Mystery surrounds the death of a 19-year-old Dalit girl who witnessed the caste violence in Bhima Koregaon near Pune in January. Puja Sakat, whose house was also set on fire at the time, was found dead inside a well in the village three days ago.
While police have claimed that it is a case of suicide, her family members blamed the death on their former neighbours with whom they had an ongoing “land dispute”.
“They feared that my daughter would speak against them in court. So I suspect my daughter was kidnapped and killed. However, the police have registered a case of suicide,” said Suresh Nanasaheb Sakat, Puja’s father.
Police have arrested two persons, 60-year-old Vilas Vedpathak and his son Ganesh, and booked seven more, all from the same village, for abetting the suicide. A case under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was also registered against them. A post-mortem of the body concluded that the death had been caused by drowning.
The family’s house, on the Pune-Ahmednagar highway, had been burnt by a mob on January 2, a day after the area witnessed widespread violence when lakhs of people assembled for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon.
Puja and her brother Jaideep, who witnessed the burning, approached the police station the same day to register a complaint. Police recorded the brother’s statement, in which he had identified five people amidst a mob of about 150.
Jaideep was later arrested by the Pune rural police on charges of attempt to murder in a separate case filed a policeman who got injured on January 1. Hindutva leader Milind Ekbote is among the 30 accused in that case. “I was falsely arrested because I filed a complaint against those who set our house on fire,” Jaideep claimed.
Sakat, whose family now lives in a rented accommodation, said his daughter had been “highly disturbed” and under “depression” after having seen her house burn down. “Police refused to record her statement when she went with her brother (to the station)… we were thinking of taking Puja to court to record her statement. But before that, they killed my daughter,” he said.
Puja’s father alleged that the Vedpathaks, who lived next door at that time, had been trying to evict his family from their house, and he had registered a police complaint in this regard in November last year. He alleged that the Vedpathaks had taken advantage of the violence on January 1 to burn their house down.
“If it had anything to do with the Bhima Koregaon violence, my house would have been burnt down on January 1, when there were riots. This took place on January 2, when there were prohibitory orders in place. A big mob came to my house and burnt it down,” he said.
Sakat said that his daughter, who had recently appeared for the final examination of Class XI, was not a witness in any case related to the caste violence.
Puja had gone missing from her home in the afternoon of April 21, when only her mother and sister were at home. The family registered a complaint in the evening at the Shikrapur police station. The next day, her body was then recovered from the well about 100-200 metres from her house.
Sakat said the accused Vilas Vedpathak used to claim the land on which their burnt-down house was built. “But we are living here for 15 years. My ration card, Aadhaar card, PAN card, everything is on this address,” he said.
Shobha Vedpathak, the wife of the accused, claimed that her family was being harassed. “Suresh Sakat used to operate a tea stall on our land. Later, he started living there illegally. We moved against him in civil court. We never had any intention to hurt him or his family. The case lodged against my husband and son is false. My husband is a senior citizen and physically handicapped,” she said.
A senior police officer said, “Prima facie, the incident has a background of a land dispute. But we have not stopped probing other reasons and possibilities.”