Bleeding blue in Nanded | Where celebrating Ambedkar’s birthday is a crime

The killing of Akshay Shravan Bhalerao in Maharashtra’s Nanded district has brought to the fore the simmering tensions between the dominant Marathas and the oppressed Dalits. Abhinay Deshpande reports on how a community’s dream to celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti was finally fulfilled, only to be followed by tragedy

Updated - June 26, 2023 12:04 pm IST

Published - June 17, 2023 05:20 am IST

Akshay Bhalerao’s parents Vandana Bai and Shravan Bhalerao and brother Akash mourn his death in Bondhar Haveli village in Maharashtra’s Nanded district.

Akshay Bhalerao’s parents Vandana Bai and Shravan Bhalerao and brother Akash mourn his death in Bondhar Haveli village in Maharashtra’s Nanded district. | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini

If Vandana Bai had to describe her son Akshay Shravan Bhalerao in one word, it is “resolute”. The distraught mother remembers how her youngest son, 24, was always worried about the problems and humiliation faced by their community, the Mahars, who are among the largest Scheduled Castes in number in Maharashtra. He was keen to make a change. This determination cost him his life.

On the evening of June 1, Vandana sent Akshay and his brother Akash, 29, to a grocery store to buy ingredients for dinner. While standing near the store, in Bondhar Haveli village in Nanded district, the two Dalit men encountered a group of angry Maratha men. Akash shudders as he recalls what followed. The men, who were part of a baraat (wedding procession), hurled casteist slurs at Akshay and Akash. Moments later, the abuse turned physical.

“When we saw them, they were shouting and dancing to music. They had sticks, swords, and daggers. They were drunk. When they saw us near the shop, they began abusing us. We tried to ignore them,” says Akash.

What one of the men, Santosh Tidke, shouted particularly stuck with him: “He said, ‘These two must be killed for celebrating Bhim Jayanti.’”

That is when Akash began fearing for their lives. “They were barely 10 metres from us. They ran towards us and started assaulting us. The light was bright then and I was able to identify everyone. There was the groom, Narayan Vishwanath Tidke, along with Krishna Tidke, Nilkanth Tidke, and Shivaji Tidke. They kicked and punched Akshay and hit him with sticks,” Akash said in the First Information Report (FIR) filed by the Nanded Rural police. “The rest of the group told Santosh Tidke and another man, Datta Tidke, to ‘finish this Mahar’. Santosh and Datta stabbed Akshay with daggers while the rest of them held his hands and legs,” he says.

“Three of them — Mahadhu, Babu Rao and Balaji — attacked me and I suffered knife injuries on my left shoulder. Our mother, who tried to save us, was also thrashed,” he continues. Akash wrote in the complaint that he called an autorickshaw and rushed Akshay to hospital. The doctors declared that his brother had been brought dead.

No permission for celebration

Bondhar Haveli is adjacent to National Highway 161. It has 1,700 residents who are either Scheduled Castes (Mahars) or Marathas. The Dalits of the village, around 500 of them, have always nurtured one dream: to celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti. This has remained an unfulfilled wish for decades because of the alleged opposition from the Maratha community. Denied of this right to honour their hero, the social reformer and chief draftsman of the Indian Constitution, the members of the community have walked, every year, to Nanded town, about 7 kilometres away, or to nearby villages.

Dalit leaders and residents of the village recall how their efforts to resist Maratha opposition to celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti six years ago worsened the long-standing feud between the two communities. It led to a clear division between Buddhist Colony, which is the Dalit basti, and the rest of the village.

“On the night of April 11, 2017, when the other villagers learned that the residents of Buddhist Colony were trying to obtain permission from the district administration to celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti, they suspended power supply and hurled stones at the houses. At least 20 Dalits were injured,” says Rahul Pradhan of the Yuva Panthers, a social organisation that seeks to combat caste discrimination.

Many villagers, including women and children, were injured that night, recalls Pradhan. “Over 100 people attacked the Dalit basti and damaged the Buddha Vihar, but cases were registered only against 19 people. Since then, there have been many atrocities. The Marathas abuse Dalits in the name of caste,” he alleges.

This year was different. Thanks largely to Akshay’s persistent efforts in seeking permission, the community was finally allowed to celebrate B.R. Ambedkar’s birthday. Several restrictions were imposed on the event, however, including a ban on the use of a music system and blue powder. Blue, it is said, was Ambedkar’s favourite colour. It was also the colour of the flag of the party floated by Ambedkar, the All-India Scheduled Castes Federation, in 1942, and has since come to be associated with the Dalit icon. Akshay, a member of the Vanchit Bahujan Aaghadi, a political party led by Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of Ambedkar, also helped plan the celebration.

On April 29, the residents embarked on a procession, waving blue flags. They hired a local band to play for the event. But the jubilation was short-lived, Pradhan says. “The police asked them to conclude the procession in just 30 minutes. They succumbed to pressure from the leaders of the dominant community. That left the Dalits deeply disappointed.”

A day later, Santosh and Datta questioned Akshay about the celebrations despite repeated warnings from the Marathas, says Akash. “They punched and slapped him multiple times. They warned him against trying to become a leader and said that it would cost him dearly.”

Since that day, Akshay became their “target,” Akash says. “They seemed to be waiting for the ‘right’ moment to teach him a lesson.”

A saffron and blue village

The houses of the Marathas in Bondhar Haveli village are adorned with flags of saffron, a colour that has become synonymous with India’s right wing, while the houses of the Dalits are marked with blue flags. The streets are festooned with both colours, serving as a constant reminder of the deep divide in the social fabric.

Police personnel are on patrol. Barricades have been strategically placed to restrict the entry of people between the two colonies and prevent retaliatory attacks.

Barricades in the village to restrict the entry of people between the two colonies and prevent any possible retaliatory attacks.

Barricades in the village to restrict the entry of people between the two colonies and prevent any possible retaliatory attacks. | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini

Open sewage lines meander through the Dalit colony, which lacks roads. A few Dalit homes are semi-pucca structures, but many others are on the brink of collapse. There is limited access to clean water. The residents allege that their demands are never heard at village committee meetings and a major share of the grants sanctioned for the village are used for the development of the Maratha colony, which is a stone’s throw away.

Akshay’s home is a semi-pucca house, located just a few metres away from the highway. Photos of B.R. Ambedkar and Gautama Buddha hang on the walls of the two small rooms, which have, for years, accommodated six family members: Vandana Bai and Shravan Bhalerao, and their four sons. A TV set stands in the corner.

Policemen stand in Akshay’s neighbourhood.

Policemen stand in Akshay’s neighbourhood. | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini

“Our whole lives are contained in these two rooms. We don’t have any other property. After my retirement, life became more difficult for us. I don’t get pension and my wife is a home-maker. Our sons earn, but very little. We don’t have proper water supply. We are not allowed to enter the upper colony (where the Marathas live) except when they call us for work,” says Santosh, a retired bus driver of the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation.

Vandana cannot believe that her son was killed simply for celebrating an event. “We are still searching for answers. Why was he subjected to such a heinous act?” she says, breaking down.

She implores the police to ensure capital punishment for the accused. But Shravan has little faith in the justice system. “I don’t think we are going to get justice. The entire official machinery seems to be under their control. The mastermind behind the murder is freely moving in our village. No charges have been filed against him since he holds a leadership position in the Shinde-led Shiv Sena,” he claims.

Members of the Maratha community believe that the incident has been unfairly given a caste and communal angle. They accuse Akshay of “creating nuisance” in an inebriated condition during the baraat.

“I was witness to the entire episode. Akshay was drunk and came to Kamaji’s kirana (provisions) shop for cigarettes. He came with a friend, not his brother. He saw the marriage procession and objected to the music. He said, ‘A DJ is allowed for your marriage procession, but not for Bhim Jayanti.’ And he started abusing everyone in filthy language,” says Govind Tidke, the president of Bondhar Haveli’s peace committee. Every village in Maharashtra has a peace committee to resolve internal disputes.

Govind’s sons, Krishna and Mahadhu, are two of the accused in the case. “I don’t want to comment on Akshay’s death, but as the chief of the peace committee, I can tell you that this was not a communal incident. The victim has a history of creating trouble. During Navaratri celebrations in 2021, he wielded a sword and tried to attack other participants. We have the video of his acts. Now they are calling it self-defence,” he says.

Govind Tidke believes that the incident has been unfairly given a caste and communal angle. His sons – Krishna and Mahadhu – are two of the accused in the case. 

Govind Tidke believes that the incident has been unfairly given a caste and communal angle. His sons – Krishna and Mahadhu – are two of the accused in the case.  | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini

The investigation

Based on Akash’s complaint, a case was registered against nine men under relevant Sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and the Arms Act, 1959. The police made eight arrests on the spot. One of the accused, Babu Rao, is still at large. A local court has issued a non-bailable warrant against him. His family has left the village. The police say teams have been formed to nab him.

The arrested were produced before a special court on June 2, which remanded them to seven days of police custody. While the Bhaleraos allege that Akshay’s murder was the outcome of years of discrimination, the police maintain that it was a spontaneous act.

Prima facie, it appears that the murder was spontaneous as the scuffle broke out between Akshay and others during a marriage procession. As of now, we haven’t established any conspiracy or communal angle to this incident. A case was registered based on the complaint, and a probe is on. We are questioning the accused and recording statements of the witnesses,” says an officer associated with the investigation.

When asked about the initial findings, Nanded Superintendent of Police Shrikrushna Kokate says, “I don’t want to jump to conclusions without a fair investigation. It is important for the Investigating Officer to conduct a probe without any bias.”

Relatives, politicians, Dalit activists, and residents of neighbouring villages have been paying visits to the family. Prakash Ambedkar accuses the police of trying to project the “wrong version” when this is a case of “class dominance”.

“The rich Marathas were unable to digest the celebrations of Bhim Jayanti,” he says. “It is a communal incident, which we denounce strongly. The police should invoke Section 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the IPC and action should be taken against all culprits, including those whose names are not included in the FIR.”

Prakash alleges that the murder, which “sheds light on the discrimination and oppression faced by the Dalit community,” was an attempt by the ruling Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party combine and the Opposition Congress to polarise votes.

Vandana says such acts of violence should not be tolerated or justified. Akshay was employed as a mechanic a few kilometres away from home. “He was always worried about our living conditions,” she says. “He was compassionate. He wanted to help everyone.”

While she seeks severe punishment for all those involved in her son’s murder, Vandana knows that no punishment can ever bring back her beloved boy. “His only ‘faults’ were his enthusiasm and the leadership he showed in organising those celebrations,” she says. “Celebrating Ambedkar Jayanti is our right.”

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