The first day of this year took Maharashtra down to a new low. Adding to the growing list of atrocities against Dalits, three young men were killed, allegedly by caste Hindus to keep their family ‘honour’ intact. One of those killed was in love with the daughter of a caste Hindu farmer, who is among those accused.

The matter was allegedly suppressed by the authorities for almost a month and the murders came to light only after a hard-fought battle by the brother of one of the victims.

A month after the arrest of all five accused and visits to the victims’ families by ministers and member of the State Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Commission C.L. Thul, the police are yet to file a charge sheet in the case. The accused had been given magisterial custody till February 11.

The accused had chosen a septic tank on January 1 for their plan. As one of the relatives of the three men from the Mehtar (bhangi) community put it, “cleaning septic tank is our bread and butter… We could not have said no to this work, even in our wildest of dreams.” The accused knew this very well.

The three Sachin Gharu, 24, Sandip Thanvar, 25, and Rahul Kandare, 20, worked at the Trimurti Pavan Pratishthan School and College at Nevasa Phata in Ahmednagar district. Sachin and his mother, and Sandip, along with his parents, wife and one-year-old son lived at the staff quarters of the college, while Rahul, lived alone in a small room in the college hostel. All the families had the job of keeping the college premises clean and Sandip was the head of cleaning operations.

Popat Darandale’s daughter Radha (name changed) was studying in the same college. According to Kalabai Gharu, Sachin's mother, Radha and Sachin had fallen in love with each other. “He told me once about her when he first received threat from her family. He was scared. They both wanted to marry, but could not,” she told The Hindu .

Sandip’s brother Pankaj Thanvar, an Indian Army jawan posted in Jammu and Kashmir, is yet to come out of shock. “Their phone was [switched] on till 3.45 p.m. on January 1 when they had gone for work at Darandales. Then, we heard the news of his death from police,” he said, playing with Sandip’s one-year-old son. It was Pankaj who in spite of negligence from the authorities kept the battle for justice alive for over a month.

It came to light that Ashok Navgire, a common friend, took all three victims to the house of the Darandales in Sonai village. He reported to the police on the same evening about the death of Sandip, claiming he fell down in the septic tank. “They wanted to create a scene where Sandip was killed by [the] other two and both ran away,” said Pankaj.

The police, however, found the death of the six-ft-tall Sandip suspicious. They also found bruises on his face. After intensive search, Rahul’s and Sachin’s bodies were found the next day in the adjacent dry well. However, they could not identify Sachin at first, since the body did not have head, legs and hands.

“What was the fault of my son? Loving a girl is not a fault. They killed him with such brutality, I wish they rot in hell,” said Sachin’s mother. His missing body parts were later recovered from a bore well. The old woman said her lifewon’t be the same again. “Old women don’t like to see such scenes, scenes like their son being killed,” she said.

The terrified families have left Ahmednagar in search of a safer place. Pankaj has brought his entire family to his aunt’s house at Malegaon, while Sachin’s mother has shifted to her daughter’s house in Erandol in the neighbouring Beed district.

Deputy Superintendent of Police Ambadas Gangurde told The Hindu that police have arrested five people till now. They are searching for others as they believe the five could not have killed three well-built men. “Popat, Prakash and Ramesh [all Darandale] are brothers. Sandip Kute is their nephew, while Ashok is a friend and an accomplice. We suspect that there are more people involved in the crime as killing these three young men was not easy as all three were well built and strong. We are on search for others,” he said. All five have been charged under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code and under sections of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Prakash and Ramesh have reportedly accepted their complicity in the crime in front of the police.

Advocate Keval Uke, the general secretary of the National Dalit Movement for Justice, who visited Ahmednagar along with Mr. Thul, told The Hindu that such increasing incidents were a sign of the failure of the constitutional mechanism in the State. “There has to be a comprehensive compensation package to the families and the case has to be fast tracked, unlike many others in the State,” he said. The victims’ families have demanded death penalty for all the accused and also asked that Radha’s statement, which they say will prove that it is a case of honour killing, be recorded.

The increasing number of attacks on Dalits has put the Congress-NCP government in the dock. The leaders of all political parties are allegedly connected to the perpetrators of such attacks and are allegedly protecting them.A Congress MLA is a relative of those who attacked Dalits in the Satara district, 10 days ago. A week ago Hindu right wing organisations beat up a Dalit professor in Dhule district for allegedly hurting their sentiments.

One of them fell in love with a caste Hindu girl, whose father is one of the accused. The police are yet to file a charge sheet in the case.