A night of horror in Vantamuri village of Karnataka

A woman was stripped and attacked allegedly because her son had eloped with the daughter of a man who held a higher social status, in a village in Belagavi district. The Hindu visited Hosa Vantamuri that is yet to recover from the incident on the midnight of December 10

Updated - February 08, 2024 04:16 pm IST

Published - December 29, 2023 07:00 am IST

Member of National Commission for Women Delina Khongdup speaking to journalists in Belagavi on December 16, 2023. She led a team of officials to Vantamuri where a woman had been stripped and assaulted on December 10.

Member of National Commission for Women Delina Khongdup speaking to journalists in Belagavi on December 16, 2023. She led a team of officials to Vantamuri where a woman had been stripped and assaulted on December 10. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The mountain-top village of Hosa Vantamuri is picturesque. There is a resettlement centre for families displaced by the submergence of Vantamuri village in the reservoir of the Raja Lakhamagouda dam over the Ghataprabha in the late 1970s. It is set in the backdrop of several windmills that line the horizon on the Belagavi-Kolhapur highway.

But this village in the border district of Belagavi, in the northwest of Karnataka, with a population of around 7,000 people (about 5,000 of them from the Scheduled Tribe of Bedar Nayaka) was witness to the horrific mob attack on a woman that shook the conscience of the nation.

Around midnight on December 10, a mob partially stripped a woman in her 40s, tied her to a pole and assaulted her. This was an act of “revenge” by the relatives of a girl who had run away with the victim’s son a day before her engagement to another boy.

Based on the victim’s complaint and eyewitness accounts, police have arrested 13 people, including five women and a minor boy. The girl’s father (Basappa Nayak) and his friend (Shivappa Vannuri), who were part of the group that attacked the woman, face murder charges.

Arrested earlier in a murder case, they were out on bail. Investigators have moved the trial court seeking cancellation of their bail now. After the case was transferred to the Criminal Investigation Department, a team led by Deputy Inspector General Sudhir Kumar Reddy and SPs Rashmi Paraddi and PruthvikShankar is investigating the case. A Karnataka State Reserve Police van full of personnel is stationed in the village.

A love story and the horror after

It all began with a 19-year-old woman falling in love with a man of 23. Both are from the Bedar Nayaka community, and their houses are on parallel lanes separated by a few hundred metres. But the man was a “near pauper living in a two-room house” (as a relative of the woman put it), while her father is a respected community leader who has served as the gram panchayat president twice. The man is a goods van driver, and so is his father.

“Anyone would have done the same if they had suffered such an insult. A girl’s honour is of utmost importance in a village,” said the relative. He had a blank, doubtful look when he was asked if the victim’s honour was any less important.

Her family had fixed her engagement with another young man on December 11, and she came to know that preparations were underway to get her married on the same day in a simple ceremony called yaadi mele shaadi, where a few elders from both sides read out a contract and sign it after exchanging some gifts symbolically.

She and her 23-year-old boyfriend eloped the night before. The woman’s absence was noticed around midnight. Her relatives gathered in large numbers, picked up sticks and machetes and arrived at the man’s house. The women had also brought along a cauldron of water mixed with chilli powder.

They broke the door down with an axe, startling awake the victim, her mother-in-law, her husband’s first wife, and two sons who were at home. The victim’s husband, a driver, was away that night on work.

Within minutes, the house was ransacked, jars broken, utensils thrown down, and clothes set on fire. Soon, while the elderly woman (the mother-in-law) who had been crippled in a road accident watched helplessly, her daughter-in-law was dragged out, partially disrobed, and beaten up mercilessly.

“The women were pouring chilli water on her body,” her mother-in-law said. “She was begging them, saying if they let her live, she would bring the two back to the village. But the women were asking, ‘How will you get them back when you have sent them away?’ When I tried to call for help, they threatened to club me to death,” she said, recalling the horror of the day. “Overcome by shame and unable to bear the pain of the chilli powder in her eyes and skin, she tried to cover her body with wet mud on the roadside.”

She was paraded to the electric pole at the corner of a street between the houses of the victim and the accused. “Some youth shot videos of the incident. But police seized the phones and deleted the videos to see that they were not shared on social media,” a village resident, who is a government employee, said.

“They had brought a pair of scissors and a barber’s knife. They wanted to tonsure her head and parade her naked in the village on a donkey cart. But it was averted by our intervention,” said a police officer who is part of the investigation. The donkey cart, painted in blue and white, is still parked near the electric pole.

The mother-in-law recounted between sobs. “For decades, I have suffered poverty, disease, and long droughts. But I had never seen this kind of cruelty. They used abusive words I had never heard before. Had they killed the girl, I would have cried for a month and forgotten it. But this is an insult we have to live with all our lives.”

The man’s stepfather (the elderly woman’s son) had shifted to Hosa Vantamuri from a hamlet near Shahbandar village 10 kilometres away. The family’s men were hired as watchmen of the village to guard the sheep, cattle, and chattel. He dropped out of high school to become a goods van driver. A decade later, he had saved enough money to buy a van.

“We came here to protect the villagers, but we have to seek police protection now,” she says. Will the family shift to another place? “We are already uprooted. Some of our lands were submerged, and some others were snatched away by a powerful politician. Where shall we go?” she said.

Half-hearted resettlement and rehabilitation attempts by successive governments have kept the village deprived. Each house stores water in plastic drums, as there is a drinking water supply just once every three weeks. It has only a primary school; most drop out and work as labourers in Belagavi about 30 km away or Kolhapur in Maharashtra.

The victim was a child bride who was deserted after she gave birth to a boy. She was living in Hosa Vantamuri, working as a farm hand. She remarried some years later to her present husband, who already had a wife, who was a child bride too. “My son married her because his first wife was still in school,” says the elderly woman. “In fact, she braided the young girl’s hair, packed her lunch and sent her to school for years. The girl grew up to bear two sons. They live like sisters.” Child marriages continue unabated to this day, said a retired teacher in the village.

A handful who found their voice

On that night of the horror on December 10, when most people were just mute spectators, there were some good Samaritans, like Jahangir and Waseem, who helped, and conscientious police personnel like Subhash Bhill.

Bhill, a constable attached to the Kakati police station who once served in the Indian Army, was on night duty, along with a constable from outside the district, who had been deputed for the winter session of the Karnataka legislature, which was then on at Belagavi.

“We received a call on 112, telling us that a crowd was beating up a woman tied to a pole. We rushed to the village on our motorbike. What we saw shocked us,’‘ he said. Efforts by the two constables to stop what was happening went in vain. Unarmed and outnumbered, they called their senior officers. An officer who did not respond to the call has now been placed under suspension.

The agitated men hurled abuses at the police and began pushing them around. But Bhill finally managed to convince the crowd to spare the woman’s life. He ran to the mother-in-law, fetched a saree and covered the victim. A few minutes later, with the help of two villagers, he took the woman to the district hospital in a four-wheeler. He called senior officers and asked them to send reinforcements.

In the meantime, he collected some crucial evidence without alerting the crowd. “I have faced bullets on the border, bhau (brother). If I were destined to be killed that day while protecting a woman’s honour, I would have been fine with it,” he said in a rustic Kannada-Marathi accent.

The High Court of Karnataka, which has taken suo motu cognizance of this case, made an honourable mention of a local trader, Jahangir. He had rushed to the victim’s house that day after getting a distress call from the women of the house. Jahangir managed to help the first wife escape with her sons, 10 and 12, but the crowd caught the other woman.

Some of the attackers accused Jahangir of helping the two young people elope. They dragged him to the electric pole, tied him and beat him up. “I kept pleading with them that they should spare us both, but they were in no mood to listen,” he said. Finally, after police intervention, Jahangir helped shift the victim to the hospital, where she is still undergoing treatment for physical and mental trauma. He has also been treated for injuries.

The commotion woke up another villager, Waseem. “I came running and saw that two people were being beaten up. I ran to a safe corner and called the emergency police helpline number 112,” he said. He found a car that could take the woman to the hospital.

The incident has left most villagers stunned. People in the street avoid questions on the attack, saying they were not in the village that day. Women call their children inside when they see strangers. Meanwhile, the couple who eloped are in a secure place under police protection.

The Karnataka High Court, in its observations, expressed anguish over the incident. “On the one hand, this country is celebrating the 76th year of Independence as Azadi ka Amruthotsav. On the other hand, the State of Karnataka, which is known for all valid reasons as a progressive State and a pioneer State of initiation of social justice way back even when it was a Princely State of Mysore, faces this incident,” the court said.

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