The blockbuster Marathi film Sairat (Wild), rated as the most important film of 2016, has grossed Rs 80 crores in 29 days and is heading towards surpassing the Rs 100-crore magic figure. It is also rated as the highest grossing Marathi film of all time. However, amidst its phenomenal success, a campaign against its director Nagraj Manjule has been launched by the Akhil Bhartiya Maratha Mahasangh, accusing him of projecting their community in a negative light. “While ‘honour killing’ is a reality in many communities, Marathas are being singled out and deliberately targeted,” Rajendra Kondhare, its president, is reported to have remarked.
The film, which follows the formula of fatal love often seen in Hindi movies, is set in rural Maharashtra. The romantic involvement of a dalit youth and the daughter of a rich and influential zamindar meets its inevitable end. Nitish Nawsagare, a law professor at the reputed ILS Law College in Pune and a dalit rights activist, affirms that honour killing and brutal violence against a dalit youth who dares to fall in love with an upper caste girl is a regular occurrence. Most cases are not even registered as honour killings and conviction is rare as investigations get botched up due to the police-political-upper caste nexus.
Among the many cases that are being followed up by his organisation is the gruesome murder of a 17-year-old schoolboy, Nitin Agge, whose father is a daily wage labourer in Kharda village, Jamkhed taluka, Ahmednagar, in April 2014. He was dragged out from school and killed brutally by the brother of the girl, along with his friend and uncle, for speaking to an upper caste girl in his school. In October 21, 2014, a young boy along with his parents was brutally hacked to death in Javkhede Khalsa-Kasarwadi, in Ahmednagar, on the suspicion that the young boy Sunil Jadhav (19) was in an illicit relationship with a married woman in his neighbourhood.
In Janaury 2013, in Sonai, Ahmednagar, dalits from the Mehtar community working in educational institution owned by the relatives of the accused were killed because a sweeper, Sachin Gharu, was in love with an upper caste Maratha girl studying in the same college. The caste lines are so rigidly drawn among Marathas that even when a Maratha girl marries a brahmin she is not spared as the Kolhapur murder case, that occurred in December 2015, reveals. Megha Patil, who married Indrajit Kulkarni against the wishes of her family, was killed by her brothers.
When the landlady hearing shrieks from their apartment rushed to help, she was pushed aside by the assailants, who were fleeing the spot. She found the couple lying in a pool of blood with their throats cut. A scene similar to the one portrayed in Sairat. In May 2015, in Bodwad village of Jalgaon, a dalit wedding party attacked for playing Ambedkar songs by the dominant Maratha and Mali castes. Fourteen people were arrested and charged under the caste atrocities law.
However, the police also claimed the situation between the communities was tense as some dalit boys allegedly harassed women from the upper-caste community. So the boys who were attacked were charged with assault of women.
According to dalit activists, in every instance of caste atrocities, there is political pressure and usually there is a counter-case in an attempt to weaken the case of dalits. They add that for every hate crime that is widely reported, there are several others that find little or no place in the mainstream media.
In 2014, for the first time, the National Crime Records Bureau report “Crimes in India” listed murders under the category of “honour killings” and reported 28 such cases. While Madhya Pradesh tops the list with seven cases, Maharashtra comes a close second along with Punjab with five cases each. Neighbouring Karnataka recorded 13 honour killings since 2011, an indication of hardening social identities. So “honour killing” can no longer be viewed as a North Indian phenomenon.
In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court in May 2011 held honour killings as a slur on the nation and termed it a “barbaric, feudal practice” that ought to be stamped out. It directed the courts to view such cases in “rarest of rare” category for awarding the death penalty. But convictions in honour killing cases are extremely rare and most accused are able to go scot-free by exerting economic and political influence over the local investigating machinery.
While honour killing was one of the issues flagged for discussion at the recent consultation for women lawyers held in Pune (June 1-3) where around 50 lawyers from 10 districts attended it, another disturbing trend that was discussed was virginity tests by caste panchayats. Advocate Ranjana Gawande of the Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti described the hold local panchayats have over women and their sexuality.
A 22-year-old girl’s marriage was forcibly annulled because the husband reported to panchayat members that the white bedsheet that was spread on the bridal night did not have any bloodstains. The panchayat concluded that the girl was a “khota maal” (tainted commodity). When the girl and her mother wanted to file a police complaint, the father locked them up in a room. Despite all this, the girl was willing to take virginity test, where she would have to run naked covered by a white cloth of a metre and a half while hot balls of wheat flour (atta) would be thrown at her to prove her.
Another issue that was discussed was the high rate of child marriage among these and other castes. The report indicates child marriage among Hindus is far more rampant than among Muslims, though Muslim law is not codified and the age at which marriage is permitted is when the girl attains maturity. It appears that codification of Hindu laws has not had any impact on them.
Another Hindu custom which was discussed at length was the revival of the devadasi ritual in Maharashtra-Karnataka border areas. While due to the legislation, campaign and strict monitoring, the cases of dedication of young girls had declined, there is a recent revival bolstered up by the extreme drought that the entire area is suffering which is the worse drought in recent areas. The only way these poverty-stricken families belonging to the lower caste can stay afloat is to sell their daughters’ virginity.
They made a telling comment to the reporter: “We cannot sell our fallow cows, so we have no choice but to sell our daughters.” The choice was easy for a community which does not see a way out of their miserable conditions except to put the virginity of their daughters on sale. Their men have no source of earning and women have to support their families by selling themselves either as devadasis or prostitutes.
In another incident that occurred in February 2012, Asha, an MSW graduate who was working in KEM Hospital, was killed as she expressed her wish to marry a boy from a lower caste, to her father in the village. The same night, the father hacked her to death when she was asleep and then surrendered himself to the police. Honour killings, devadasis, virginity tests, dowry deaths and domestic violence — the stark reality of extreme brutality facing Hindu women across castes and tribes in Maharashtra is captured in these words.