On 27 May, Arvind Bansod, a Dalit social activist and a resident of Pimpaldhara village in Maharasthra’s Nagpur district died amid suspicious circumstances. According to Soniya Gajbhiye, a Nagpur based lawyer who is representing his family, Bansod was murdered by a group of men after they abused him with casteist slurs. The incident took place under the jurisdiction of the police station in Jalalkheda, a town in the Nagpur district. However, the Jalalkheda police initially treated the case as a suicide.
I spoke to Gajanan Raut, Bansod’s friend who was with him shortly before his death. Raut recounted the events of 27 May. “Arvind bhai and I were going to an ATM to withdraw money,” he said. “There is a village named Thadipawani at a distance of five kilometres. On the way, we met a woman who asked if we can book a gas cylinder for her. Arvind bhai agreed but we did not have the number. So, when we reached Thadipawani, I clicked pictures of the banner at a gas agency.” Raut said that a worker at the agency objected to him taking photos of the banner and snatched his phone. Bansod and Raut then walked into the gas agency’s office to ask for the phone to be returned. Mithilesh Umarkar, also known as Mayur, the owner of the gas agency, was seated in the office. Describing Mithilesh’s exchange with Bansod, Raut added, “Mayur said, ‘So you are Arvind Bansod. I have heard a lot about you. Now I finally met you.’ Arvind bhai told him to return the mobile.”
According to Raut, Mithilesh then began to address Bansod using casteist slurs. “He told Arvind bhaiya, ‘You are from Mahar caste. Do you want to become a leader? Let me see how. You don’t have the status,’” Raut said. Bansod continued to insist on getting Raut’s phone back. According to Raut, Mithilesh subsequently asked three friends, who were present in the office, to beat up the two of them. Raut said the abuses and beating continued for over half an hour. After they left the office, Raut asked Bansod to let the matter go. He then left the area to refill petrol on their vehicle. “I returned in a short while and saw him lying fallen down at the agency,” Raut said. He added that there was a bottle containing a poisonous substance lying nearby. According to the version of the Jalalkheda police, in the interval when Raut was absent, Bansod purchased a bottle of pesticide from a nearby shop and consumed it—a narrative strongly disputed by Raut and Bansod’s family.
Continuing his account, Raut told me that Mithilesh and his friends took Bansod in their vehicle, while refusing to let Raut join them. “I asked the man who took my mobile as to where he was being taken. He said they were taking him to the hospital. I returned to the village and informed his elder brother about what happened,” Raut said. Subsequently, Raut, along with two of Bansod’s brothers, went to the Jalalkheda primary health centre. However, they learnt that that Bansod had been referred to another hospital. Amidst the lookout for Bansod, they went to the Jalalkheda police station to register a complaint. Raut told me that the Deepak Dekate, the inspector in-charge did not take them seriously. “I told him the whole story. He said, ‘He has not died yet. Let him get treatment. We will see after he dies,’” Raut recalled. The three later found Bansod in an ambulance in Mithilesh’s company outside a hospital in Katol, a city and municipal council in Nagpur. From there, Raut was taken further to Nagpur. He was finally admitted at the government medical college in Nagpur. According to Raut, at 11 pm on 27 May, Bansod was put on ventilator support. He was declared dead on the morning of 29 May.
Bansod’s death did not receive any attention until a few days later. Gajbhiye attributes this to the remoteness of Pimpaldhara and the lack of internet connectivity there. Nilesh Mohite, the secretary of Dalit Youth Panthers, a Mumbai-based Dalit rights organisation, contacted Gajbhiye on 31 May, requesting her to meet with Bansod’s family. “On 2 June, I reached the village. It is a very small village with hardly 20 or 25 houses. His grandmother was there along with his father and two brothers,” she said. Referring to the Maharashtra Public Service Commission, she added, “He was preparing for his MPSC exams. In a couple of years, he could have become an officer. As soon as we stepped into his house, his family showed us his library.”
Gajbhiye was accompanied by members of her organisation called Bhimraj ki Beti, a civil society group working for marginalised communities including Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. “He was a Dalit activist who used to help everyone in the village,” she told me.