh’s bail cancelled. The CID-crime have arrested Mahendrasinh, his son Divyrajsinh alias Kumar, Ajay-sinh and his son Dhruvrajsinh alias Dhanubha and four others for Rajesh’s murder.
After two murders, community unites
While the Dalit family is still coping with the trauma of Rajesh’s brutal murder, his mother Kajal says they found support from unexpected quarters after the latest tragedy. “My entire community is with us in this moment of grief. That was not the case when my husband was murdered,” she says.
Meghabhai, Nanji’s father, also underlines this fact. “Nobody was with us when my son was killed. It is only now that fellow Dalits have started supporting us. We want justice for my son and grandson. I fail to comprehend even now why they uprooted a sapling like Rajesh?,” the 63-year-old says, breaking down. “I am hurt more by Rajesh’s death than by the death of my son Nanji,” the sexagenarian says. Rajesh, who was studying science, represented the hope of the family. The family has only three people left now, Kajal, Meghabhai and Ajay, 18, the brother of Rajesh.
Nanji, a mason, had earned the ire of Mahendrasinh and others as he alleged that there had been corruption in development projects undertaken in the village when Mahendrasinh’s mother Kishorba and father Bhikhubha were sarpanches in turn.
Having lost Nanji and Rajesh over the case, Kajal worries for Ajay. “I do not want to sacrifice my second son also for RTI activism. I want justice for my husband and my son Rajesh and a peaceful life for Ajay,” she says.
While Rajesh’s murder has left his family in deep trauma, i has united the Dalits of Manekvada.
A 50-year-old casual labourer who lives in Nava Vaas areas of Manekvada says he is supporting the Sondarvas this time. “Earlier, we kept a distance from the family, believing it was a tussle between them and the Kshatriyas. But now we fear what has happened to Rajesh could happen to any of our sons. We have to stand together,” he says.
There are around 60 Dalit families in Manekvada. Most earn a living as masons or construction labourers. “They assault us at night. How do we dare go to work?,” asks Ramjibhai, one of six brothers of Meghabhai.
Other Dalits say the attacks by Kshatriyas on the Sondarva family has given a bad reputation to the entire village.
An elderly woman too expresses fear about the ambushes at night. “They come at night and attack our sons in the dark. We are so terrorised,” she says. “Dalits from other villages are not ready to marry their daughters to grooms from Manekvada. At least 45 young men, including my son, are unable to find brides.”
A Dalit from neighbouring Mota Mandava village agrees that Manekvada has earned a bad name. “Such incidents do create a perception that there is trouble in that village. As it is, in the clash of two groups, it is the common men who are caught in crossfire,” he says on condition of anonymity.
The Dalits made trouble: Kshatriyas
Kshatriyas in the village defend Mahendrasinh’s ways of “serving the village.” One man says when Mahendrasinh was the de facto village panchayat head, things were better. “We never faced drinking water shortage. These days, we get water only once in 10 days,” the person says. “See, everyone needs some incentive,” he says, justifying corrupion. “A shopkeeper sells things because he gets some commission. That is his way of sustenance. If Mahendrasinh was getting something while serving people, what was wrong in it?”
He squarely blames the Sondarwas for causing trouble in the village. “They did not want to do anything but create trouble. They encouraged others to pick up quarrels with Kshatriyas and then file complaints of atrocity,” says the man from the upper-caste community. “By misusing the law, they filed seven to eight cases of atrocities against Kshatriyas of the village.”
From friends to enemies in the village
Nanji and Mahendrasinh had been good friends until a few years ago. In fact Kajal was a member of an all-women body of Manekvada village panchayat which governed the village till around four years ago and all the women were elected uncontested.
“But then Mahendrasinh started indulging in corruption,” Kajal says. “My husband raised his voice against it through RTI applications. He also took objection to liquor being sold from a paan shop just outside the village primary school. They started threatening us and eventually it led to bloodshed.”
On December 21, 2016, Nanji, who had studied till Class X, filed an RTI application to the superintendent of Rajkot rural police, seeking details of the criminal cases filed against Mahendra-sinh — a local Congress worker and 13 other Kshatriyas from Manekvada. Ten days later, on the evening of Diwali, a group of Kshatriyas allegedly barged into the home of Nanji and his family members and assaulted them. Meghabhai and others were seriously injured.
Many of us were seriously injured and police booked 26 Kshatriyas for attempt to murder. But they booked 13 of us also for attempt to murder despite us having been the target of the assailants,” says Meghabhai.
Two months later, on March 3, 2017, Nanji filed an RTI application with the Kotda Sangani taluka development officer, seeking details of development projects undertaken in the village between 2012 and 2016. He was subsequently murdered allegedly by Mahendrasinh and others at Soliya village near Kotda Sangani on March 9, 2018.
In between, in early 2017, Bhikhubha succeeded his wife Kishorba as sarpanch of Mankevada, he too having been elected uncontested.
Meanwhile, Patidars, who dominate the village with a population of around 2,000, choose to remain aloof. “It is between the two groups. We have little to do with it. We keep to our farm and farming,” says an elderly man. Another shopkeeper too says all they want is to mind their own business.
Pravin Vasoya, husband of the sarpanch in-charge Shobhnaben Vasoya is non-committal. “After the incumbent sarpanch Bhikhubha died around six months ago, my wife, who was till then the deputy sarpanch was given the charge of sarpanch. But we live in Rajkot city and don’t know what is happening in the village,” he said. “The projects about which corruption charges have been levelled were executed during the tenure of my wife’s predecessors in the panchayat,” he says.
However, he admits there is drinking water scarcity.