30 June 2020
On 27 May, Arvind Bansod, a Dalit social activist and a resident of Pimpaldhara village in Maharasthra’s Nagpur district died amid suspicious circumstances. According to Soniya Gajbhiye, a Nagpur based lawyer who is representing his family, Bansod was murdered by a group of men after they abused him with casteist slurs. The incident took place under the jurisdiction of the police station in Jalalkheda, a town in the Nagpur district. However, the Jalalkheda police initially treated the case as a suicide.
I spoke to Gajanan Raut, Bansod’s friend who was with him shortly before his death. Raut recounted the events of 27 May. “Arvind bhai and I were going to an ATM to withdraw money,” he said. “There is a village named Thadipawani at a distance of five kilometres. On the way, we met a woman who asked if we can book a gas cylinder for her. Arvind bhai agreed but we did not have the number. So, when we reached Thadipawani, I clicked pictures of the banner at a gas agency.” Raut said that a worker at the agency objected to him taking photos of the banner and snatched his phone. Bansod and Raut then walked into the gas agency’s office to ask for the phone to be returned. Mithilesh Umarkar, also known as Mayur, the owner of the gas agency, was seated in the office. Describing Mithilesh’s exchange with Bansod, Raut added, “Mayur said, ‘So you are Arvind Bansod. I have heard a lot about you. Now I finally met you.’ Arvind bhai told him to return the mobile.”
According to Raut, Mithilesh then began to address Bansod using casteist slurs. “He told Arvind bhaiya, ‘You are from Mahar caste. Do you want to become a leader? Let me see how. You don’t have the status,’” Raut said. Bansod continued to insist on getting Raut’s phone back. According to Raut, Mithilesh subsequently asked three friends, who were present in the office, to beat up the two of them. Raut said the abuses and beating continued for over half an hour. After they left the office, Raut asked Bansod to let the matter go. He then left the area to refill petrol on their vehicle. “I returned in a short while and saw him lying fallen down at the agency,” Raut said. He added that there was a bottle containing a poisonous substance lying nearby. According to the version of the Jalalkheda police, in the interval when Raut was absent, Bansod purchased a bottle of pesticide from a nearby shop and consumed it—a narrative strongly disputed by Raut and Bansod’s family.
Continuing his account, Raut told me that Mithilesh and his friends took Bansod in their vehicle, while refusing to let Raut join them. “I asked the man who took my mobile as to where he was being taken. He said they were taking him to the hospital. I returned to the village and informed his elder brother about what happened,” Raut said. Subsequently, Raut, along with two of Bansod’s brothers, went to the Jalalkheda primary health centre. However, they learnt that that Bansod had been referred to another hospital. Amidst the lookout for Bansod, they went to the Jalalkheda police station to register a complaint. Raut told me that the Deepak Dekate, the inspector in-charge did not take them seriously. “I told him the whole story. He said, ‘He has not died yet. Let him get treatment. We will see after he dies,’” Raut recalled. The three later found Bansod in an ambulance in Mithilesh’s company outside a hospital in Katol, a city and municipal council in Nagpur. From there, Raut was taken further to Nagpur. He was finally admitted at the government medical college in Nagpur. According to Raut, at 11 pm on 27 May, Bansod was put on ventilator support. He was declared dead on the morning of 29 May.
Bansod’s death did not receive any attention until a few days later. Gajbhiye attributes this to the remoteness of Pimpaldhara and the lack of internet connectivity there. Nilesh Mohite, the secretary of Dalit Youth Panthers, a Mumbai-based Dalit rights organisation, contacted Gajbhiye on 31 May, requesting her to meet with Bansod’s family. “On 2 June, I reached the village. It is a very small village with hardly 20 or 25 houses. His grandmother was there along with his father and two brothers,” she said. Referring to the Maharashtra Public Service Commission, she added, “He was preparing for his MPSC exams. In a couple of years, he could have become an officer. As soon as we stepped into his house, his family showed us his library.”
Gajbhiye was accompanied by members of her organisation called Bhimraj ki Beti, a civil society group working for marginalised communities including Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. “He was a Dalit activist who used to help everyone in the village,” she told me.
Initial reports regarding Bansod’s death had misidentified him as a member of the Vanchit Bahujan Aaghadi, a political party in Maharashtra. However, Raut confirmed that Bansod was not connected to any political party. On 9 June, Prakash Ambedkar, president of the VBA, released a video message alleging that the local police had falsely projected Bansod’s death as a suicide. He further claimed that Mithilesh is related to Anil Deshmukh, the Maharasthra home minister. The Caravan could not independently verify this. “The accused is a relative of the home minister,” Ambedkar said in the video. “We demand that the case be handed over to the CBI so that justice is done.” Mithilesh is a member of the local panchayat body from the ruling Nationalist Congress Party. Mithilesh’s father Bandopant Umarkar is the vice-president of the NCP’s Nagpur district unit. Meanwhile Deshmukh is the member of the legislative assembly from the Katol constituency, where the incident took place.
Gajbhiye echoed the demand for an enquiry by the central bureau of investigation. Referring to the Jalalkheda police, she added, “On the morning of the 29th, when Arvind Bansod died, they still refused to register a first information report.” She said the family took the body to the police station and said they will not take the body back until an FIR is filed. It is only after this that the police accepted the family’s complaint and agreed to file an FIR. The FIR, filed on 29 May, names Mithilesh Umarkar and “two friends of Mithilesh.” It is registered under sections 306 and 34 of the Indian Penal Code. Section 306 outlines punishment for “abetment to suicide,” while section 34 pertains to “a criminal act … done by several persons in furtherance of the common intention of all.”
Gajbhiye further noted that the three were not initially charged under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, or the Atrocities Act. “They did not add the charge under the Atrocity Act even though Gajanan Raut made a direct statement on 27th and 29th that they were addressed with casteist slurs and beaten up,” she said, alleging that the police concluded that it was a suicide without conducting an investigation on the spot. According to her, the police ignored the “casteism rivalry” between Mithilesh and Bansod—she believes the former resented Bansod’s popularity among the villagers.
“When I went around the village and spoke to people, they told me that the accused Umarkar exerted his power over the village,” Gajbhiye told me. “He already had a rivalry with the deceased because he was an activist in the Dalit community and could have risen as a leader someday. This murder happened because of their rivalries.”
Gajbhiye said that Mithilesh applied for anticipatory bail on 30 May and got interim bail on 2 June, despite abetment to suicide being a non bailable offence. On 8 June, the case was transferred to the Katol division of the Nagpur Rural Police. It is currently being investigated by Nagesh Jadhav, the deputy superintendent of police in the Katol division. On 10 June, the two friends of Mithilesh—Nayan Umarkar and Chandrashekhar Dhake—were arrested. According to Gajbhiye, the Nagpur Rural Police added charges under the Atrocities Act at a later stage because of “social pressure.”
On 14 June, I spoke with a police official at the Jalalkheda police station who initiated the investigation into the death. He discussed the case on the condition of anonymity. He maintained that Bansod’s death was a suicide. “There is a nearby shop which sells pesticide,” the police official said. “He bought it from there. He drank that and fell unconscious. We had seized the bill book of the shop on 27 May,” he said, claiming that all the necessary proceedings including the spot investigation was carried out on 27 May. When asked if the police had met Bansod to record his dying declaration, he replied, “Our station officers had gone to him but he was in an unconscious state. A sub-inspector and I also went later and he was still unconscious.” Raut said that a police inspector had arrived at the government medical college on the night Bansod was admitted there. On being informed that Bansod is on ventilator support, the inspector told Raut to inform the police when he regains consciousness.
When I raised the family’s concerns about possible pressure on the case because of Mithilesh’s political connections, the official told me, “You tell me, if he was so influential, would charges have been filed against him? Whoever it is, the law is the same for everyone.” He further claimed that the police registered the FIR under the Atrocities Act on 29 May.
On 19 June, Jadhav told me that the Nagpur Rural Police had appealed to overturn Mithilesh’s bail. “The bail was given by the court. We made an appeal. Still the order has not come from the court,” he said, referring to the pending decision regarding anticipatory bail for Mithilesh. I asked him if the police still believed this was a case of abetment to suicide. “Yes, right now,” Jhadav said. “The investigation is going on. Maybe after some facts are revealed, then the section will change. But right now, it is under 306 and 34.” He said that charges under the Atrocities Act were added on 8 June. “When they came at the police station at the beginning, we registered the offence under 306 and 34. Then we had done the complainant’s [section]164 statement in the court. That time, it revealed that he is from a certain community. So immediately, on 8th June, we applied the Atrocity Act.” A section 164 statement refers to a statement or confession recorded in the presence of a judicial or metropolitan magistrate. Jhadav added that the police had recorded statements of 14 eyewitnesses. He further noted that a post-mortem had been done on Bansod’s body and the result said “death due to poisoning.” On 30 June, the two arrested individuals were released on bail.
I also reached out to Bandopant Umarkar. Responding to the accusation of murder against his son he said, “The incident that happened is unfortunate. It should not have happened. No one escapes the law. The truth will be revealed and when it is revealed, if my son is involved, then he will receive punishment.” When asked if he was related to Deshmukh, Bandopant said, “Regardless of whether anyone is related to Anil Deshmukh or the CM or to anyone or to god, the law is the same for everyone.” He reiterated, “No one escapes the law. Even if it is the son of Anil Deshmukh himself, he cannot escape the law. What does it have to do with relations?” When pressed on what his relationship with Deshmukh is, he said, “I have been a worker with him since the beginning.” He added again, “If my son has done anything wrong under law, he will be punished.”
Gajbhiye has filed a petition in the Bombay High Court seeking a CBI enquiry and compensation for the family. “My petition will state that Dekate has not investigated the matter properly,” she said. Referring to the sections of the Indian Penal Code, she added, “Instead of 302, the case has been given the turn of 306.” Section 302 pertains to punishment for murder. Gajhbhiye continued, “There is a provision in the Atrocity Act that the family of the deceased should be compensated with 8.5 lakh rupees by the social welfare department,” she said. “Our Dalit community has lost a boy. We will demand that the state government should compensate the family with 50 lakh rupees. We will also demand that one family member should be given a government job, and Gajanan Raut and the deceased’s family should be given police protection.”
Referring to the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Nationalist Congress Party, Mohite said, “Regardless of whether the BJP or Congress or NCP is in power, murders of people of Dalit community have continued.” He added, “First of all, the police do not apply this act in the FIR. There is no proper investigation. Even further, in the court, the advocate opposes the victims. From police stations to courts, they are not ready to accept that a person faced injustice because of his SC or ST identity.”