ALL five men had registered with the local police, they had valid Aadhaar cards, they were sheltered inside a locked room of the Rainpada village panchayat in Dhule district, officials had sent out alerts on local TV warning against false rumours — but none of this mattered in the face of the murderous mob.
So by the time the police arrived, the lock had been broken and three lynched. When the police tried to save the remaining two, the mob turned on them instead. Two policemen, SI Yogesh Khatkal and ASI Ravindra Randhir, were injured and the assault continued until all five were killed.
“They are dead, now you can take them away.” That’s what a policeman recalled someone from the mob telling them. Some in the mob even checked for a pulse to make sure.
That the mob got away with murder was hardly a surprise — against hundreds of men armed with sticks, stones and rods were just eight policemen with lathis.
“They were over 3,500 and we were just eight. When we learnt that two were still alive, we pleaded that we be allowed to take them to a hospital. They did not agree and handed over the bodies only after being satisfied that none was alive,” one of the members of the police team told The Indian Express.
The day after, police have arrested 23 Rainpada residents for the killing of five nomads of the Dongrinanthpanthi Gosavi community. Security forces have virtually laid siege outside the panchayat office but there are hardly any villagers left.
“Fearing police action, the men of the village have fled. Only the elderly, women and children have been left behind,” said Sub Divisional Magistrate Ganesh Misal.
The police team which is keeping a vigil says that the village was abuzz with rumours of child lifters. “While we haven’t seen a social media post which was commonly circulated, there were rumours in the village of child lifters and to quell it we asked the members of the gram panchayat to inform the tribal members that these were rumours,” said an official.
A day before the lynching, police had telecast an advisory on local cable television. “After similar incidents were reported in Aurangabad and Nandurbar, we decided to issue a public message warning people not to fall to victims to such rumours. The same was published in the local papers,” said SP Rathod, station in charge of the Pimpalner police station, which is probing the lynching.
Clearly, that didn’t help.
An innocuous query set off the rumour, say police. After the five victims got off a state transport bus from Pimpalner to Rainpada at 10 am on Sunday, they sought water from a local woman and one of them asked her if she had a daughter. This made the woman suspicious. She then allegedly told the villagers.
“Since the villagers couldn’t understand the language they were speaking confrontation ensued. The villagers from the neighbouring hamlets who had come to participate in the bazaar at Rainpada dragged them to the gram panchayat office,” said Rathod.
There were some saner voices who stepped in and locked the five victims in the gram panchayat office urging people to wait for police. But the mob broke the locks and barged inside.
Armed with sticks, stones and rods, they started the assault. “Some of the accused gagged the victims by stamping on their throats, others kicked and punched them,” said an official.
Barely 1 km from the police station, 25 members of the Gosavi community live in tents – the five victims were part of this group of six families who had arrived on Saturday and were planning to move out of Dhule two days later after visiting the weekly bazaar at Rainpada.
Two months ago, they registered themselves with the police. “We were in Dhule in April and with our Aadhaar cards, we were verified at the Pimpalner police station. This is a practice we have followed for the last 10 years,” says Nagesh Chougule, the patriarch of the group.
“This time we were planning to get it done on Sunday after the five men who were keen on visiting the weekly bazaar returned but they were killed.”
Narmada, widow of Bharat Bhosale, one of the victims said that they will never return to Dhule. “Nothing less than death will do. Why doesn’t the police handover the accused to us? We will give them the same death as they did to our loved ones,” she said. The nomads initially refused to take the bodies for the last rites but were pacified by officials.
While granting police custody of the 23 arrested, Judicial Magistrate (First Class) judge R S Vankhade observed that a heinous crime had been committed. “Whatever may be the doubt or suspicion, the accused have taken the law into their hands which resulted in the death of five persons,” he said.
Police have sought custody to recover the videos allegedly shot by the arrested in order to ascertain their role and also the murder weapons like rods, sticks and other objects alleged used by the accused.
But families of the arrested said their children were innocent. “My son was attending a function to mark the birth anniversary of Maharashtra leader Vasant Rao Naik in Dehival, which is around 20 km from Rainpada. He visited the bazaar only by 4 pm when the police started combing operations and picked up anybody seen in the area,” said Jaidas Rathod, whose son Pravin (25) is amongst those arrested.
Police have also written to the district collector to suspend internet service to quell the tension and ensure that the video of the gruesome lynching does not go viral.
The Rainpada gram panchayat office has been washed clean but blood stains on the tiles and a blanket in the room, bear testimony to the mob violence. With a population of close to 1,000 Rainpada is home to three tribal communities – Kokani, Mavachi and Bhil who earn their living cultivating rice, bajra and maize.
Prakash Pawar, a teacher at a Zilla Parishad school next to to the panchayat office waited till Monday afternoon for his students to show up. None did. “My wife asked me not to go to the village today but I am a teacher and my job is to teach so I mustered courage and went to work to find the village empty and only policemen in it,” he said.
“Police say only a handful from Rainpada has been booked. The majority were from the neighbouring hamlets. It is hard to believe that they could murder somebody is such cold blood.”
Next to the school, is a small hut where Kalibai and her family of eight reside. Her husband left a day before. “There was hardly any option for him but to flee. He didn’t even participate in the mob violence. At the time of the incident he was out in the farm taking care of his field,” she said refusing to discuss the lynching.
Her story echoes across Rainpada where women and children have been left behind and do not know when the men will return.
According to Bansibai, she had not heard any rumours about child lifters. “The men use phones, I don’t know how to operate it. I have never heard of any rumours of child abductors nor has it been discussed at the gram panchayat meeting,” she said.