Every night since the horrific lynching of two ascetics and their driver on 16 April near Gadchinchle village in Maharashtra’s Palghar district, police vans fitted with loudspeakers have been patrolling the Adivasi dominated belt. They are asking people not to be misled by threats to their safety from fictitious criminals created by hate mongers on social media.
“The villagers are still suspicious of outsiders, but the earlier tension has lessened somewhat,” says Kashinath Chaudhari, a local leader of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) who had accompanied a heavily outnumbered, and clueless police force that night “to pacify the 2,000 strong mob, fired by false rumours, which had been circulating in the area since the beginning of this month (April).”
Gadchinchle on the edge
From early April, as the Covid-19 cases began to spike across the country, two sets of highly-disturbing WhatsApp messages and Facebook posts were widely shared in the tribal clusters of Dahanu taluka of Palghar district and in the Union territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli in north western Maharashtra, 140 kilometres from Mumbai.
“The first set of messages was communally charged and alleged that members of the minority community infected with the virus had been instructed to sneak into Hindu neighbourhoods, posing as sadhus, or even doctors and policemen, and spread the disease by poisoning local water bodies or by some other means; the second claimed that organ harvesting gangs, child lifters and thieves, also in disguise, were stalking remote tribal villages,” recalls Raju Pandhara, Dahanu-based activist of the Adivasi Ekta Parishad, a grassroots organisation working in western India.
The men of Gadchinchle and its adjoining villages, located in a remote part of Dahanu, were already on the edge — the Covid-19 lockdown had forced them to stay at home with no work, little money and dwindling rations — now, consumed with fear, they hit the panic button fast and furious. Roadblocks were put up outside the smallest hamlet, dozens of vigilante groups sprung up; armed with sticks and axes they stood guard over deserted forest roads using torch lights and whistle signals to communicate with each other.
“When a lone car was spotted driving past Gadchinchle not once, but twice that night, the people concluded that the travellers were the same criminals about whom they had been warned on WhatsApp. Believing their lives were in danger, the villagers, many of whom were under the influence of liquor, beat the sadhus and their driver to death. They were joined by people from Dadra and Nagar Haveli which is barely 500 metres from the murder spot,” a forest department official from Palghar told ThePrint.
Fake forwards and lynching
The killings triggered a rush of unverified, divisive narratives on social media and the 24×7 news cycle.
It was alleged that since the victims were Hindus, their attackers were Muslims. However, a list of 109 people arrested in connection with the incident so far, put out by the state government, reveals that not a single person on it belongs to the minority community. As per the 2011 Census, Gadchinchle has a population of 1,208 residents, of which 93 per cent belong to the Warli and Konkana tribes. It has no Muslim families.
When the ‘Muslim hand’ theory backfired, on 20 April Organiser magazine, brought out by the RSS, questioned the role of Christian missionaries and converts in the crime: “The area where the lynching happened is a hotbed of Christian missionary activity who are accused of poisoning the tribal in the area to further their agenda. Lot of religious conversions have happened over the years in this area abetted by the Christian missionaries.…”
On the ground in Dahanu, the accusation has an old sound to it: The RSS regularly clashes with Christian missionaries, alleging they distribute cash to the Adivasis to convert, the missionaries target the Sangh Parivar for harassing their flock. But Dr Sunil Paradha, who was posted as a medical officer at the primary health centre in Gadchinchle a few years ago, says the continuing blame game between the two cannot be linked to this tragic event.
“There are barely two to three Christian families in the Divshi-Gadchinchle group panchayat, the rest are all Hindu Adivasis, a few still worship their tribal Gods. The influence of religious sects and gurus like the Sant Nirankari Mission, Mahanubhav Panth, and Narendra Maharaj over the Adivasi population in the region has only helped the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, set up by the RSS in the district, to blunt the reach of Christian missionaries and widen the base of the BJP in the last decade.”
Going against his party line, the former BJP MLA from the Dahanu assembly segment, Paskal Dhanare also confirmed to ThePrint that Christian Adivasis were neither the instigators nor part of the mob, “the crowd was 2,000 strong while there are only a handful of converts in that area, who usually keep to themselves.”
Political blame game
Dhanare, who lost in 2019 to the CPM’s Vinod Nikole, holds the district administration responsible for the deaths of the sadhus and their driver.
“They could have prevented the incident but did nothing. At least three lynching attempts on strangers in the Adivasi belt — including on a doctor who had come to distribute food supplies and a railway official — should have alerted the police. But they did little to check the spread of unfounded rumours, or to reassure the locals who feared the worst.”
But the BJP leader also insists that the lynching is part of a “larger political conspiracy,” taking a cue from the Organiser report, which attempts to pin the act of violence on the CPM and its local MLA. He said, “It is now suspected that the mob was instigated by CPM leaders and the entire incident was a pre-planned conspiracy…. All the 110 people who have been arrested are workers of the CPM and those who are absconding too are workers of the CPM… It is now being alleged that the local CPM MLA comrade Vinod Nikole is behind this incident.”
Although Dahanu is largely a BJP stronghold with the NCP in second place, the Left has had a long presence in the region, since 1945. In the 2019 assembly elections, CPM’s Vinod Nikole – a former vada-pav seller, and the state’s poorest MLA, with total assets worth Rs 52,000 — wrested the Dahanu seat from the BJP, but only because the opposition did not field a candidate against him. (The CPM has won the seat twice earlier in 1978 and 2009).
The BJP drew a blank in all six assembly segments that make up the Palghar parliamentary constituency – of these four, including Dahanu, are reserved for the scheduled tribes.
But the charges against the Left and its leaders began to unravel as soon as it was known that the two-time sarpanch of Gadchinchle, Chitra Choudhari, belongs to the BJP, and that the village comes under the Divshi-Gadchinchle group panchayat, which the party has ruled for the past decade. The Palghar Zila Parishad representative from the area since 2010 was also from the BJP before losing to the NCP in the local body polls held earlier this year. Meanwhile, the Congress claimed that the two people taken into custody in connection with the lynching were members of the BJP’s village booth committee.
“The Left has nothing to do with this gruesome crime, it happened in the BJPs backyard, but some vested interests are using the episode to demonise the CPM and target social activists and grassroots organisations who have been fronting the fight against multiple high-tech infrastructure projects in Palghar district and in particular Dahanu,” alleges Nikole.
Poverty in Palghar
Dahanu taluka is squeezed between the large industrial suburb of Boisar, where the Tarapur Atomic Plant is located, and Vapi, across the border in Gujarat. It grows tonnes of fruits and vegetables and exports them along with fish and lobsters, providing work to thousands of local Adivasis.
In 1991, Dahanu was declared a green zone on the orders of the Supreme Court, which restricted ‘hazardous industries’ from operating within its limits.
The projects in the line of fire from environmental and Adivasi rights groups include the Delhi-Mumbai freight corridor and Mumbai-Vadodara expressway, for which the land has already been acquired. But several other big ticket ventures — the Mumbai coastal road, the Vadhavan port for handling large size container vessels, expansion of NH-8, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream project, the 508 kilometre long Ahmedabad Mumbai high speed rail — are also pending.
“These projects, which are in various stages of planning and implementation, if not shelved entirely or allowed to proceed without checks and balances, will destroy the region’s fragile ecology and rob the tribals of their livelihoods while pushing them deeper into poverty,” says Nikole.
Forty per cent of Palghar’s population is Adivasi. In some parts of the district, nearly 90 per cent live below the poverty line. Between 2016-18, at least 1,100 malnutrition-linked deaths of tribal children were recorded here.
Most Adivasis work as daily wagers or as contractual labour on construction sites, fishing boats and trawlers, and in brick kilns. They usually own less than an acre of land on which they grow rice during the monsoon months. For the rest of the year, their fields are parched, despite the existence of several big and small dams in the district — Dhamni, Tansa, Susari — which were all built on tribal land, but the water is diverted to meet the drinking and industrial needs of Mumbai.
The ultimate irony: Today, while Palghar is at the centre of a vicious, no-holds-barred political battle, the district has also seen a rise in the number of coronavirus hotspots — 20 at the last count and five deaths.
Fight against coronavirus calls for solidarity, but the Adivasis here are being pushed into a Left versus Right, Hindu versus Muslim versus Christian contest. Palghar may just be a dot on India’s map, but it is a reminder how politics can ruthlessly hijack the much-needed development agenda.
The author is an independent journalist. Views are personal.
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