This is a report of the nine-member fact finding team constituted under the banner of Jatiya Atyachar Virodhi Kruti Samiti (JAVKS) to inquire into the brutal murder of a Dalit youth, Sagar Subash Shejwal, in Shirdi (Ahmednagar district) on 16th May, 2015. The team went to Shirdi on 21st May, 2015. Its members were Rahul Gaikwad (JAVKS), Kishore Kamble (Ambedkar Centre for Justice and Peace), Sudhir Dhawale (JAVKS), Harshali Potdar (Republican Panthers), Suvarna Salve (Republican Panthers), Babita Kesharwani (Advocate), Kritika Agarwal (Tata Institute of Social Sciences), Sushmita Verma (Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights) and Paankhi Agrawal (Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights). The team was assisted by local journalists – Nitin Shelke and Raj Dunbade. It met the family of the victim, the family’s advocate, a few local activists and the DySP of Shirdi police station.

Background of caste atrocities in Ahmednagar District

Ahmednagar district is on the border of Marathwada and much of Marathwada’s socio-political situation, especially regarding severe caste oppression has its influence over this region. The list of atrocities against scheduled caste and scheduled tribes in this district is long: In village Limpangaon (Dhangarwadi), taluka Srigonda 16 houses and 20-25 shanties of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled tribes, Nomadic tribes and members of religious minorities were burnt. In the same taluka, village Dhawalgaon, Janabai Borge, a woman belonging to Matang community was burnt alive. In April 2014, the upper castes of Chibhalegaon, taluka Srigonda banned and refused to cremate a Dalit woman. Srigonda happens to be a hometown of an earlier State tribal minister, Babanrao Pachapute. In the same district a Dalit youth called Dipak Kamble from Bhabhulgao, taluka Karjat was severely beaten. Suman Kale a woman belonging to the Nomadic tribe too was brutally raped and killed. Walekar, a Dalit Youth of Paithan, Shegaon taluka was killed by cutting him into pieces. In 2008, Baban Misal, a matang youth of Jamkhed taluka was similarly killed.

A year back, on 1st January 2013three young men of Sonai village, taluka Nevasa, Ahmednagar, Sandip Raju Dhanwar, Sachin Somlala Dharu and Tilak aliase Rahul Raju Kandare, from the Mehtar community were drowned to death in a septic tank, by a mob of upper caste men. One of those killed was in love with the daughter of an upper caste farmer, who was among those accused. This matter was suppressed by the authorities for almost a month. Sonai Village is the hometown of Ex-M.P. and senior leader Yashawantrao Gadakh Patil.

On 28th April, 2014, a 17 year old Dalit youth was brutally murdered in Kharda village, Jamkhed tehsil, by three Maratha youth for speaking to a girl from the Maratha community.

On 20th October, 2014, three members of Jadhav family in Javkheda village, Pathardi taluka, were brutally murdered by upper caste community of the same village. Instead of treating the matter as a caste atrocity under which the upper caste assailants should have been arrested, the police arrested the victim’s relatives.

In 2014, 110 cases of caste atrocities have been registered in police stations across Ahmednagar. Since most cases go unregistered the actual count of atrocities is much more.

Despite the spate of brutal atrocities over scheduled castes in Ahmednagar, the administration is refusing to give serious attention to the matter.

The Shirdi Incident

Sagar Shejwal, a 21 year old boy from a Hindu Mahar family, was a final year student of nursing. He was studying in Nashik and had come to visit his home in Shirdi for the marriage of his cousin. In the afternoon of 16th May around 12 pm, Sagar along with two of his friends went to BM beer shoppe. Around 1 pm, when they were seated just behind the bar, Sagar’s phone rang. The ringtone was a popular Marathi song praising Ambedkar- Tumhi kitihi lava Shakti/ Tumhi kitihi ladva yukti/ Tumhi kara re kitihi halla / Mazbut Bhimacha quilla ( Use as much force as you can/ Scheme as much as you want/Shout all you want/ Bhim’s fortress is strong). An accused, Vishal Kote and Rupesh Wadekar who were seated near Sagar with six other men shouted at Sagar and told him to stop the ringtone. After some time, Sagar called out to Anil, an acquaintance of his who was seated with Vishal’s group. Hearing this, Rupesh shouted, “Aye bhenchud band kar!” (Stop it, sisterfucker!). Then Vishal and Rupesh came to Sagar and asked him his full name. Then they started kicking and thrashing him.

Sagar’s acquaintance, Anil, who was with Vishal told the assailants that he knew Sagar personally. But this did not pacify them. In the commotion that followed, one of Sagar’s friend, Avinash Pachore who is 16 years old, ran away to his home out of fear and to inform the family. The accused also punched and kicked Satish Vasant Gaikwad, Sagar’s friend, in his stomach and hit him with a bottle on his back and neck.   The beating and shouting continued behind the bar for around 15minutes. Thereafter, they dragged Sagar in front of the bar and slapped and beat him there for another 5 minutes. When Satish tried to save Sagar, he was held back by three men. The assault which took place in front of the bar has been captured by a CCTV camera which shows eight assailants. Then, Vishal and Rupesh forced Sagar to get on their motorbike and the other men rode on two other motorbikes. The assailants went off on the highway.  Satish ran toward Sagar’s home to inform about the attack.

This entire incident at the bar lasted for around 20-25 minutes. At the start of the thrashing, the hotel manager called up the hotel owner who was in Aurangabad and the owner called up Shirdi police station and asked the Police Inspector in charge, Pramod Wagh to send over help at the beer bar.  But Pramod Wagh refused to give any help and said that he did not have time, that he was going for lunch. (The distance between the bar and the police station is 1- 2 minutes by vehicle and 3-5 minutes by foot).  After Sagar’s relatives were informed of the violent fight, they went to the police station asking for police help. Pramod Wagh again refused to help and said that he did not have time and asked them to sort out things by themselves. He demanded an AC car from them to search for Sagar. He rudely asked them to get out of his room. Even after Sagar was kidnapped, the police did not act immediately. An FIR was registered at around 5.45 pm and the accused were charged under sections 363, 366, 143, 147, 148, 149.

Meanwhile, the relatives had started searching the area for Sagar. At around 6pm, they found his dead body near Shingwe village (shivar) on government land, which is some 6-7 kms away from the beer bar. The body was found by the relatives and two constables from Shirdi police station accompanying them after inquiring from one of the accused, Somanth Wadekar. Sagar had been stripped naked except socks and there were marks of motorcycle tires being run over him all over his body and also marks of being crushed by heavy stones. A gold chain that he used to wear was also missing. The relatives informed the police about the location of the body. The police reached there to conduct a panchnama at around 6.30 pm. The body was taken to a nearby Gramin hospital where Sagar was officially declared dead.

After that, when Sagar’s relatives, friends and the public came to know of the murder, several of them came to Shirdi police station. Around 3000 men and women gheraoed the police station and demanded that the police arrest the accused immediately. They spoke against the apathy with which the police had dealt with the issue that the police had failed to take action to stop the attack on Sagar in the beer bar, his kidnapping and the eventual murder even after constant complaints. In course of the public outcry, there was stone pelting at a Gujrat state transport bus. The scooti of Somnath Wadekar was set on fire. Shirdi was declared shut on 16th night and 17th of May. The body was sent for post-mortem investigation. The body was handed over to family at 1pm on 17th may. On 17th, around 10,000 to 11,000 people collected outside the police station. The relatives refused to claim the body until the accused were arrested and immediate action was taken against them.

According to Satish Gaikwad’s medical report (of rural hospital, Rahata), he has suffered physical trauma on back of head, one eye, neck, chest, arms, thighs, abdomen, nose, ankle and arms. According the Adv. Anil Shejwal, Sagar’s PM report shows that he died due to internal injuries and blood clotting.

Somnath Dattuba Wadekar, (43 years old, a gym instructor) – was arrested by the police on 16th after a tipoff by Sagar’s relatives. He was sleeping in his house at that time. The other two accused, Vishal Ashok Kote  and Rupesh Ashok Waddekar were found in Goa and Sunil Kisan Jadhav was arrested in Solapur. They have been booked under Sections 302 (murder), 363 (kidnapping), 366, 395 (dacoity), 201(causing disappearance of evidence of offence), 143 (unlawful assembly), 147 (rioting), 149 (offenses committed by unlawful assembly in pursuance of common object) of the Indian Penal Code and Sections 3 (2) (v) and 3 (1) (x) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The case was filed in Rahata taluka court, Ahmednagar district.

Vishal and Rupesh are history-sheeters. Vishal has charges of robbery, kidnapping and rape charges against him. On searching Rupesh’s shop two pistols were found, one on 17th of May and the other on 21st of May.

Vishal Kote is a Maratha, a dominant caste group of Maharashtra. Somnath and Rupesh Wadekar are from the Rairand (Baharupi) community (scheduled as nomadic tribe in Maharashtra). Sunil Jadhav and Rama Shivaji Jadhav belongs to Waddar community, a denotified tribe. Other accused are Deepak and Shoaib Sheikh. The name of one of the accused could not be confirmed.

Issues that have emerged from the fact-finding

Police Apathy

This case makes visible the apathy and caste bias rooted in the police system.

It was possible for Pramod Wagh to send a constable or two among those who were on duty at the time of the incident to the beer bar to sort things out. But he did not do so and only gave absurd excuses to the family as they tried time and again to ask for his help.

The locals have also informed the fact finding team that the accused Vishal Kote and police inspector Pramod Wagh were well acquainted and on good terms with each other (it has been alleged that a photograph at Vishal Kote’s home shows the two of them eating a meal together).

On the night of 16th May when there was a public outcry over the murder, the police provided protection to the family of the accused. On the other hand, the family of the victim which faces the threat of violent retaliation for having filed the police complaint have not been given any police protection.

In both the FIR registered on 16th and the remand report drafted on 17th,  the lyrics of the ringtone which was at the centre of the atrocity were not even mentioned. This conveys an attempt to make Sagar’s murder sound like any other murder and not recognize its casteist dimensions. It was under public pressure on the night of 16th and on 17th that the police added the sections under Atrocities Act to the FIR.

Sagar’s family has demanded that Pramod Wagh not only be suspended but also be registered as a co-accused in the murder case.

Caste Dynamics

Shirdi (Rahata Taluka, Ahmendnagar district) is a small town with a population of around 36,000 but with a large floating population since it is a well-known pilgrimage centre. At the time of 2009 general elections, there were around 13 lakh voters in the Shirdi constituency, out of which around 40 percent were Marathas, 30 percent were Dalits and Muslims combined and rest were mainly from OBC communities such as Waddars.  In these elections, the Shirdi Lok Sabha seat was reserved for SC candidates. This was not acceptable to the dominant castes in the town. Since then caste polarization appears to have intensified in Shirdi.  This has been accompanied by a rising trend of caste violence in the region.

The principal accused, Vishal Kote, belongs to the Maratha caste which has political and economic dominance in the region.  Kote is the dominant caste group in Shirdi, owning a large proportion of property in Shirdi and dominating its local political institutions.

It also needs to be noted that the police inspector Pramod Wagh who refused to take action which could have prevented Sagar’s murder is also from the Maratha community and has cordial relations with Vishal Kote.

The case is not simply a matter of a drunken fight which went out of hand under the influence of alcohol. It was a systematically conducted assault and murder on account of the caste of the victim. Vishal and the co-accused got angry over the ringtone that praised Ambedkar’s fight for dalits. When they came over to Sagar’s table, Vishal asked him his name before starting to thrash him. Therefore it appears that Sagar’s caste identity which could easily have been made out from his surname was enough for them to continue with the assault.

The beating did not stop at the bar. The assailants kidnapped Sagar and made a journey of 7 kms at the outskirts of Shirdi to isolated fields where Sagar was brutally assaulted. His clothes had been ripped off indicating attempts to humiliate him. The humiliation and the brutal assault which led to Sagar’s death falls within the pattern of atrocities on dalits who have been murdered by dominant castes, where the attackers do not simply wish to kill the person but inscribe physical marks of their dominant status on the body of the victims in form of injuries and mutilations.

The case should also not be taken as an isolated incident which can be explained in terms of the sadistic psyche of Vishal and Rupesh who are history-sheeters. The active connivance of six other youth in bringing about this tragedy shows that the group was motivated by a mentality that perceives Dalits as sub-human beings.

Sagar represented a generation of dalit youth who are getting well-educated and moving up the social ladder. Sagar was to complete nursing studies in two months time and his younger brother has appeared for 12th standard state board exams. Sagar’s choice of ringtone depicts his pride in the Ambedkarite struggle. The hindu Mahar and neo-buddhist communities in the town also have a strong anti-caste consciousness and tend to live together in socially well –knit neighbourhoods. Sagar’s home is in Bhim Nagar colony near the Shirdi market area where lanes and houses are marked by blue flags and the pictures of Buddha, Ambedkar and Sai baba.

Political Patronage

The team could not confirm if the accused are affiliated to any political party or had any political patrons. More inquiry needs to be made into the connections that the accused have with political bosses which can perhaps serve to explain why the eight youth could assault and kill with a sense of impunity. Rupesh is said to be affiliated with NCP and Shiv Sena.

On 19th May, a news programme about the Shirdi murder was to be telecast live by a Marathi news channel whose team had come to
Shirdi to cover the atrocity. At the very time of the telecast, the cable connection across Shirdi was disconnected. This attempt to suppress public anger over the incident by withholding information from people shows that the goons in Shirdi have connections with powerful politicians and mafia.

Victim’s family

Sagar is survived by his parents, an elder sister, Ashwini Shinde, who is married and a younger brother, Akash Shejval. Needless to say, the family is traumatized by the incident. Sagar’s father who works in the Sai Sansthan trust repeatedly told us that he could not comprehend how a ringtone could have escalated into a cold blooded murder of his son. The family and relatives hold the police responsible for their failure to take timely action to prevent the atrocity. They want strictest punishment for the guilty police officers. While the family is supported by neighbours and relatives in its hour of crisis, it lives in constant threat of being attacked for filing the complaint and pursuing the matter actively.

The advocate who is representing the family is Anil Shejwal who is Sagar’s uncle.

Demands made to DySP by Fact finding team

  • The fact finding team met DySP Y. D. Patil at Shirdi police station on 21st May. He had admitted to the team that the entire incident could have been avoided if the police inspector on duty (Pramod Wagh) had taken timely action and sent constables to the bar to stop the fight. This statement has been recorded by the team. He also informed us that the police had seized the motorbikes of the accused and Sagar’s clothes as evidence. The fact-finding team gave in written its following demands to DySP. He promised the team that he would forward the letter to superintendent of police of the district. The letter contained the following demands:
  • To book PI Pramod Wagh as co-accused and charge him under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
  • Confiscate and sealing the property of the accused who are absconding.
  • The words in the ringtone should be mentioned in the FIR.
  • The police protection given to the family of the accused should be removed and provided to the family of the victim.

Observations of the Fact Finding Team

Sagar’s murder is not simply a case of murder, but is a caste atrocity. It once again brings to light the complicity of police in violence against scheduled caste community members. The failure of the Shirdi police to take timely action which could have prevented the tragedy is not simply a lapse in duty but is a manifestation of the caste and class biases by which the police function. It is not by accident that the police failed to intervene in the assault and murder of Sagar who was from a dalit caste and an economically less privileged family. Why did the police provide protection to the accused’s family and not to the victim’s family? Why was strict action not taken against PI Pramod Wagh by higher-up police officials despite understanding fully well that he did not carry out his duty of maintaining law and order?

Simply suspending police officers for doing nothing to prevent caste atrocities is not sufficient. In this case, it is likely that Pramod Wagh had been informed by the hotel owner at the time when the attack was going on at his shop that Vishal Kote was one of the attackers. After all, Shirdi is a small town where historysheeters like Vishal and Rupesh are notorious. It is also very much possible that since Pramod Wagh shares cordial relations with Vishal Kote and since both are from the Maratha community, he deliberately did not take any action to confront Vishal and stop the fight. Thus, Pramod Wagh and scores of police officers like him are not acting under any “good faith” but are accomplices to murder and actively participate in perpetuation of atrocities against scheduled castes and tribes.  They should be tried under the Atrocities Act.

The friendly relations between Pramod Wagh and a historysheeter like Vishal, and the disconnecting of cable connection in what appears to be a pre-planned move to blackout the news programme on the Shirdi murder points towards a nexus between police, politicians and local goons. The goons are needed by them for maintaining their dominance by generating fear among their opponents and forcibly extracting goods and services from public for their benefit. The goons receive political patronage and police protection. As a result, they become more fearless in spreading terror and troubling the local population. The nexus is stronger in Shirdi, given the town’s wealth on account of being a famous pilgrimage place.

Violence against upwardly mobile and assertive dalits is employed by casteist forces as a way of putting the scheduled castes “in their place.” Events around Sagar’s murder started because the accused were angered by a ringtone which praises the strength of the ambedkarite struggle. In Maharashtra, April and May are months of celebration across villages and towns to commemorate the birth anniversaries of Jyotiba Phule, Dr. Ambedkar, Shivaji Maharaj and Gautam Buddha. Large scale functions and rallies are organized by scheduled caste communities to convey their pride over their achievements and commitment to fighting caste system. These programmes depict upward mobility among dalits and Buddhists and their unity. For the upper and dominant castes, such assertion by scheduled castes is seen as a threat to their dominance. They are angered by the show of dalit assertion and the refusal of the historically oppressed groups to tolerate upper caste tyranny. Thus, systematic and coordinated attacks on such programmes and their organisers are quite common across Maharashtra.

The nexus between state and casteist forces and the unrest among the dominant castes over gradual upward mobility of scheduled castes has together contributed to the rising trend of caste atrocities in the state. Maharashtra bears a shameful record of having one of the lowest conviction rates (around 3%) in caste atrocity cases and one of the highest number of registered cases of atrocities in the country. This highlights the casteist and feudal character of the machinery of the state government. Ahmednagar , a seat of sugar barons who come from the dominant castes,  has the maximum number of caste atrocity cases in the state and yet the government has not taken serious measures to prevent such crimes and punish the criminals. Instead it has put in place dubious schemes such as Mahatma Gandhi Tanta Mukti Abhiyaan  which are actually perpetuating the power of casteist forces at the local level and institutionalising Brahmanical practices as part of the state. The mockery created by this scheme of justice is evident from the fact that Khairlanji received the MGTMA award three years after the brutal murder of members of the Bhotmange family!

In several cases of registered caste atrocities, the police have filed cross-complaints against the victim’s family, such as in case of Javkheda killings. But what the team was heartened to know in Sagar’s case was the immediate protest by thousands of local population in Shirdi at the police station. It is primarily because of such public assertion where people gathered in large numbers, gheraoed the police station and refused to leave until the accused were arrested that the police took some action to find the accused and book them under the caste atrocities act. This has once again shown that where the state machinery is prejudiced, the dominant castes are powerful and local goons are protected by police, collective struggle by scheduled castes is indispensable for justice to be done.

Demands of Fact finding Team

  • Book PI Pramod Wagh as co-accused and also charge him under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. He should be immediately dismissed from the service.
  • Vishal Kote and Rupesh Wadekar who have several serious charges against them –murder, kidnapping, rape – should be charged under Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act.
  • The relations between Pramod Wagh and the accused Vishal Kote should be investigated by the police.
  • One of Sagar’s family members should be given a government job.
  • Ahmednagar should be declared a caste atrocity prone district as per the provision as per the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
  • SC and ST families who face the risk of atrocities should be given license for possession of arms for self-defense.
  • Fast track courts should be established to deal with caste atrocities cases to ensure that the guilty are punished without much delay.
  • Mahatma Gandhi Tanta Mukti Abhiyaan should be scrapped immediately.
  • The Government of Maharashtra bears responsibility for the high number of atrocities under its tenure and should immediately resign.