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ON FRIDAY, Ahmednagar city will see the next of the massive Maratha morchas being held across Maharashtra. About 70 km away, the village that saw the gangrape and murder that sparked the protests will go about its day, determined to not let the incident become a matter of caste.
In the two months since the July 13 incident, Kopardi village has united behind the family of the Maratha rape victim. The accused men, all Dalits, are behind bars, but a chargesheet is yet to be filed. The government is also still to act on its promise of fast-tracking the case, despite an appeal by the victim’s family.
The immediate families of the accused fled soon after the murder. The relatives left behind say they back the demand for death penalty for the three.
The village has a population of 2,500, of whom 300 are Dalits. It is located in the drought-hit Karjat taluka of Ahmednagar district.
“Phashi dya tya saglayanna… (Hang them all),” says the girl’s mother, crying, as she gets onto a concrete platform and points in the direction of the houses of the accused.
Jitendra Shinde (25), the alleged main culprit, is married to his second wife. His wife left the village with his parents after the murder. The other two arrested are Santosh Bhawal (36) and Nitin Bhailume (26). While the victim’s family claims there was a fourth assaulter, police say they have found no proof of this.
Nana Sudrik, an elderly of Kopardi and a Maratha, says such an incident had never happened in the village before. “Though the Marathas dominate in numbers, the Dalit community is better off financially. In fact, my son works as a labourer in their farm and continues to do so.”
Sarpanch Satish Sudrik, who incidentally will be attending the Friday Maratha morcha with several others from Kopardi, says there is no tension in the village, only “anger against the culprits”. “Kopardi has maintained its long tradition of peace despite all odds. We have never even witnessed a murder,” he says.
The Ahmednagar police say Kopardi only briefly showed signs of tension, when following the incident, “there was constant movement of outsiders”. “Since then, we have held meetings with villagers from both communities. They conceded they had no personal animosity and only wanted justice for the victim,” says Ahmednagar SP Saurabh Tripathi.
However, the victim’s family has 24×7 police security, and a proposal for a permanent police chowki has been sent to the state government.
The village has fond memories of the “tall, good-looking” girl who was raped. The 14-year-old was interested in sports, played kabbadi, had won many medals and was “very strong”, the mother says. Which is why, adds her uncle, it is hard for them to forget the condition in which her body was found. “There were deep bite marks all over. Her limbs were twisted and bloody, her lips were mutilated and pulled out.”
She was found amidst fields near her home, while returning from her grandparents’ house, 500 metres away. It is a deserted spot with no other houses nearby. She was cycling back, between 7.45 and 8.15 in the evening, when the men attacked her.
The 14-year-old’s mother says she hadn’t complained about being harassed by anybody. However, police suspect the men may have kept an eye on her. Says SP Tripathi, “They gauged that the road would be desolate at that time….”
While Shinde, Bhawal and Bhailume have no criminal antecedents or police records, Sudrik says the three were known “vagabonds”, always spotted roaming the village or playing cards.
Shinde’s uncle Kantilal, who stands outside his house with his two brothers, says no mercy should be shown to the three. “They should be hanged and hanged immediately,” he says.
Kantilal’s wife Surekha admits some bitterness in the village, but adds that the Maratha anger is understandable. “The villagers set fire to the kiosk where I sell vegetables. But I bear no grudge. The three have shamed the entire Dalit community and shattered the peace in the village. For generations, we have been living peacefully. Our relations with the Maratha community have always been cordial,” she says.
The victim’s mother too says they have nothing against the other Dalit community members. “Their women have also said the culprits should be hanged. We are only demanding punishment for the culprits,” she says.
The uncle hopes Kopardi will continue to keep caste tensions at bay. Talking about the Dalit accused, he says, “If god has not made any difference between two human beings, why should we? This was a one-off incident and the guilty should be punished in such a manner under the law that every man would think twice before committing such a heinous crime.”