The lynching of two sadhus and their driver has set off a political war of words in Mumbai between the Opposition BJP and the government. On the ground in the forest, though, is a story of how local officials, including an NCP leader and former MLA candidate, a sarpanch and the police could do little to check a mob fired by a dangerous rumour mill.
The Indian Express spoke to several local residents, eyewitnesses, police and local officials to reconstruct the sequence of events that led to the murders right under the nose of the police.
On a normal April evening, 400 men would not have gathered in minutes on the highway alongside this remote village on the border of Maharashtra and Dadra-Nagar Haveli in Dahanu taluka, Palghar, 150 km from Mumbai.
Since the Covid outbreak, the summer’s seasonal labourers are at home, there’s no work on the farms, and in the 600-odd households that make up the twin villages of Gadchinchle and Divshi, the lockdown did little to check the spread of rumours.
For days preceding last week’s lynching of the three men, rumours of kidnappers and organ-harvesters had been flying thick on WhatsApp — all false; there have been no incidents of kidnapping or theft of organs.
Yet, like in several other villages in Dahanu, men of five villages around Gadchinchle including two in the Union Territory of Dadra-Nagar Haveli, initiated a calls-whistles-torchlight flashes system of communicating during all-night vigils.
So when a Maruti Eeco drove past Gadchinchle around 8 pm on April 16, the men of Gadchinchle, Divshi, Dabhadi, Talavli and Rudana were ready, with torchlights and bamboo sticks.
Opinion | Lawless in Palghar
The Eeco, with victims Mahant Kalpavruksha Giri (70), Sushilgiri Maharaj (35) and driver Naresh Yelgade, was taking State Highway 73 off the Dahanu-Jawhar Road, en route to Surat, likely to duck the Mumbai-Gujarat highway checkposts enforcing the sealing of state borders.
The Eeco was stopped barely 1 km from Gadchinchle, at a lockdown barricade manned by guards from Dadra-Nagar Haveli, and turned back.
Gadchinchle Sarpanch Chitra Choudhari lives exactly between the border point and the Maharashtra forest department checkpost outside which the lynching occurred. Her home perched on a small slope, she heard the car passing in the quiet of night and then heard it as it turned around and passed, back in the direction it came from where a couple of dozen men stood, tense and armed.
A commotion erupted soon, it was around 8.30 pm, she recalled, and she went to the spot. “There were men from our village and from nearby villages, it was a thick crowd screaming around the car. It was impossible to reason with them. I was trying to pull one back and then another, but the men were screaming at me too. They told me I was free to hand over my children’s kidneys to the men in the car — they had absolutely no doubt who these outsiders were. The WhatsApp messages had said the kidnappers could be impersonators, performers, dressed even as policemen,” Choudhari told The Indian Express.
Multiple eyewitness accounts concur that the mob, having seen only the rare vehicle along this road during the days and none after dusk, thought it had stopped criminals.
Choudhari, 35, in her second term as Sarpanch, laments that she could do little. “For the two hours that I was there, the mob was raining stones and shaking the car, but the men inside were still unharmed,” she said. She left a little after the police arrived, in two batches.
Chitra Choudhari was picked up along with her husband Shevak for questioning around 2 am later that night, and asked to name those involved in the violence. “Now the families of those arrested are threatening me, the women came here and said my house should be broken down. That’s why I placed a new sign saying ‘Sarpanch’ on my door two days back — at least if there’s an attack on me some people may see the sign and back off,” she said.
Nationalist Congress Party leader Kashinath Choudhari, Palghar Zilla Parishad member and the party’s losing candidate from Dahanu in the 2014 Assembly election, said he arrived a little after 10 pm, with the second batch of policemen, after first stopping at Kasa police station about 9.30 pm. “We saw lockdown roadblocks along our way, and when we reached, the mob kept asking how this Eeco had escaped the roadblocks. When they try to go somewhere their vehicles are seized, and this car appeared to be circling the area,” he told The Indian Express.
The sarpanch, who is a BJP member, her husband and women from a hamlet across the road, said the NCP leader’s arrival appeared to energise the mob, and some began to chant: ‘Dada aala, Dada aala’ (big brother is here). The NCP man is seen in the video clips of the incident, wearing a T-shirt, standing back from the assailants.
He told The Indian Express that he tried to calm the people but by then, the Eeco had been upturned. “Police tried their best, but the men were drunk, unwilling to reason. Still, we managed to get one sadhu to sit inside the chowki because he had been injured and put the other two in another police vehicle. But suddenly, when police were escorting the man from the chowki into the police vehicle, the attack began again, and it was over in minutes.” The NCP leader said there was no political motive to visiting the spot, and he confirmed that the BJP sarpanch had tried hard to calm the crowd. “But the police were also attacked and beaten, and we couldn’t do anything,” he said.
That is key to the tragedy — and the probe: the arrival of the police when the victims were unharmed and their subsequent murder in their presence. The Kasa police station’s official account is that suspensions and an enquiry are ordered. Local policemen said their men were vastly outnumbered by the mob baying for blood, and their attempt to dispel rumours didn’t work.
On April 9, the Palghar police had tweeted warning people against spreading rumours — about coronavirus and other subjects. On April 11, the Palghar police registered a case against the admin of a WhatsApp group in Boisar after receiving a complaint about a communally offensive message on a WhatsApp group. Dahanu MLA Vinod Nikole of the CPI(M) said there were at least two previous near-lynching incidents, one at Sarni Patilpada involving a doctor on April 14, and one at Waki village involving railway officials, around the same time.
“Had the police done some work over the last month to assure the people that they are safe and that the rumours are fake, and had the police come prepared after the experience of the previous incidents, the lynching could have been prevented,” Nikole told The Indian Express.
With the police arresting 110 men with the search for others continuing, the villages have almost emptied out, the men reportedly hiding in the forest around Gambhirgad, the escarpment opposite the village that gives it its name.
Many homes are locked, others occupied by only women or senior citizens. Among the 110, at least 14 are from Chowkipada, a little farther inside from Gadchinchle. The police said nine accused are juveniles.
“Those who did it ran away from home, and those who didn’t have also had to run,” said Sevanti Borsa, mother of accused Rustom Borsa. “If they’re not released by the time the lockdown ends, we’re going to starve without any income.”
Some residents are also followers of godman Guru Narendra Maharaj, and wear badges and medallions bearing his photo. “We would never harm a sadhu,” said Sakur Gavit. “We would bow our heads to them.”
There is now a police unit from Goregaon posted in the village, men sheltering from the afternoon sun in tents.
But Gadchinchle itself does not have even a police chowki. The sarpanch said it often takes two hours for men from the Kasa police station, 35 km away, to arrive. The forest chowki has a guard, who made the call to the police that night. Outside, the remnants of those three hours lie, shattered glass from the Eeco and police vehicle, an assortment of slippers, wooden sticks, and a drying patch of blood.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines