Bhayyalal Bhotmange was back again to the row of tamarind trees behind which he stood terrified weeks ago, watching his unclothed wife and daughter being tortured, and his two young sons being killed.
The attackers, who flushed the four bodies in a canal, were armed with axes on that September evening. On the December afternoon three months later, Bhotmange was armed with something more powerful - a new confidence that even in a country where social oppression often goes unpunished, a poor Dalit in a remote Maharashtra village would get justice.
The attackers, allegedly from the backward Kunbi caste, made Bhotmange the newest poster boy of India’s caste conflicts. A Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry is under way, editorials have been written about him, and he believes the response to his suffering will deter some perpetrators of violence.
“The traitors thought they would do anything they wanted and get away. But they will not,” Bhotmange, 50, said last week as he travelled again to his village with Hindustan Times journalists.
Forty-six people have been arrested in connection with the deaths.
Bhotmange stayed in hiding for weeks and currently lives with a relative. He is protected at all times by a policeman with an automatic weapon.
“I feel much stronger now. I feel I will get justice now,” he said, speaking haltingly. He is trying to rebuild his life: he has just got a job the government offered him as compensation, and sold his crop for Rs 41,000.
And yet, he declined to get off and walk, or roll down the tinted panes, when the car stopped at the entrance to the village, about 780 kilometres northeast of Mumbai. Dozens of policemen have been deployed in the village to prevent a caste flare-up, and Bhotmange watched silently from the car as police registered its entry into the village.
It is the village where Bhotmange grew up - where he has decided to never sleep again. “I will never be able to live here. It is all right, I can come for a few hours, and maybe I will soon sell my land,” he said. “You think I will ever feel safe here again?”
A land dispute — and the insistence of some of the accused villagers to use a path cutting through Bhotmange’s land — had provoked repeated village squabbles. But the tension flared after Bhotmange and his wife were named as witnesses to the severe beating of their family friend Siddharth Gajviye, apparently over a Rs 100 loan that he owed someone. Twelve people were arrested on September 29, and bailed the same day.
Within hours, they were seeking revenge, police say. They could not find Gajviye, and then allegedly stripped Bhotmange’s wife and daughter and assaulted them, and killed his sons. Bhotmange and rights groups allege the women were raped too, but medical tests are yet to confirm this.
The accused have denied the allegations.
“I was planning to buy a taxi for my daughter and elder son to run … She looked so smart in her NCC uniform,” Bhotmange said, referring to the National Cadet Corps.
He was in his fields nearby; he rushed back only to watch the massacre, terrified, from behind the trees. The trauma would not end there; the pictures of his nude family members soon appeared in posters inciting revenge, and on the Internet.
“I cannot sleep at night. I wake up. I cannot eat. My heart burns,” Bhotmange said. “It still runs like a film before my eyes.”