A little after sunset on 2 June, an incident of caste violence broke out in Ruikhed village in Maharashtra’s Buldhana district. A 50-year-old Dalit woman was surrounded by a mob of over 30 men, who beat her, stripped her and dragged her on the ground. According to the woman, the mob, which comprised entirely of men belonging to the Maratha community, started beating her on an isolated stretch on the outskirts of Ruikhed. They then dragged her for nearly 500 metres, till the main access road of the village. They tore her saree, blouse and petticoat, leaving her clothes in tatters. Members of the mob also pinched her and slapped her several times. Fifteen minutes into the attack, the woman’s 22-year-old son told me, the men had stripped her of all her clothes. She fell to the ground, unconscious, and the mob of men left. The woman and her family said that they belonged to the Charmakar scheduled caste, and were accused of attempting to steal a pair of bullocks from a farm that belonged to a dominant-caste Maratha family.
The woman’s son told me that before the mob left the woman on the road, other villagers had started to gather at the scene of the crime and the participants of the mob “threatened them to not help my mother or they would have to face dire consequences.” He added that it took nearly 30 minutes for the police to reach the spot from the nearby Dhad police station, which has jurisdiction over the village and is six kilometers away from it. The woman’s husband, a 50-year-old agricultural labourer, and two sons—a 27-year-old and the 22-year-old—were with her when the mob arrived at the farm. The husband told me that the mob attacked him and his sons at a few metres away from where the woman was attacked but that they had somehow managed to escape with minor injuries. “We hid ourselves in the bushes. I saw my wife get beaten up and dragged by her feet. They stripped her naked. I could not dare intervene. I was afraid for my life,” the husband said.
On 10 June, I met the woman in the district’s government hospital, where she was still admitted and being treated for internal injuries and trauma. She told me the entire incident was a misrepresentation of differences within her family, which gave the mob of Maratha men an opportunity to subject her to violence. “My husband and my elder son had been having issues over the past few days. Their fight escalated that evening and my husband left the house in a fit of rage. He declared that he would hang himself to death.” The woman told me that she was terrified. “He was so angry. We thought he would just end his life. My two sons and I ran behind him and we mistakenly entered our neighbour’s farm.” The farm is across the road from the woman’s house. This, she said, led to the attack on her and her family.
That night, one of the Maratha families was celebrating their son’s wedding in the village. “Most men were in an inebriated state. Someone from the farm shouted, “Chor! Chor!”(Thief! Thief!) and everyone rushed to the spot,” Samadhan Ugale, the village’s police patil told me. Under the Maharashtra Village Police Act, a police patil is an official appointed to a village by the state government, who is responsible for assisting the district’s executive magistrate and police personnel with quasi-judicial and administrative matters in the village. Samadhan, the village’s 70-year-old patil, is one of the prime witnesses in the case. He told me that he had tried, but was unable to intervene and stop the ensuing violence. “I was pushed to the ground. I knew I could not have done anything on my own. So I immediately called the police,” he said.
Shashi Kumar Meena, the district superintendent of police, told me that the woman had named 23 men as the assaulters and the police have arrested all of them. His account differed slightly from the woman’s account and said that the men predominantly belonged to the Maratha community, apart from a few who belonged to Other Backward Class communities. They were booked under various sections of the India Penal Code (IPC) for the offences of rioting, outraging the modesty of a woman, causing grievous hurt as well as offences under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 2016 or Atrocities Act. On a complaint filed by Bharat Ugale, a 26-year-old member of the Maratha community who owns the land that the woman and her family had entered, the police also registered a case against the woman, her husband, and her two sons for an attempt to theft.