Kurkheda resembled a ghost town Thursday with shuttered shops and deserted roads after one of its residents drove away the previous morning on what seemed like a routine assignment — but never returned.
Of the 16 men killed in a landmine blast triggered by Maoists in Gadchiroli Wednesday, Tomeshwar Singhnath (24) was the last to join the journey. “He was to drive to a baraat at noon when he got a call to drive the police to Purada police station in the private car at 11 am. Since he had some time to spare, he agreed,” said Singhnath’s older brother, Hitendra, 28.
Within minutes of receiving news of the explosion, Hitendra and his father rushed to the spot but were not allowed to go close due to the fear of more landmines.
“Hitendra fainted out of shock right there upon seeing the wreckage,” said his friend Mayur Shinde. It was left to the father to identify his son’s body.
Tomeshwar, who was fondly called Dadu, left behind a 22-year-old wife, Vandana, who he married five years ago. “Their father is a farmer and Hitendra is a daily wage worker. As Dadu had studied a bit, he learned to drive at the age of 19. He had taken that road countless times,” said Shinde.
EXPLAINED | Why the attack in Gadchiroli is significant
Now, the family’s demand is that Singhnath be “recognised as a martyr” on par with the 15 policemen of the Quick Response Team (QRT) who were travelling with him.
At Chikhali village, 4 km away, the Madavi family mourned the passing of Shahu Madavi, 32, who was enjoying a quiet meal on his holiday Wednesday morning before being asked to join duty. “He had a holiday for Maharashtra Day but got a phone call at 10.30 am to report to work. He left his food half-eaten,” said his uncle, Ravi Holikar.
A 10-year QRT veteran, Madavi had been posted in Kurkheda for the past two years after stints in other parts of Gadchiroli. He left behind ageing parents, Bajirao and Kausalabai, wife Savita (28) and son, Umang (3). The family, said Holikar, has lost its only earning member.
“We want to know why they took an unarmed private vehicle when they should have travelled in an armoured vehicle. Do you go to war without weapons?” said Holikar.
At the district police parade ground in Gadchiroli town, Swapnil Hatnagar, a relative of another policeman killed in the attack, Bhupesh Walode, was unhappy with the response of both the police and state government.
“The Chief Minister could not speak to us for even two minutes before he left. The state has failed to eradicate Naxalism. If the government cannot secure Maharashtra as a whole, it should give us an independent Vidarbha,” he said.
By late afternoon, after CM Devendra Fadnavis and MoS Home Hansraj Ahir had paid their respects to the deceased, the bodies were transported back to their homes in buses and ambulances bearing framed and garlanded photos on the windscreens. Fadnavis announced a compensation of Rs 1 crore for each deceased.
Maharashtra DGP Subodh Kumar Jaiswal said the compensation for policemen would come to Rs 1.8 crore, while a suitable amount would be provided to Singhnath’s family. “It would be wrong to say that he is not a martyr,” Jaiswal said.
Two of the 15 policemen killed belonged to the Marathwada region — Arif Tausif Shaikh of Patoda in Beed and Santosh Chavhan of Hingoli.
In the Kranti Nagar area of Patoda town, local residents said Shaikh was the only one of three sons to have a “proper job”. “He was known around here for his physique,” said a resident. Shaikh left behind two young boys, aged two and four years. His elder brother works in Aurangabad as a security guard while the younger one is looking for work in Patoda.
The family, which owns no land, has lived for nearly three decades in Patoda where the policeman’s father continues to work in a restaurant. “A short procession with the mortal remains is planned for Friday morning, from Kranti Nagar to a spot just outside town, about 2 km,” said a local resident.
Shaikh’s body is to be flown to Pune from where it will leave in an ambulance for Patoda on Thursday night. The body will be accompanied by Shaikh’s wife.
In Brahmanwada village in Aundha taluka of Hingoli, Santosh Chavhan’s wife and two sons are waiting to receive his mortal remains. One of the sons, Tejesh, is three years old while the younger son Rajesh was born only four months ago. Santosh’s wife Ashwini is in shock, said acquaintances.
The only son of Devidas and Bagubai Chavhan, Santosh has five sisters, all married. “He was the only son, and he was the one running the family,” said Ganesh Raut, an acquaintance.
The family owns six acres of mostly fallow land, and Santosh’s father Devidas Chavhan retired from the State Reserve Police Force about five years back. “Father and son struggled for years to get the daughters married. Things could have just started looking up now but tragedy struck,” said Raut.
(With inputs from Kavitha Iyer)