Hours before three men were lynched in Palghar’s Gadchinchle village on April 16, a group of 10 villagers had held a meeting and allegedly decided to “teach a lesson” to thieves disguised as ascetics and doctors. A chargesheet filed by the Maharashtra Criminal Investigation Department (CID) earlier this month said the fatal attack on ascetics Mahant Kalpavruksha Giri (70) and Sushilgiri Maharaj (35) and their driver Nilesh Telgade (30) was a fallout of this meeting.
The three men were driving to a funeral in Surat on April 16 night when a group of villagers in Gadchinchle, a tribal village in a remote part of Palghar, stopped their car and attacked them with stones, sticks and axes.
Mahant Giri, the CID chargesheet states, was overpowered by villagers after he ran away from a police constable who was trying to help the septuagenarian escape the mob “in an attempt to save his own life”. Video clips of the incident, which also form a part of the evidence listed in the chargesheet, however, showed the constable had pushed Mahant Giri away to make his own escape.
The CID’s 5,921-page chargesheet states that rumours of thieves and organ-harvesting gangs on the loose had led to a panic in Gadchinchle, Divshi, Dabhadi and Kinhavli villages in Palghar district and Rudana village in the neighbouring Union Territory of Daman & Diu.
Villagers, it further states, had taken to patrolling the roads every night armed with flashlights, stones, wooden sticks, iron rods, axes, shovels, sickles and handheld slingshots. “Even after the nationwide lockdown was announced on March 24 and citizens were ordered to stay at home, people in these villages stayed in touch and came together. Some of the accused spread rumours by phone and through word of mouth about thieves coming [in] disguised as sadhus, policemen and doctors, and of other men kidnapping children to harvest their kidneys. This created an atmosphere of mistrust [in the villages],” the chargesheet states.
Earlier, on April, 14, a group of villagers at Sarni Patilpada, 60 km from Gadchinchle, had attacked two doctors and their driver. Mistaking the occupants of the car — they were returning to Thane after holding a health check-up and distributing supplies at a remote, tribal hamlet — for thieves, the villagers had pelted stones at them and the policemen who had reached the spot to rescue the men.
On April 16, the chargesheet adds, accused Rajesh Dhakal Rao, held a meeting with nine others all co-accused in the case, and decided to “teach a lesson” to any thieves they catch. The meeting had been termed in the chargesheet as a “premeditated criminal conspiracy”, which is punishable under Section 120 B of the Indian Penal Code. The chargesheet also states that the men also informed other villagers of the decision.
Hours later, at 8.54 pm, Telgade’s Maruti Eeco car, which the two ascetics had hired from Mumbai’s Kandivali, was detained by forest department guards at a check-post in Gadchinchle. The three men were turned back by authorities at the Daman & Diu border for attempting to crossover without a valid travel pass. After some villagers gathered around their car, forest guards called a constable at Kasa police station at 9.26 pm to inform about the tense situation. A diary entry at the police station stated that four policemen, including Assistant Police Inspector Anandrao Kale and Police Sub-Inspector Sudhir Katare, 12 Riot Control Policemen and local Zilla Parishad member Kashinath Choudhary, had departed for Gadchinchle in four vehicles at 10.18 pm. Two cars, carrying Katare and three other constables, covered the 40-kilometre distance quicker than the others and reached Gadchinchle at 11 pm to find that the Eeco car had been overturned by villagers. Their attempts to reason with the villagers failed.
The chargesheet claimed that the villagers were insistent on dealing with the “thieves” themselves and prevented the police from taking the injured men to the hospital. All four policemen came under attack while extracting the two ascetics and their driver from their damaged vehicle. Three policemen, the chargesheet states, managed to escort Sushilgiri and Telgade into a police car while Assistant Police Sub-Inspector R B Salunkhe took the elderly Mahant Giri to the safety of the forest guards’ checkpost. However, as villagers hammered on its door and windows with sticks and stones, Salunkhe and the ascetic were forced to leave the checkpost.
Videos shot on mobile phones by locals showed both the men being attacked by villagers and Salunkhe abandoning the elderly man after being overpowered by armed men. However, the chargesheet states that Mahant Giri made a run for it “in an attempt to save his own life”. Still chased by the villagers, the ascetic first took shelter behind the police car in which his co-passengers were seated under police guard. As the villagers continued to attack him, he cowered beneath the vehicle, but could not escape the mob. The chargesheet adds that the three men inside and below the car were “beaten senseless” in a most “cruel and wild manner”.
The chargesheet, which was filed at a magistrate court in Dahanu town, includes statements of 226 witnesses, most of whom comprise the policemen injured in the attempt to shield the three victims, the forest department guards, Gadchinchle’s sarpanch, her husband and other villagers.
The CID, which took over the probe on April 21, used cell tower locations, call record details, footage from the mobile phone videos and a CCTV camera mounted at the forest department checkpost, social media profiles, WhatsApp messages, test identity parades and DNA samples collected from the scene of the crime to identify the accused and to establish their presence there.
It has, so far, arrested 154 adults and detained 11 juveniles for lynching the three men and attacking the policemen. However, only 126 men have been named as accused in the lynching. The CID has informed the court that it is yet to gather evidence that ties the physical presence of 28 other arrested men to Gadchinchle on April 16. The arrested men are being represented by Advocate Amrut Adhikari.
The state government had sent Palghar SP Gaurav Singh on compulsory leave and suspended five cops for the “failure” in preventing the death of the travellers. Thirty-five constables at Kasa police station were also transferred.
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