Last week, protests erupted across Maharashtra alleging police inaction and casteism by Government medical officers in an incident of gang-rape and subsequent death of a 19-year old Dalit woman. The alleged rape happened in the Chembur area of Mumbai, and a case has been filed against 4 accused at the Chunabhatti police station. After major protests by Dalit-Bahujan-Buddhist groups, an FIR was lodged against Chunabhatti police station’s inspector Deepak Surve under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, accusing him of hurling casteist slurs against the complainants and barring them from the police station. However, not a single arrest has been made by the police so far. “When an upper caste woman in Delhi is murdered the whole nation riles up, but when our women are killed the rage is confined only to our communities,” said the victim’s brother. A GroundXero report.
According to the family members GX spoke to, on 7th July the victim had gone to meet her friends in Mumbai during the morning hours. She hails from a village near Aurangabad, and was visiting her brothers’ family settled in Mumbai. When she came back to her brother’s place at around 10 in the night, her voice was muffled and she felt extremely weak. “She slept almost continuously for the next 2 days – intermittently waking up for food. She also had fever. When we took her to the family doctor, she complained that her vision was hazy. She had also become very weak, and was not being able to move one hand and one leg,” her family members told GX. Her relatives in Mumbai thought she had a paralytic attack. They took her back to her parents in Aurangabad. After a few more rounds of treatment by the family doctor there, when her condition didn’t improve, she was taken to the Government Medical College and Hospital in Aurangabad on 25th July. The doctors there conducted a full checkup, and said that she had been drugged and gang-raped. The doctors called the Begumpura police and filed a medico-legal case on 26th July.
The harassment began right after this. The doctors accused the parents of the victim of delaying her treatment in order to cover up the incident of rape. The Chief Medical Officer, one Dr. Joshi – a Brahman doctor – asked the parents which caste they belong to. At this some of the local men, who had accompanied the old parents to the hospital, took offense and asked the doctors if the treatment was contingent upon the caste of the patient. Meanwhile the health of the victim was deteriorating. As the news of how the hospital authorities were treating the patient spread, several local social organisations staged demonstrations outside the hospital demanding proper medical treatment of the victim. After this, the patient was shifted to the ICU.
Meanwhile, the doctors at the Hospital shifted from their original conclusion of rape, and started making different statements, first claiming that the victim had HIV from childhood, and then that she was now in the IVth stage of the disease. When family members asked the doctors how someone could directly reach stage IV of HIV, without showing any symptoms all these years, they got no replies. They were also not given copies of the relevant medical reports.
The victim was at the Government Hospital for a month. For almost a week, she was kept at the general ward of the hospital without proper treatment. “She would cry and yell uncontrollably from the pain in her body,” said her brother. After the initial round of protests, she was finally shifted to the ICU, where she started showing signs of recovery. The hospital authorities however kept on trying to evict the patient from the hospital. Joshi was not alone, almost the entire team of doctors led by him was allegedly deployed to harass the victim and her relations. “They said, till how long will we keep this gandagi [dirt] here? She will anyway die today or tomorrow. Take her home!”, the victim’s brother told GX, speaking of how the doctors led by Joshi spoke of the patient. They had also prepared her discharge certificate. Several senior doctors also tried convincing the family members to shift her to a private hospital. “Why won’t a Government Hospital take the responsibility of a patient like this who has been a victim of society? How can a doctor describe his patient as ‘dirt’? Even if it were a case of HIV, Government rules say such information must be kept confidential because of the social stigma around the disease. But these doctors kept giving public statements, including to the media, declaring the victim as an HIV patient,” a cousin of the victim, Vikas Shinde, told GX. “And even if she had HIV, the doctors themselves had concluded initially that the victim had been raped and informed the police and filed the case. What happened to that medical analysis then?” he added. The doctors are now saying that the allegation of rape was made by the family members and not by the doctors themselves – a complete fabrication by the doctors at the hospital. After the first week of August, when the brothers and cousins of the victim came back to Mumbai to follow up on the police case, the hospital authorities allegedly stopped proper treatment again. 10 days later the victim passed into a coma, and on 28th August she passed away. The victim’s brother was meanwhile barred from the Chunabhatti police station in Mumbai where the case had been registered. “I was too scared to go back to the police officers. The authorities might have assumed that the matter will get covered up, and therefore slacked on her treatment,” said one of the family members GX spoke to. The parents of the victim were not allowed to see her at the ICU. With younger members of the family caught up with pursuing the police case in Mumbai, the ageing parents had no way to closely monitor the health of their daughter at the Aurangabad hospital.
On 30th July, a case of rape was formally registered at the Begumpura police station against the 4 accused men. On 2nd August, the case papers reached Chunabhatti PS in Mumbai. On 3rd, Inspector Shirke from Chunabhatti PS went to Aurangabad to conduct enquiries. The police officer spent 27-28 hours recording statements of the family members of the victim. She accused the father of the victim of raping his daughter. The entire police investigation was focused on shielding the accused, and shifting the charges on the family members of the victim. Because of this harassment, and allegations of him having raped her daughter, the father of the victim even tried killing himself. Her mother has fallen sick, and taken to the bed.
However, police interrogation of the family members continued. The family members were asked to respond to questions only with a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’. They were forcefully prevented from giving elaborate answers to any of the questions they were being asked. Based on this, the police put together some statement in the name of the parents of the victim. The final written statement wasn’t shown to the parents, neither was their signature taken on the draft. Copy of the statement has still not been given to the family or its lawyers.
At the Chunabhatti PS meanwhile, Station Inspector Madhav More was on leave, and was replaced by a police officer called Deepak Surve on deputation from Kurla PS. The brother of the victim went to the Chunabhatti PS on 8th August, asking about the follow up on the rape case. “Who told you there has been a rape?” Inspector Surve asked him. The police officer kept insisting that it was a medical case of HIV, and that there had been no rape. And at this point, he also hurled casteist slurs against the brother who was one of the complainants, and pushed him out of the police station. Family members of the victim were not allowed to enter the police station by Inspector Surve for a month after this. No action was taken against the accused by the police, even though the complainants had provided them with all the details of the accused, including the record of calls and messages the accused made to the victim on her phone, after the incident. Being barred from the police station, the complainants then took to writing letters and petitions to the top police officials in the state. On 28th August, the victim died in the hospital.
On 29th August, protests erupted across the spate – particularly in Mumbai and Aurangabad. Faced with mass protests, the Assistant Commissioner of Police went on record to claim that they had picked up the prime accused within days of filing of the FIR, but had to let him go because of “lack of evidence”. This was again a flip from the stand the police had taken till now – that there was no rape, and that it was a case of HIV. “If you had caught the accused, why didn’t you produce him in front of the victim for identification, given that she was still alive then?” asked the family members. No documents were shown to the complainants or their lawyers that would validate the claim of the police that the accused had been brought to the PS. No medical examination record from the accused was produced either.
Meanwhile, the Begumpura (Aurangabad) police forcibly conducted a post-mortem on the victim, and then burnt her body, in the absence of the family members. The family had demanded that the post-mortem should be conducted either at AIIMS or JJ Hospital – they did not trust the Aurangabad Hospital with the post-mortem since by this time it was clear that the hospital authorities were trying all they could to cover up the case. The State Women’s Commission Chairperson Vijaya Rahate had assured the complainants that the post-mortem would not be conducted by the medical officers that the family did not have faith in . But none of these assurances were kept.
On 1st September, the police took the body to the cremation ground and burned it. The parents were threatened with arrest if they tried interfering with whatever the police were doing. . They then took videos of the body being cremated, and showed it to the parents. “My question is, why did they burn her body?! What evidence did they want to destroy?”, asked her brother, Ganesh Shinde. The family had earlier told the Commissioner of Police that they wanted to bring the body, following the post-mortem, to Mumbai on the 1st of September. Union home minister and BJP President Amit Shah was to attend the concluding rally of chief minister Devendra Fadnavis’ Mahajanadesh Yatra around that time, and the family suspects that the police cremated the body in a hurry to avoid major demonstrations and protests. “They wouldn’t want to risk a Maharashtra shut down by the Buddhist samaaj,” they told GX. “This is the same reason they did not allow the post mortem to happen at Mumbai because they know that our communities would show up at the hospital with candles and posters, there would be protest dharnas, black flags would be shown at the rallies of politicians who are trying to get elected” he later added. The complainants or their lawyer still don’t have a copy of the post-mortem report, neither do they or their lawyers have access to the video recordings of the post-mortem process.
The protests swelled. Anti-caste and Buddhist organisations held numerous protests across the state. Enraged protestors shut down the Eastern Freeway in Mumbai, bringing a huge bulk of city-bound traffic to a standstill. Many protestors were detained in Mumbai, Solapur, Nanded. Several powerful politicians and activists, including those from Sharad Pawar’s NCP, joined the protests. NCP leader Surpiya Sule remarked that the police were clearly lying about their ‘investigation’. Mumbai’s Commissioner of Police and Chairperson of the Women’s Commission both came down to the Chunabhatti PS and set up a committee to look into the allegations and demands of the complainants. However, till now the police haven’t taken any action on the accused.
The prime accused had made 53 calls to the victim’s mobile phone number on the night of hte incident, according to her brother. He alleged that one of the messages sent on 8th July (the day after the incident of rape) asked whether the victim had disclosed “what had happened the day before” to her brothers. “It is against our beliefs to check the phones of our sisters or anyone else in the family. But on 26th July when we got to know she had been raped, I checked her phone for messages and calls to find out who was responsible for this. The police kept trying to prevent me from accessing her phone, but I have the screenshots,” said her brother. One of the victim’s friends also called the accused, asking him to come down to Aurangabad because the victim had fallen sick. He reportedly said he wouldn’t come, and that he was smart enough to know why they were trying to get him to Aurangabad, and that he had no intentions of getting beaten up.
The police on the other hand has claimed that the examination of mobile phone data of the accused suggests that he was not at the site at the time of the alleged rape. The complainants have disputed these claims, and said that they will challenge the police version in court.
But why are the police not taking action?
Though the exact reasons for the police inaction are still being speculated, the family members of the victim listed out several possible causes. Other than casteism – both in the medical and law enforcing apparatus – that is amply reflected in the above sequence of events, there are a few other concerns.
The State Assembly elections in Maharashtra are to be held in October, and the family fears that it is because of political fallouts that those in power are reluctant to act. More than shielding the accused, the family suspects that given the turn of the case and the mass protests, it has now become a question of shielding the concerned police officers and doctors at the Government hospital. “Those Govt hospital doctors are now totally entangled in this cover-up, and would now want to save themselves,” said one of the family members. They have demanded the call data records of the concerned doctors. They suspect that the doctors were in touch with concerned politicians in the state who want to keep the case under the rugs.
If the doctors and the police officials involved in this case acted out their casteism through active efforts to sabotage the enquiries and treatment, mainstream media – another institution dominated by forces of caste and money power – has done their part through biased and inaccurate reporting, and through silence. While some reports added the usual ‘masala’ when it comes to such incidents – such as how the victim partied and cut cakes [unsubstantiated] before she was raped, some were even more problematic. For instance, this report where it says “However, it was only in the third week of July when she complained of severe pain in her private parts that she was taken to the hospital” – a completely false claim according to the family members’ accounts. Most reports maintained complete silence over the deep-rooted institutional casteism that this entire episode reeks off, while writing volumes about NCP’s involvement in the protests and their spokespersons’ bytes – aiming to inflate TRPs by converting this into a NCP-BJP match as the state approaches Assembly elections. One report even claimed that since the family did not want to accept the body after the post mortem, the police had to cremate it – an utterly false claim, as per the family’s accounts. No mention was made about the casteism perpetrated on the victim and her family by doctors at a Government hospital. The police inaction got some coverage, mainly because of the protests that led to filing of Prevention of Atrocities case on Inspector Surve. “We have gone through all the reports published in this case so far, and none of them have brought out the true nature of events. I personally flagged ten such stories and complained to the respective media outlets about the inaccuracies and falsities,” Vikas Shinde, one of the victim’s cousins, told GX.
“This fire can’t be doused”
“Ye aag bujhnewaali nahi hai,” said Ganesh Shinde, the victim’s brother. The complainants want immediate actions on the accused, and on concerned doctors and police officials. But other than Inspector Surve, against whom an FIR has been filed under SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, no one else has been booked. The family primarily wants legal action to be taken against Dr. Joshi, Inspector Shirke and the police officers who were responsible for cremating the 19-yeal old’s body without her family’s consent. “If we are denied justice this time, there will be Maharashtra wide agitation,” they said. They have accused the State Government of failing in its Constitutional duties. “According to Section 3 of the SC/ST PoA Act, it is the responsibility of the Government to file a case against the accused, on behalf of the victim. The Government is supposed to listen carefully to us and take proper suo motu action as the complainant. We are only supposed to be witnesses. But in this case, not only did they not do any such thing but in fact they have tried all they can to derail the investigation,” said the aggrieved family members.
But for now, they are preparing for the court case proceedings. The complainants have been provided with temporary police protection. Ganesh Shinde said his life is under threat since he has launched a fight against powerful people in the state, including police officers, government medical officers and politicians. “Jab tak protection hai mai zinda hu, protection khatam ho gaya toh mujhe maar diya jayega aur uska jimmedar police department hoga [Till I have protection I am alive, I will be killed as soon as the protection is taken off, and the Police department will be responsible],” he told GX. “Jab Delhi ki uchch varna ki ladki ko maara jaata hai toh wo poora desh ka ladki ho jaati hai, lekin jab humare ladki ko maara jaat hai wo bas humari jaati ki ho ke reh jaati hai [When an upper caste woman in Delhi is murdered the whole nation riles up, but when our women are killed the rage is confined only to our communities],” said Vikas Shinde referring to the Nirbhaya agitation. “We are Ambedkarites, and our struggle is to change this,” he added.
Two days back, Ganesh Shinde’s wife’s mobile phone was snatched away by some unknown person. Though it is not clear whether this is connected with their ongoing struggle for justice, the family suspects foul play. They are being constantly tracked, and suspect that powerful lobbies are trying to use such tactics to destroy evidence [screenshots, call records, etc.,that the family members have kept on their own mobile phones for the legal case] and build pressure and fear.