Twenty-one-year-old Arjun Shinde points to a shed built with 12 bamboo sticks and eight asbestos sheets that he and his 17-year-old brother Krishna built last week. “Not all the sheets are new, some are old. But we wanted to have some semblance of a home when Pappa came back from prison. He was coming home after 16 years. He would have felt bad to find out that his family had no home while he was gone,” says Arjun.
In Bhokardan’s Kailash Nagar, stripped of lustre both by its parched backdrop and abject poverty, the shiny sheets of metal are conspicuous in their newness. The colony that is home to five extended families of the nomadic Vadar tribe, however, closed in to cheer the return of Ambadas Shinde, Bapu Shinde, Rajya Shinde last week but still wait anxiously for Raju Shinde who is yet to be released from the Nagpur Central prison for he is wanted in another case in Buldhana.
In an unprecedented decision, the Supreme Court, after restoring the appeals of the six convicts on death row, not only set aside their conviction and death sentence but also asked the state to pay compensation of Rs 5 lakh to each of them. It also directed the Maharashtra government to act against police officers who falsely implicated them in the murder of four members of Trambak Satote’s family in Nashik.
But those 16 years cost everyone almost everything they had: from Bapu’s eldest son, who died while his father was in jail to Rajya, whose wife married another man and from a juvenile, who still has nightmares from staying on death row to Ambadas, whose children never went to school.
Arjun is the son of Bapu Shinde, one of the six members of the Shinde clan, who were released by the Supreme Court on March 5, 13 years after they were first handed out the death sentence by the Sessions Court in Nashik for the ‘heinous’ murders of four members of a family and raping a minor.
Bapu points to a picture of a 12-year-old boy wearing dark sunglasses. “This was my eldest son Vijay. He was the shoulder his mother leaned on after I was arrested. He died in 2008 after he was electrocuted and his father was nowhere to look after him,” said Bapu insisting that things would have been different had he been there.
He points at the pickaxe and the shovel, two tools used for breaking rocks and digging. The Vadar community travels taking up odd jobs like breaking rocks, desilting nullahs, working construction, in agricultural farms across the state – that fetch meagre daily wages.
The two tools, Bapu says, are indispensable in the community. “Ours is the hardest kind of labour,” says Ambadas Shinde, who was also released from Nagpur prison with his cousins Bapu and Rajya. “Instead of these tools, I wanted my children to hold a pen. They could get no education. They would have perhaps had jobs had I been around. Now they too are illiterate like their father.”
“We have never even been to Nashik,” said Rajya, who claims he was picked up by the police in Umbergaon near Gujarat. Ambadas said that he, Bapu and Raju, were picked up by the Bhokardan police while they were working in their fields. “We were told that they were investigating a theft in a home nearby. We never committed the theft and then we were later implicated in this very serious offence that we could not even have imagined,” said Ambadas.
“The only time we went to Nashik was when the police took us there,” says Rajya.
“Some times I wonder why we were implicated in this case. On other days, I wonder what stops that from happening again? I always had faith though. I had faith that the truth will prevail. Gharchanchi and varchanchi krupa hoti (It was the blessings of those at home and those above),” said Ambadas.
In the shed that Bapu’s sons built him are frugal possessions. A small mound of clothes. A thin mat and a bunch of papers. The papers include newspaper cuttings of their case, court order copies and some carefully preserved letters from their lawyer Yug Chaudhry sent from his office in Fort, Mumbai.
The handwritten letters, written in Marathi usually informed them about the progress of their case. “An inmate would read it for us in jail,” says Bapu.
Outside the shed is a heap of rubble that used to be the house of brothers Bapu and Rajya. “The sun and rain took their toll. There was no one to look after it or make the walls stronger. Reptiles started inhabiting it and over the years it just crumbled,” said Arjun.
“My wife and children slept in the open, on gunny bags and papers. Had I been here and worked and made some money, wouldn’t I build a stronger home for my family? Put a roof over their head?” said Bapu.
“I had been married for just two months when the police took me away. Since I was incarcerated for a long time, two years after my arrest my wife remarried another man. She was told I would never return. I am 37 now. Who is going to marry me? I also have been maligned since I went to jail,” said Rajya, who always dreamed of having a family.
His mother Vaijabai said, “Nobody wants their daughter to marry a man who has returned from jail and we don’t have the money for a wedding anymore.”
Ambadas, Bapu, Rajya and the juvenile, who was released from prison four years ago, cast pensive glances into the distance every time the death penalty is mentioned.
“The fear never leaves you,” said the juvenile, rehabilitated into his community since his release. “There is this constant weight on your head. You don’t know which morning you will be told that today is the day you hang. We can’t even read and write to understand what is going on or where our petitions stand. I would break into cold sweats and wake up at nights in prison,” he said.
“And if there isn’t the fear of death then there is the fear of being re-arrested and thrown into jail for years again.”
According to Ambadas, the death penalty doubles the punishment. “The death penalty shouldn’t be given even if the person has actually committed a horrible crime. You cannot swallow your own food, in solitary confinement, one faints from overthinking,” he said.
“It feels like many things. Like a cobra sitting on your chest for years, a sword dangling over your head, you feel sleepless, lose appetite and the jail staff keeps you alive, sometimes using IV drips,” said Bapu.
The Rs 5 lakh compensation, they feel, could help them start life afresh but may not sustain it for too long. “Can a government give us some jobs? Or help us build our home? If we decide to build the home, we will have spent all the compensation money. What will we be left with then,” said Rajya.
In Kailash Nagar, Rani Shinde and her three daughters await the return of Raju Shinde. Their plight is shared by their extended family, holding back any kind of rejoicing until he gets home.
His daughters studying in a government girl’s hostel in Bhokardan, too wait to see their father home. “I was pregnant with my youngest when my husband was arrested,” said Rani. “While he was locked up, he lost both his parents and a sister. He never even held his youngest daughter in her arms.”
“Raising three girls without any support has not been easy. I would travel with them to Nagpur jail so that they get to see their father at least but as travelling got expensive I had to stop that too,” she said.
Her eldest daughter dreams of enlisting the police force. “I will wait till Pappa comes back. Then fill the recruitment form with him by my side,” she said.
“Our experience with the police has been very bad but my daughter wants to join the force so that there are some good, compassionate people in the force who don’t torment the poor and the vulnerable,” said Rani on her daughter’s career choice.
But the sense of justice still eludes the Shindes. “There were so many flaws in the investigation. There were statements that the accused spoke Hindi. We never speak Hindi. We speak Marathi and among ourselves, we speak Telugu,” said Ambadas. “We were just framed for no reason. Our lives just were taken away just like that,” said Ambadas.
“We are glad to be back with our families but justice will only be done when the police officers who framed us, ruined our lives are brought to book. They have to be punished,” said Ambadas.
Meanwhile, the men and their families may celebrate a festival together for the first time in 16 years with some colours on Holi. But the entire family will accompany them to a poll booth next month when they get their fingers inked like free men.
Trambak Satote, the caretaker of a guava orchard in Nashik’s Belatgavan Shivar, his wife, three sons, a daughter and his nephew were attacked in their hut by “seven to eight” men on June 5, 2003, at around 10:30 pm. The assailants took their cash and belongings, went out and consumed liquor and returned with sharp weapons and unleashed carnage. They attacked the men, raped the minor girl and his mother and walked on the bodies of the victims assuming they were all dead. Satote’s wife and son Manoj, however, survived becoming the main prosecution witnesses.
June 22, 2003 – Rajya and the accused later identified as a juvenile were arrested
June 27, 2003 – Ambadas, Raju and Bapu were arrested
October 7, 2004 – Suresh alias Surya Shinde was arrested
June 2006 – Sessions Court in Nashik convicted the six accused and sentenced them to death
2007 – The Bombay High Court upheld the conviction but commuted the death sentence of three accused while confirming that of the other three.
April 30, 2009 – Supreme Court dismisses appeals filed by the accused and restorers the death sentence of all six
October 31, 2018 – Supreme Court allows review and recalls its 2009 judgement
March 5, 2019 – Supreme Court acquits all six, reversing its earlier decision.