Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Dalit burnt to death in Maharashtra for using handpump

BHUTEGAON (JALNA): On the edge of Mumbai, in the Damupada slums of Kandivli where Dilip Shendge (25) grew up, the first one in the queue always had the right to use the water tap first. No one asked him what his caste was.

But on May 14 when the Dalit labourer used his cosmopolitan sensibility to get around Bhutegaon, his native village in Jalna in central Maharashtra, the upper-caste Patils allegedly burnt him to death.

A drought-prone village of 1,200 inhabitants, remote Bhutegaon is home to 20-odd Dalit families who, for a daily wage of Rs 50, provide labour to tend fields of bajra, cotton and jowar through rain and winter. In summer, amidst water scarcity and parched earth, they reap a harvest of atrocities.

Caste barriers run deep here and the Patils' writ dictates that it's their privilege to use handpumps first. On the day of the incident, the Patils reportedly tried to get fresh with Lata Shendge (17) for questioning their privilege. Her brother Dilip intervened only to be accosted by a group of belligerent Patils in the evening, who allegedly set him, his sister and his mother ablaze right outside their mud-walled hut.

"We put the three in a bullock cart, then on a bus for Jalna district hospital," says Ramesh Shendge (35), Dilip's brother. It was a three-hour journey through a rough terrain with the temperature at 41 degree Celsius. Dilip died in a hospital five days later, with over 90 per cent burns.

For Indumati Shivaji Bhavare (35), the irony was inescapable _ she is the first Dalit sarpanch of Bhutegaon. The incident confirmed her belief that some things never change.

Nearly 450 kms to the north-east of the village, a little over two months later, the state's first Dalit chief minister echoed the very same thought as detractors and supporters alike criticised his government over the kidnapping and murder of three Dalit girls from Aurangabad recently.

In the Marathwada region, comprising eight districts in central Maharashtra, Jalna tops with 19 of the total 46 crime cases involving attacks on Dalits registered in the last six months. "39 out of 76 talukas in the Marathwada region have been declared drought-prone with an average rainfall of 780 mm. Almost all the crimes have to do with handpump fights," says an official from the Jalna District Collector's officer. But this particular obscure village, whose only link to the district HQ is a 40-km-long power line, has now turned a political battleground. A ten-feet wide asphalt road has been laid, thanks to the steady stream of cars carrying ministers.

A new handpump has been installed outside the Shendge residence although it does not yield water as yet. And last week, the Superintendent of Police drove down and led Dalits for the first time into the local temple. "But it happened only one day when the police presence was strong. We are scared to go there now," says Ramesh Dhongde (28).

As for the Patils, 16 of them were arrested for Shendge's murder and booked under the Prevention of Atrocities against SC/STs Act. Their clan has sought to defend the outrage with talk of emotions running high in the face of acute water shortage.

"Four years back, the only source of water was the Dudhna river, which was a 40-minute walk from here. We got the government to install these two pumps and now it's only a five-minute walk. These Dalits can't even give us the right to use it first," says Damodar Patil (50), a land-owner. Obviously, regret and reconciliation are still missing.

Source: Newindpress.com, July 22, 2003

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