Four days after she was beaten up, stripped and paraded in her own village, 42-year-old Dalit widow Rekha Arun Chavan wonders if she would have lived a life of more dignity had she been born in an upper caste. Rekha was assaulted because her son Amol allegedly eloped with a Maratha girl Anita Desai from Mulgaon village in Karad, Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan‘s hometown. Relatives of the girl confessed to The Hindu that they had indeed beaten her up.
Bai aahe ka kutri? Am I woman or a dog to be beaten up like that,” Rekha asked this correspondent while she lay in a bed on Friday afternoon in Karad’s Krishna Hospital. “About 12 persons of the Desai family assaulted me for one and a half hours. They called me names and swore at me for being from a lower caste. Would they have tortured me the same [way] had I not been a Dalit,” she asked. She had no clue about her 22-year-old son Amol’s relationship with 17-year-old Anita, their neighbour.
“What was wrong?”
Speaking to The Hindu in Mulgaon village, where the incident happened, Anita’s cousin Bhimrao Desai said, “What is wrong? How would anyone else react if their daughter had run away with a lower caste man?”
So far, five persons from the Desai household have been arrested in the case, and are under police custody.
The Desais are Marathas. According to Rekha, the village always lives in fear of the Marathas. Nobody speaks against them. There are about 25 Dalit families, and 100 Maratha families, she said. “When I was being beaten up, everyone just watched. They want to live safely in the village,” she said, showing the black and blue marks on the thighs, back and hands. Rekha said she had been ostracised by the villagers, even from her community, on the orders of the Marathas. She owns a small provision store. She lost her husband 22 years ago.
Like every village in Maharashtra, Mulgaon also boasts a ‘Tanta Mukti Samiti’ (committee to resolve disputes) under the much talked about Mahatma Gandhi Tanta Mukti Gaon Yojana (dispute-free village scheme). A dispute like this should have been identified and resolved at the village level. However, as Bhimrao Desai reveals, the head of the committee is also from the Desai community. “When things are going wrong in your own house, what can the committee do,” he asks.
Rekha’s son left the house stating that he was going to Pune for a job. “He left on December 13. I haven’t heard of him since,” she said. Anita went missing a day after. Since then, Rekha was threatened repeatedly. Her nephew Sharad and sister-in-law Surekha were also beaten up. While Sharad has lodged a police complaint, Surekha was too scared to take the step. It is also perhaps a sense of guilt that stopped her. “Amol had told me before leaving. He wanted me to give his mobile phone to Anita and help her hide her bag, I had conveyed the message to her,” Surekha said.
When attempts to get the information about her son from her relatives failed, the Desais targeted her, Rekha says. I kept begging them to leave me, and I repeatedly told them that I didn’t know about his whereabouts. But nobody listened. Both the men and women were merciless,” she stated.
In Mulgaon, though, there is a sense of acceptance of the atrocity. “Such things [inter-caste marriages] can happen in cities, but even we don’t feel good that it is happening in our own village,” Eknath Chavan, also a Dalit, said. “We know it is permitted by law but we cannot be OK with it,” he said.
Rekha’s neighbour Samabai Chavan, who was one of the eyewitnesses, said: “I tried to stop them. She held on to my feet while they were beating her with sticks.” According to Samabai, Rekha went to the hospital alone after being assaulted. Nobody from the village has gone to visit Rekha in the hospital. “She is paying for what she has done. We have to do our own work,” Eknath Chavan says nonchalantly.
In the hospital, Rekha’s 70-year-old mother Gayabai Sathe asks, “What has my daughter done? How will she go back and live in her house?”
Says Rekha: “I want to prove to them that I cannot be scared away. I will go back to my house in the village and live with dignity.”
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