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#SundayReading – 19 years later, a scholar’s suicide – from Ramabai to ROHITH


11/7/1997 From Ramabai to Rohith
From top: Shanta Katar-Narve, in spectacles, and her family revisit news clips on her son Nandu; Activist Jaywant Hire at home with his periodicals; Rohith Vemula’s poster at the Buddha vihar in Ramabai Nagar; Sonubai Kapadne’s husband Sukhdev was killed trying to help neighbours; A new statue of BR Ambedkar was erected after the shootings. Rohith Vemula’s posters are all over the colony.
19 years later, a scholar’s suicide has reopened old wounds at Ramabai Nagar. Or perhaps they never closed.

She’s 57 and the memory of her son is now older than he was, on the day that he died. Nandu Katar-Navre was only 18 that morning when the State Reserve Protection Force’s Manohar Kadam ordered his platoon to open fire on the gathering at Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar.

His mother Shanta is speaking to Mirror 19 years after the shootings that left 10 Dalits dead and 12 injured. Though no prior appointment was madeto meet her, the sheaf of clippings on Nandu are right by her side. Not filed away, not buried in the detritus of daily life, not tucked away on a shelf beside a picture and a garland, but in hand’s reach, always.

“Right now all newspapers are full of Rohith’s coverage. I can relate to Rohith’s mother who lost her young, bright son. Look at my son, he was fair, handsome. He would have married, had kids, enjoyed his life. They shot my son, now they have taken away Rohith’s life by torturing him. Everywhere, this is happening. We have to fight back…” she says. It’s impossible to read the grief on her dark, unlined face but her hands smoothing the folds of the newspapers give this reporter goose bumps.

Much and more has changed at Ramabai Nagar since the 1997 shootings, though like Shanta’s rending pain, those tectonic shifts aren’t discernible on the surface. With a population of 1 lakh, predominantly Dalit, it’s crisscrossed by open gutters that front doors open onto. Behind those doors are small, airless rooms, partitioned by wood or brick, some with makeshift ceilings that anyone over five feet has to duck under. Bordered on the north and east by a still smouldering Deonar dumping ground, Ramabai is still a slum.

Justice for Rohith

There is one clear, visible change. Rohith Vemula’s now recognisable face is plastered on every stretch of wall, his gentle smile exhorting incongruously for a fight for justice. Teenagers are talking about him heatedly in alleys—how the right wing is whitewashing the suicide, how social media is used for propaganda, why the upper castes are against reservation for Dalits.

Rohith isn’t just a talking point. As a PhD scholar, what he represents is education, the way out of the strictures that bind Dalits and that’s what the young people relate to. Shanta’s younger son Pravin for instance, represents the resilience – by qualifying as an engineer and securing himself a job with the BMC. When Mirror talked to these youngsters, they expressed solidarity with the discrimination Rohith faced but also with his desire to learn – the ‘cultivation of mind’ that Ambedkar said was the aim of human existence.

On 1 February, of the throngs that marched from Byculla to CST, a couple hundred were from Ramabai Nagar, mobilised by posters, pamphlets, fliers. Given the bloody history, any march, protest, or dharna should have triggered a healthy self-preservation instinct. But not here.

Why they still march

Jaywant Hire had been arrested on a charge of rioting in July 1997—after the shooting, the Ramabai Nagar police outpost was ransacked and it was alleged, with no evidence (see timeline) that the crowd had set an oil tanker ablaze. Wiry, sinewy, determined, Hire is a passionate activist. When asked why he marched, the 55-year-old Hire says it’s a new battle ground for an old war. “We have done many protests and at every protest many people supported us. Today it’s our turn to stand for the cause for Rohith. It’s painful that we have to walk protest march in south Mumbai for the same reason we had marched in 1997. But, we can’t stop until justice is delivered.”

Shanta and the rest of her family had moved before the shootings but Nandu had stayed back to hold on to the room in Ramabai Nagar. Her son Pravin, a tender 12 at the time, had to go to Rajawadi hospital to identify the body. “Half of Ramabai Colony was there looking for relatives. Chaotic situation it was. Blood, shouting, crying. Oh no, I can never forget. I started searching for my brother’s name. I couldn’t believe it was on the deceased list. I had to read it again and again.”

Shanta was at least spared the sight. Sonubai Kapadne stood by and witnessed her husband shot in the back, as he was trying to help his neighbours, whose 12-year-old son had just been gunned down. The Gundewar commission constituted in November 1997 to investigate the Ramabai shooting, reports: “Lalita Naik saw … 5 to 6 policemen [get] down from the van and without loss of time open firing in which Mangesh [12 years old] received bullet injuries… The blood, brain parts and pieces of his skull fell on her person. She lifted Mangesh and handed over to his parents… Bharat Shivsharan deposed… [as] his wife was going towards the van to ask the police as to why her son was killed, the police killed Sukhdev Kapdadne.”

A smiling, white-haired woman, 47-year-old Sonubai’s greeting is always ‘Jai Bhim.’ She recalls how her husband Sukhdev had climbed in the SRPF van that had arrived only a few minutes earlier, and had been told to get off. “He was walking away with raised hands and stopped to talk with Mangesh’s parents. He looked back for a moment, and they shot him.”

Money or your life?

Perhaps if the Ramabai chapter was ever closed Vemula’s suicide wouldn’t have stirred the entire community, but no one has been brought to book for the shootings (see timeline). There’s been the usual rota of compensation, Grade 4 jobs in the government as restitution. Shanta works as a khalasi – a Grade 4 worker in the Indian railways, repairing and maintaining tracks. She says she received about Rs 5 lakh from the centre and the state, cold comfort for the loss of her beloved boy.

Compensation, of course, was sparingly granted only to those who faced the bullets. Injured in the shooting Namdeo Surwade passed away in 2002. His wife also got a Grade 4 job but the cycle of work and desolation has taken a huge toll on her health. “How can the government compensate for my loss?”

Milind Pagare’s legs were directly hit in the police’s teargas shelling that followed, and left gaping, gushing wounds on his legs. His father sells potatoes and onions on a hand-cart, and their house resembles a godown, with newspapers doubling as curtains. He was a teenager then and in his late 30s he still struggles with the physical fallout. Even though the 11 Dalits booked for rioting were later cleared, no reparations were offered to those injured or debilitated that day.

The profundity of the psychological damage has never been deliberated by the state. 12-yearold Mangesh Shivsharan’s father Bharat, say neighbours, was deeply depressed. The family has since relocated to their village.

Vilas Dodke, an auto driver who also died, left behind his mother and six sisters. Before she passed away two years ago, his mother agitated for justice. His sisters, in keeping with the resilience of Ramabai, have all attained financial stability, even built their own small house. But it was done on their own wherewithal. Says Shobha Shishupal, one of Dodke’s sisters, “One job and financial compensation is not justice.”

Justice also for Manohar Kadam

Manohar Kadam, the man convicted to 12 years rigorous imprisonment for the shootings, has not spent a single night in a jail cell. On bail through his trial, his sentence was commuted by the High Court the day that he was declared guilty. The special leave petition filed in the Supreme Court by the Maharashtra government, activists say was poorly argued by junior advocates, and was rejected.

Judicial proceedings against Kadam have been slow, complex and conflicted, but his name in these parts elicit a simply fury. Shanta Katar-Navre is blunt, “PSI Manohar Kadam took away Nandu’s life.” Sonubai Kapadne is still agitating, “You can’t imagine how many times we have gone to police stations and courts. Without fail, even when my kids were school going, even when my livelihood was at stake, we have made every effort that the accused will be punished.”

Shobha Shishupal says, “By punishing PSI Manohar Kadam, government should have said that such atrocities would not be tolerated but what we are watching is exactly opposite.”

Sick and suffering, 63-year-old Ramachandra Dhanawade has no able shoulders to lean on after his 17-year old son Amar was shot dead. “These days, criminal get death penalty for a murder and here after killing 11 people, accused is enjoying retired government service life!”

Sridevi Giri, who took a bullet on the hand says, “Anyone will come, shoot at you and get away. Why isn’t he punished?” Her neighbour, Hiraman Gaikwad was booked by police in the rioting. “We tried to save people’s life and we were booked? We have to prove that we are innocents. We proved it. Where is the justice?”

Justice delayed, denied

Since Kadam hasn’t served a sentence Shyam Gaikwad hasn’t dissolved his 1997 ‘Hatyakand Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti’ yet. It was instrumental in getting compensation awarded to families and following up on the legislation. “The irony is till date government has not invoked the SC/ST(Prevention of atrocity) Act 1989. Victims were booked for rioting and creating law and order problem. This was another atrocity done to the residents by the system – police and government. All of them are now acquitted, then why shouldn’t the police face action for false cases?”

Advocate BG Bansode, who represented Ramabai residents at the Gundewara commission says,” Shiv Sena-BJP was in power when it happened, then for 15 years Congress-NCP ruled, and now BJP-Sena is in power. None delivered justice.” Film-maker Anand Patwardhan, whose ‘Jai Bhim Comrade’ was on the shootings illustrates by analogy, “If the residents of a posh high rise on Malabar Hill had done a dharna, would the police arrive and start firing without any warning, or tear gas, or lathi charge? Would they have killed 10 upper caste, rich people on the spot? The administration is casteist, the police is casteist, the political class is casteist.”


11 Jul 1997
Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar wakes up to a desecrated statue of Dr Ambedkar, with a garland of sandals. At 6:30am, residents report the matter to the police head constable who, in turn, calls the Pant Nagar police station.

Senior police officers reach the location as locals gather to protest by the nearby highway.

The control room alerts Platoon number 3 of State Reserve Police Force headed by PSI Manohar Kadam. The platoon reaches the signal at around 7.30am. Minutes later, allegedly on Kadam’s orders, they open fire, even as talks between senior police officials and residents take place near the statue

50 bullets are fired. The firing leaves 10 dead and 12 injured.

In reaction to the firing, Ramabai Nagar Police Chowky was demolished that afternoon. Police officers enter the colony and resort to lathi charge and tear gas shells to bring situation under control

Nov 1997
Maharashtra Government appoints judicial Gundewar commission to look into the issue

7 Aug 1998
Gundewar Commission submits report. The report points out that apart from PSI Kadam and his platoon officers’ words, there is no evidence to prove that protesters indulged in jal-pol (burning).

8 Aug 2001
The High Court issues directives to file an affidavit to prosecute PSI Kadam. On August 24, the Maharashtra government directs the CP to register a criminal case against Kadam

30 Aug 2001
An offence is registered at Pant Nagar Police Station. However, the accused challenges the order of his suspension before the Maharashtra Administrative Tribunal. The orders issued by the departmental enquiry get quashed. Investigation is taken over by DCBCID (crime branch).

20 Dec 2001
A chargesheet is filed

6 May 2009
PSI Kadam gets convicted under IPC 304 I by the trial court. An appeal is filed. PSI Kadam is on bail throughout the trial and gets bail immediately from the High Court.
Later in 2009, Maharashtra government filed a special leave petition in Supreme Court challenging the High Court order, but the petition was rejected.

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