Life has changed for the two Dalit teenagers from Wakdi village, In Maharashtra’s Jalgaon district, since June 10. That was the day the duo —- 16 and 17 years old —- were allegedly stripped naked and beaten up for swimming in a well on a farm in the village. They were traumatised further when the video of the crime was circulated on WhatsApp and on social media.
“On two nights since then, he has woken up suddenly, terrified,” the grandmother of one of the youths told The Sunday Express at the family’s home. “I was so ashamed I did not tell anyone about it for more than two days. But someone from my sister’s in-laws’ side brought it to my parents’ notice. We approached the police later,” the 16-year-old victim said, standing outside their small house on the village boundary, avoiding eye contact. On June 13, the two main accused were arrested, identified as Ishwar Balwant Joshi (30) and Palhad Lohar (22), both belonging to Nomadic Tribe communities.
On Saturday, two more people, who were reportedly not directly involved in stripping the teens and beating them up, were arrested for their role in the case. The two victims were among a group of about 15 boys from the village who had gone for a swim in the well on Joshi’s farm on the afternoon of June 10.
The 17-year-old said that they had swum in the well on at least two occasions recently before June 10 but were possibly saved by the fact that there was no one on the farm at the time. “That day, Ishwar Joshi and Palhad Lohar appeared when we were swimming,” he said. “By the time they came near the well, we had emerged out of the water and had put on our clothes. They picked three of us from the group and started abusing us.”
“We ran to a nearby spot on the farm, but they stripped all three of us,” he alleged. “Lohar started whipping the two of us with a belt he had. We saw Joshi had started video-recording this; we picked up some branches with leaves to cover our private parts. One more person then gave Lohar a wooden stick —- he (Lohar) beat us with that…. Then they let us go.”
Asked about reports that they were paraded in the village naked, both boys and their family members denied it. The arrested duo – Joshi and Lohar, apparently an aide of Joshi – have been booked under various sections of IPC added with sections of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, along with Information Technology Act. The two are now in magisterial custody.
On Saturday, police arrested the man who had handed over the stick to Lohar, and another person who is heard laughing in the video when it was shot. Since these two men are from the ST community, they have been charged only under POCSO Act and IT Act, police officials said. The police have not identified the duo. The father of the 16-year-old victim, a farm labourer, said, “They (accused) tried to intimidate us even at the police station. They said that they would lodge false cases against us…of water pump theft.”
Asked how they and other Dalits in the village had been treated by residents in the past, the father said, “We have never faced any problem in the past, nor were there any disputes over caste until this incident. We do our work and go our way; we have nothing to do with anything else.” Both victims have dropped out of school and help their parents by working on farm.
Union minister Ramdas Athawale visited both families on Saturday, met the boys and assured them of all possible help under government schemes. Calling it a “very heinous” act, Athawale later told The Sunday Express, “All efforts will be made to ensure maximum punishment for the accused. But we must bear in mind that this is not a ‘Dalit versus upper caste’ dispute —- the perpetrators are from nomadic tribal communities.”
He also said that the behaviour of the accused “does originate from the similar mentality —- the land owner inflicting brutalities on landless labourers.” Family members of the accused condemned Joshi and Lohar for beating up and filming the boys but criticised imposing Atrocities Act on them.
Ishwar’s younger brother Randheer said, “The boys should not have been beaten up. It was also wrong to shoot a video. But it is wrong to invoke sections of Atrocities Act. It was a quarrel between local villagers about swimming in a well. Why would anyone tolerate anyone swimming in a well from where drinking water is drawn?”
Randheer said that others present there saw that the boys were not stripped, and were already swimming without their clothes on. “The video was circulated on WhatsApp and a caste angle was lent to it to create a communal divide in the village, which has always been united. Why are people saying Dalits have been victimised? We also belong to the backward community.” Police officials said that earlier there was a confusion about the well where the incident had taken place, as the police had identified an adjacent well in the panchanama. It was changed in police records after the mistake was brought to their notice.