Nitin Agey, 3, runs around the tiny tin shed that is his home in Kharda village of Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra, while his father reflects on what his family has gone through since the death of his elder son, also called Nitin. Raju Agey alleges those who were responsible for the safety of his elder son, and even a close relative, let the family down in its fight for justice.
In the three years that his schoolboy son was attacked in his school and allegedly murdered, all 13 accused have been acquitted after 14 of the 26 witnesses turned hostile, including staff at the school.
“It is sad that teachers and staff from a school started by a great social activist did this. It was not just them. Even a relative, a Dalit himself, and who claimed to have seen my son being murdered, changed his statement in court,” says Raju, who earlier worked at a stone-crushing unit and now relies on help of well-wishers to run his family.
What has brought additional attention on the acquittals is that a week later, on November 29, a different judge of the same Ahmednagar district and sessions court sentenced to death three Dalit men, accused of raping and murdering a 14-year-old Maratha girl from Kopardi village in Ahmednagar. It is also leading to a flashpoint between Dalits and Marathas in Maharashtra.
Nitin Agey, then 17, was attacked in his school on the morning of April 28, 2014, by a group of men — most of whom allegedly belonged to the upper-caste Maratha community, and who reportedly suspected he was in a relationship with a girl related to them. Nitin, who also worked as a two-wheeler mechanic, was a student of the Kharda School run by Rayat Education Society, founded by social activist and educator Karmaveer Bhaurao Patil.
The Maharashtra Talent Search Examination was under way and, as per witness statements from teachers and peons, all staff were on the premises. Before they retracted their statements, witnesses told police there was a commotion on the school’s ground due to Nitin being attacked with a hammer that was near the school bell. A schoolteacher reportedly confronted the assailants and urged them not to attack the teen.
The FIR, based on a complaint lodged by Nitin’s father, states that the accused allegedly took Nitin to a brick kiln on two-wheelers. Here he was assaulted by a blunt wooden object before being strangled with a rope, according to the complaint, which alleges he was hung from a tree to create the impression that he had committed suicide.
Police had arrested 10 adults, including the girl’s brother and uncle, and three minors on charges of murder and sections of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.
The trial began to unravel as the witnesses turned hostile. A teacher, considered a key witness, told the court that his statement under CrPC section 164 was not what he had narrated. “I cannot assign any reason as to why the same is recorded by the special judicial magistrate,” the teacher submitted. Another witness, a peon, told the court police threatened to make him an accused if he did not provide a statement as per their direction, and so he signed on blank papers.
While one accused died during the trial, the Ahmednagar district and sessions court acquitted the other nine accused for insufficient evidence. Three minors had been set free by the juvenile justice board months earlier.
“Agitations to condemn my son’s killing took place initially but later died down. As witnesses after witness turned hostile, there was no outrage in society demanding justice. I now feel I was misled badly. Police, the prosecution lawyer and activists pretended to help us, but did not guide us properly on what wrong was going on,” says Raju Agey.
He also compares the handling of his son’s case and that of the minor girl, whose rape-murder on July 13, 2016, had sparked massive protests, with lakhs of Marathas hitting the streets across all districts in Maharashtra; their key demands included death penalty for the accused, reservation for the community and amendments to the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, which they claimed was being misused. “Senior lawyer Ujjwal Nikam was appointed special public prosecutor in that case. The trial was conducted quickly and received a lot of attention from government and media. But in Nitin’s case, our demands for a fast-track court and the appointment of a special public prosecutor were never fulfilled by the government,” Raju says.
He alleges police and the prosecution lawyer refused to share details about the case and says he was not present when the judge passed the acquittal order. “Nobody even told me about the judgment date. I feel like the police and prosecution lawyer have misled me,” Raju says. He adds police never recorded the statement of the girl Nitin was suspected of being in a relationship.
Locals say the girl belonged to a middle-class Golekar family in Kharda village. The Golekars, Marathas, make up 25% of the village’s population and are landholders engaged in agriculture and related businesses.
Ahmednagar SP Ranjan Kumar Sharma says an application will now be filed in the sessions court seeking legal action against the witnesses who turned hostile. Statements of eight witnesses were recorded before the magistrate under CrPC section 164.
Prosecution lawyer Ramdas Gawali denied Raju Agey’s allegations against him. In a press conference, he said that once witnesses began turning hostile, officials at the Jamkhed police station were informed.
Raju, however, insists that the police and prosecution failed to submit proper evidence before the court and wants re-investigation and a retrial.
He continues to live in the same tin shed house in Kharda, with wife Durga, daughter Rekha and little Nitin, who was born a few months after his elder brother’s death. The family says they got help in the form of Rs 20 lakh following the murder, but have now lost almost all the money “as some people cheated them while pretending to help.”
Since the acquittals, however, activists and groups have begun visiting the Agey family in the hope of launching fresh protests. Amar Sabale, BJP MP in the Rajya Sabha, even took Raju to Mumbai for a meeting with Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis on December 4.
Raju says the chief minister assured him of support and that a senior lawyer would be appointed in the case. MP Sabale says a request has been made for rehabilitation of the Agey family and for providing them with police protection. Against the acquittal order, the state government filed its appeal last week before the Aurangabad bench of Bombay High Court. On December 12, the law and judiciary department issued orders for legal action against the witnesses who turned hostile.
Holding little Nitin in his hands, Raju says he lives in fear. “I don’t work anywhere. I somehow manage with the help of some well-wishers. I am afraid if anything happens to me, there will be nobody to fight for justice and look after this Nitin,” he says.