Palghar: There are no Muslims at Gadchinchale village in Maharashtra’s Palghar district, where two Hindu tribal ascetics and their driver were lynched last week while they were on their way to a funeral in neighbouring Silvassa.
Videos of the horrific crime have gone viral and allegations are being made that the killings were communal in nature. But sources in the area say that nearly all of the village’s 1,280 people are tribals — much like two of the three victims.
They also claim that the “illegal liquor economy” in the region could have played a part in the triple murder that took place on Thursday, 16 April, even as police investigate the crime committed during the coronavirus lockdown.
“All the residents here are Scheduled Tribes. A majority have converted to Christianity but they follow their tribal rituals,” said a source conversant with the customs of Gadchinchale. “Since this is a far-flung village, Christian missionaries come here and give them food and medicines. The rule has been that these villagers don’t interfere with anyone and don’t let anyone else interfere in their customs and traditions.”
“These villagers do not have a lot of money, so what is it that thieves can take away? Due to the lockdown, the theft of liquor has increased. So they thought their hidden liquor was being stolen,” said the source, who is a resident of the nearby Kasa town.
The boot-legging economy
Poverty in Gadchinchale village and its location, sources said, have led to a thriving liquor trade in the region.
Nestled in lush greenery at the foothills of the Western Ghats, the village is the last post in Maharashtra before the Union Territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli. The village is also surrounded by Gujarat and Nashik on its farther sides.
While many of the villagers who have farmland in the foothills sow paddy and nachni (local name for ragi millet), the landless go to work in the numerous industrial units in nearby Dadra and Nagar Haveli.
Since liquor is available in plenty and is cheap in the union territory, it is smuggled back into the village and hidden in the forests. This smuggled liquor is sold at a much higher price to liquor shops and individuals, the sources said.
They also pointed to the sequence of events on the night of 16 April to substantiate the liquor theory.
The three victims — ascetics Kalpvruksh Giri, 70, and Sushil Giri, 35, and their driver Nilesh Telgade, in his 30s — were headed to a funeral in Silvassa in a Ford EcoSport car.
Due to the national lockdown, the highway between Jawahar in Maharashtra’s Palghar district and Silvassa is blocked by police at various points. Their car was stopped by Dadra and Nagar Haveli police at the border and they were turned back.
On their return journey, they hit a dirt road that passed through the forest towards Gadchinchale village and were stopped by the forest guards.
While they were being questioned by the forest guards, a small crowd had gathered around outside the forest post.
The forest guards then called up the Kasa police post, about 40 km away, informing them about the sadhus and the people who had gathered outside.
By the time the police arrived about an hour or so later, a sizeable mob had gathered outside the post demanding that those inside be handed over to them. Police are still investigating why a mob armed with lathis gathered outside the forest post late at night.
As the police escorted the sadhus and their driver to the police van, the mob allegedly attacked them and lynched them. “The police ran away to their vehicle. A sizeable mob attacked the police van and damaged it. After the lynching, the mob ran away into the forest,” said the source.
The outnumbered Kasa police had sought help but a 200-member strong police team from Palghar arrived hours after the crime. Palghar town is more than 100 km from the scene of the crime in Gadchinchale.
A deserted town
Ever since the crime made national headlines, this tribal village dotted with hamlets of 10-12 houses known as padas, wears a deserted look.
About 110 men have been arrested including nine juveniles who allegedly led the attack, said those in the know of the events. The men have been remanded in police custody until 30 April, while the juveniles have been sent to the Bhiwandi Correctional Home.
The Kasa police who arrested the suspects said many men from the village have fled into the jungles leaving behind the women and children. Of the estimated 300-odd houses in the padas, many of them are locked.
The livestock consisting of goats and cows are tethered while multi-coloured hens and roosters roam around the padas. There is an air of disquiet and hostility in the village. Women and children look out through half-open doors of their mud houses with thatched roof.
With the lynching resonating in the power corridors of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh — the two sadhus belong to the Varanasi-headquartered Shri Panch Dashnam Juna Akhara — Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has ordered a probe by the state CID. The probe will be led by Director General of Police (CID) Atul Kulkarni.
Two policemen, inspector Anandrao Kale and constable Sudhir Katare, have been suspended (pending inquiry) for dereliction of duty.
The village is part of Dahanu assembly constituency represented by Vinod Nikhole of the CPI(M). The gram panchayat of Palghar is, however, ruled by the BJP, and its sarpanch is Chitra Chaudhari.
Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has appealed to the people to not get taken by the BJP’s allegations that it was a communal crime. “We have not spared the guilty. They have been arrested and remanded in police custody until 30 April. The juvenile offenders among them have been sent to Children’s Home. The DGP CID led by an able officer Atul Kulkarni will probe this murder,” Thackeray said, addressing the state via Facebook Live.
The CM also said Union Home Minister Amit Shah had called him and he had apprised him of the action taken by the Maharashtra government. “Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath too had called me seeking to know the action taken. I have told Amit Bhai and Yogi about the CID probe and the suspension of two policemen,” said Thackeray.
(This report has been updated to correctly reflect that CPI(M) leader Vinod Nikhole is the MLA of Dahanu and not BJP’s Paskal Janya Dhanagare. The error is regretted)