Excerpt: Chapter on the blinding of the Gavai brothers from Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History
On 26 September 1974, a barbaric act was committed in Dhakli village of Akola district. The eyes of two brothers were gouged out for resisting injustice. The incident did not receive the attention it deserved till I called a press conference in Mumbai on 25 January 1975. The residents of the village had justified the act and created an impression that two local goons had been punished. They failed to see that even if the two men had indulged in a criminal act, they had no authority to take the law into their own hands and mete out punishment. Nobody bothered to find out whether they were really criminals and what their crime was.
I was confronted with this horrific incident in the third week of January, when I was on a regular visit to the Siddharth Vihar hostel at Wadala. Three people from Akola district – Nana Rahate, D.N. Khandare and V.T. Adakne – were waiting for me. The Gavai brothers from Dhakli village had accompanied them. The people of the village had gouged out the eyes of both the brothers. There were 125 houses in the village, 45 of which belonged to the Gavais and their relatives. The Gavais were not in a minority. The “police patil” – the liaison of villagers with the police – of the village was Shaligram Shinde, who was rich and used to intimidate fellow villagers. His only son, Uddhavrao, had spread a reign of terror, assuming that his father’s position was a licence to commit injustice. Uddhavrao used to intimidate women working on his farm and compel them to have sexual intercourse with him.
Gopal Nathu Gavai and his brother Babruvahan Nathu Gavai were agricultural labourers and Gopal’s 16-year-old daughter Ginyanabai also use to work as a farm labourer. While she was working in the fields of Shaligram Shinde, Uddhavrao made sexual advances towards her and promised her that he would marry her. She fell into his trap and became pregnant. When Gopal came to know about it, he and his brother Babruvahan went to Shaligram and urged him to ask his son to marry the girl. Little did the Gavai brothers know that when a woman is raped, she is just a woman, but when it comes to marriage, other things like her caste, religion and economic status matter.
Shaligram not only rejected their demand but also booked the Gavai brothers for intimidating him and prosecuted the girl for concocting the story of rape. The court acquitted the Gavai brothers and the girl of the charges filed against them. It infuriated the police-patil and his son. Their caste pride was hurt. On 26 September, the police-patil called the Gavai brothers to his house. When the brothers reached the house, 20 goons of the police-patil attacked them. It was pre-planned. R.T. Patil, the police officer of the Pinjar Police Station, which had jurisdiction over Dhakli village, had already given Shaligram his approval for the attack. The goons overpowered the Gavai brothers. Nine of them sat on the brothers, while the others gouged out their eyes using a sharp instrument. As the victims bled profusely and groped around in the darkness they had just entered, they could hear Shaligram’s words, “You want justice? Take this justice.”
Dhakli village is about 30 km from the Akola town and the victims could not get any local transport or even a bullock cart to reach the government hospital, because the police-patil had terrorized the entire area. The wives of the victims took them to the Pinjar Police Station but the police personnel refused to register the offence. They even drove them away. The Gavai brothers were admitted to hospital in Akola the next day. The accused in the case were Shaligram Shinde, Uddhavrao Shaligram Shinde, Bhimrao Kaple, Namdeo Jadhav, Tarasingh Vanjari, Motiram Ingle, Bandu Ingle, Sudam Jadhav and Manik Gavande. The incident was reported in the local newspapers with the headline, “Criminals punished by villagers”.
The activists of Dalit Panther, including Nana Rahate, D.N. Khandare and V.T. Adakne, tried to secure justice for the brothers with the help of Baban Lavhatre in Nagpur. Their efforts were futile, because the district collector and the deputy superintendent of police parroted the story provided by the local police. The Deputy Inspector General of Amravati, too, endorsed the report of the local police, thereby depriving the Gavai brothers of justice.
When possibilities of justice appeared bleak, Rahate, Khandare and Adakne left for Mumbai on 19 January 1975, and reached Siddharth Vihar, Wadala. After meeting them, I felt that approaching newspapers should be our priority rather than visiting top police officials or ministers. But, would the newspapers publish the news if I sent a press release to them? I wasn’t sure, so I called a press conference. I was clueless about holding a press conference because I had always relied on issuing press releases. After making enquiries, I came to know about the locations where press conferences were held. While I was booking a conference room for holding the press conference, I was asked what would be the menu for the journalists. That is when I found out that journalists had to be given something to eat and drink during a press conference.
Then I visited newspaper offices to invite their representatives for the press conference. On 25 January 1975, I reached the venue along with the Gavai brothers. I had told only a few colleagues, including Raja Dhale, about it because I did not want the expenses to mount. I did not carry a written statement. When the press conference began, I asked Gavai brothers to narrate their nightmare to the reporters. Gopal Gavai was one of our members and also a volunteer of the Samata Sainik Dal. After Gopal and his brother narrated their ordeal, photographers took their photos. Shocked by the incident, some reporters went away without eating anything.
The next day, on 26 January 1975, The Times of India published photographs of Gavai brothers and their horrifying story. It was the Republic Day and Jaiprakash Narayan was going to address a public meeting in Shivaji Park. Speaking at the meeting, he cited the plight of the Gavai brothers to illustrate how exploitative the Congress rule was. Since Jaiprakash Narayan condemned the incident, some newspapers that had not published it on the first day, took it up on the third or fourth day.
Nava Kaal, the newspaper, had carried the news the day after the press conference on the front page with the headline, “Village patil’s barbaric act of gouging out the eyes of two Buddhists”. The news report mentioned our demand, too. Since the victims had become visually handicapped for life, we had demanded that the Maharashtra government bear the responsibility of looking after their needs for the rest of their lives. Else, we said, the victims would go on an indefinite hunger strike in front of chief minister Naik’s residence. The Maharasthra Times newspaper prominently displayed the story with a photograph and also wrote an editorial piece under the title “Amanush” (inhuman), demanding an enquiry into why the guilty hadn’t been arrested for two months and calling for punitive measures against the police personnel concerned, including their dismissal. It also suggested imposing a fine on the entire village since not a single villager had come to the rescue of the victims. The Maratha published an editorial with the headline “Kevdhe Hay Krourya” (What a barbaric act), pointing out that though the chief minister had granted Rs 1,000 as relief to the victims as was his duty, it would have been in the fitness of things if immediate action were taken against the guilty. The editorial also noted that the case would have been hushed by the government machinery but for the expose in Mumbai.
After newspapers reported the incident, some organizations and political parties came forward to condemn the government. S. Balakrishnan, an MLA of RPI’s Khobragade faction, demanded a compensation of Rs 25,000 for the victims for the loss of their eyes. He also took a dig at R.S. Gavai, who was the deputy chairman of the legislative council, by saying that it was not a matter of pride for Gavai that the incident had been hushed up till it came to light in Mumbai. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh, too, jumped on the bandwagon, with the secretary of its Mumbai unit, Baban Kulkarni, demanding an immediate enquiry and severe punishment to those responsible. He also wrote to the chief minister saying that volunteers of Jana Sangh were ready to donate eyes to the victims. This was a strange offer because the doctors had already ruled out the possibility of eye replacement.
When chief minister Vasantrao Naik offered a compensation of Rs 1,000 to the Gavai brothers for the loss of their eyes, an infuriated Raja Dhale, while speaking at a public meeting in Siddharth Colony, Chembur, said that if someone gouged out the chief minister’s eyes, he was willing to pay Rs 1,000 to the chief minister as compensation. It was highly unbecoming of a chief minister, who was also holding the home portfolio, to trivialize this horrific injury. Apart from the announcement of Gavai brothers’ agitation, many organizations like the Yuvak Kranti Dal said they were going to march to the chief minister’s residence. That was when government issued an order banning assembly or processions in the Malabar Hill area.
Meanwhile, Indira Gandhi’s visit to Mumbai was announced. The Mumbai police used to chase me whenever VVIPs like the president or the prime minister were going to visit Mumbai. The possibility of agitations by Dalit Panthers on such occasions would make them jittery. I usually had cordial relations with police officials, but on such occasions, I would remain aloof. A day before Prime Minister Gandhi’s visit to Mumbai, I was required to appear at the Naigaon court and could not avoid meeting police officials from the Special Branch-I and the CID. Before they met me in the court, I had asked Ramdas Athawale to issue a public statement that the Gavai brothers planned to commit suicide by jumping in front of the prime minister’s car.
When the statement reached newspaper offices, the police came to know about it immediately, for some journalists are police informers. A posse of policemen came to meet me in the Naigaon court. They wanted to know the whereabouts of the Gavai brothers and when exactly they planned to end their lives. They were probably thinking of shifting the Gavai brothers to an undisclosed place as a preventive measure. I told the police officials that after finishing my business at the court, I would look out for the Gavai brothers and get the information.
Balachandran, a deputy commissioner of police, and Mokashi, an assistant commissioner of police, told me that they were willing to arrange for the Gavai brothers to meet the prime minister if they gave up their suicide plan. I told them that since the crime was so barbaric, it was not within my means to dissuade the Gavai brothers from their plan. The police were in a dilemma. If Gavai brothers were arrested, they would vent their ire to the newspapers, and if they were left untouched, they might let themselves be run over by the prime minister’s car. Finally, Balachandran agreed to arrange for the Gavai brothers, Raja Dhale and me to meet Mrs Gandhi. Balachandran agreed to escort us to the visitors’ lounge at the airport.
Dhale and I had gone to meet my brother Tukaram Pawar, who lived in the Central Public Works Department’s quarters near the airport. From there, we proceeded to our first meeting with a prime minister. On 1 February 1975, when she alighted from the aircraft, she was led to the place where we were waiting, along with the chief minister, his Cabinet colleagues, the director general of police, the police commissioner of Mumbai and other officials. She expected us to courteously fold our hands when she approached us. We did not. When she folded her hands, I told her, pointing to the Gavai brothers, “See with your own eyes, what king of atrocities are being committed in your rule.” She was enraged at my behaviour and asked, “Yeh raj(ya) kya tumhara nahi hein?’ (Is this not your rule/state, too?). I fearlessly told her, “No. This kind of injustice is done in your rule alone.” I was using the word “raj” to mean “rule” while she probably heard “rajya” or “state” (of Maharashtra). For about four minutes, I vented my anguish, before Chief Minister Naik interrupted to introduce Raja Dhale to her: “This is Raja Dhale,” he said. He probably wanted to tell her that Dhale was the same person who had written a controversial article about the national flag. But Dhale would have none of it. He snapped at the chief minister and asked him to allow me to continue my conversation with the prime minister. I picked up where I left off and told her about the whole incident. The Gavai brothers narrated their ordeal and asked for justice.
This visit of Mrs Gandhi turned out to be different. When she heard about the barbaric act and looked into the eye sockets of the victims, her eyes were filled with tears. She immediately asked the chief minister to conduct a thorough enquiry into the incident. I raised my voice and said, “We don’t trust the Maharasahtra government. If an investigation is to be held, let it be done by the Central Bureau of Investigation. Maharashtra government is an enemy of Dalits.” I gave a memorandum to Mrs Gandhi, who accepted it and handed it over to her personal assistant. When I was going to give the chief minister a copy of the memorandum, he tried to avoid receiving it. When Mrs Gandhi saw it, she shouted at him, “He is giving a memorandum to you and you are not even accepting it. If you behave like this, these people will go against you.” Naik had no choice but to accept it. She turned and walked away, touching her eyes with the end of her saree. We returned in a police vehicle with the satisfaction that we were able to present the case of Gavai brothers in person to the prime minister. She went on to announce compensation for the victims.
On 2 February 1975, all the newspapers prominently displayed the news of the Gavai brothers meeting the prime minister. I received a message from the police that the chief minister wanted to meet the Gavai brothers. I, along with the brothers, went to the Sachivalaya and met the chief minister. The meeting was just a formality. The real meeting was to be held in the office of the minister of state for home, Ratnappa Kumbhar, where Home Secretary Padmakar Gavai, Director General of Police Rajyadhyaksha and Deputy Chairman of the Legislative Council R.S. Gavai were present. Kumbhar took the details of the case from Gopal Gavai and asked him what his expectation was. His secretary and the home secretary were taking notes.
After we finished, RS Gavai asked me to send the Gavai brothers to his house for dinner, saying that around 25 people dined at his house daily. I had actually expected him to say that he would arrange for a debate on the issue in the legislative council. So, I was irritated and said that I was unaware that he had opened a dining service, or else I would have sent all the needy people to his house. He was not expecting such a reaction. He always used to carry a box full of paan (betel leaves) and chewed paan regularly, whether he was in the legislature building or outside. Whenever confronted with an uncomfortable situation, he had the habit of opening the box and stuffing his mouth with paan, to avoiding further conversation. He did just that.
Just then, Home secretary Padmakar Gavai conveyed a message that I should take the victims to Madhukar Gavai, the deputy inspector general of CID. The Mumbai police offered a vehicle for transport but I declined. Many government employees waiting outside Kumbhar’s office had saluted me with a “Jai Bhim” on my way in. It was my responsibility to show them that I was not taking any favours from the government.
We reached Madhukar Gavai’s office. He was waiting for us. He insisted on us having tea despite my refusal. I told him about the incident, the attitude of the local police officials and their reports on the incident. I requested him to conduct a fresh enquiry. Madhukar Gavai was the brother of Home Secretary Padmakar Gavai, who had apparently issued some orders, because the government machinery swung into action. Subsequently, the report submitted by the local police turned out to be false, prompting angry reactions from various organizations, political parties and newspapers. The DIG, Amravati, a Patil, had no option but to submit the true report to Madhukar Gavai, also a DIG.
The investigation into the case took a new turn and on 4 February, the chief minister announced that deputy chief of the state police himself was investigating the incident. Kumbhar announced the suspension of Inspector Patil, who was in charge of the Pinjar Police Station, to avoid any possible interference during the fresh investigation. The case was revised and the accused were charged under new sections of the Indian Penal Code for stricter punishment.
The savage crime against the Gavai brothers shattered the image of Maharashtra and the opposition parties got a stick to beat the government with, especially as the chief minister belonged to a backward class. This also roused the “sugar lobby” (of Maratha politicians running sugar cooperative mills). It began actively working against the Chief Minister Naik, who had been ruling the state for over 12 years. The Dalit Panther had already complained about Naik to the prime minister. Finally, on February 20, newspaper headlines screamed that Naik had been removed from his post.
The eyes of Gavai brothers were beyond recovery. I had asked renowned ophthalmologist Dr M.C. Modi to examine the Gavai brothers. After examination, he said that the eyes were not merely smashed but pulled out of their sockets, and hence restoration of eyesight was not possible. We could not restore the eyesight of Gavai brothers, but Naik, who had estimated the value of their eyes at Rs 1,000, had to bite the dust.
Baban Lavhatre probably was not aware of the effort that Dhale and I had made. He went around taking the credit, thereby spreading disinformation and deceiving himself. It was his habit. For instance, he wrote that I had led Vasant Dhamankar’s funeral procession. I was in jail at the time.