One sunny afternoon, I'm sitting across from a district bureaucrat in his office in the eastern Maharashtra town of Bhandara. And how should I refer to you, I ask. Oh, please don't use my name, he says. Just call me an unnamed source, that's all. But if you want a better understanding of what happened to the Bhotmange family, you should pay attention to the background to their killing.
I say to you first of all, Bhayyalal Bhotmange did not really belong in the village. Well, but before that, I should say that in Kherlanji, it is the economically, socially and politically upper castes - mainly Kunbi and Kalar castes - who are dominant. These are OBC castes, but they are higher than the three Dalit families in the village, of which Bhotmange was one. Also, the village falls in the command area of the Pench project of Nagpur district. So the agricultural land is nearly all irrigated.
So as I said, Bhayyalal was not originally from there. The land belonged to his father, Sudham, who had bought it from his father-in-law, Doma Bhivgade. Doma had intended to give the land to his daughter, but had apprehensions that his cousins would quarrel with the daughter. So he drew up a sale deed in the name of Sudham. The land measured 1.94 hectares.
Till about 20 years back, Bhayyalal and his parents lived in Ambagad, about 10-12 km from Kherlanji in Tumsar tehsil. Bhayyalal's brothers all got married, and there was some family dispute, so the parents decided to give the land to Bhayyalal. It had not been cultivated. That was when Bhayyalal first came to Kherlanji. He was married and had two sons; later his daughter was born in Kherlanji. They erected their house. But they were never accepted by the villagers, even the two Dalit families, who kept calling him a foreigner. Nobody would help him.
The riots and wrongs of caste
A much larger house of fire
Two different land surveys wrongly recorded Bhayyalal's land as measuring only 1.37 hectare. As the remaining was barren and the villagers were using it, he did not even realize it was really his. But then in January 2002, he applied to the survey department for the land to be measured. This time, he found out that his land was really 1.94 hectares and included the strip the villagers had been using. At that point, Bhayyalal began stopping people who tried to walk across his land.
The owner of the neighbouring field, Balkrishna Athilkar, was one of several villagers who were annoyed by this. Athilkar applied to the Naib Tehsildar of Mohadi to issue orders for a road through Bhayyalal's land. The Tehsildar passed an order on June 17 2004, approving the road; on June 30, he gave an order to construct the road. But this was a biased action, because he relied only on the submissions of Athilkar and the other villagers who wanted the road.
On July 23 that year, the Sub Divisional Officer passed an order in Bhayyalal's favour, declaring that the land was actually his as per the land records. So the road was not built.
You should also understand that Bhayyalal and his wife were self-confident, self-respecting people. They had no help from anyone, but they still cultivated their land doing everything themselves. Their daughter Priyanka was in the NCC and was attending junior college in Andhalgaon. She would ride there on a second-hand bicycle. She wanted to become a police constable.
The other villagers were not "easy" with the family, because the Bhotmanges were Mahars. The people accused of their murders are from several different communities - Kunbi, Kalar, Matang and Chamar (the last two also Dalits). They hated the Bhotmanges for all these reasons, but also because they were converts to Buddhism. They would not worship the same Gods the rest of the villagers revered. This was not an issue with the Matangs and Chamars, because they had not converted and were well-integrated with the other Hindus in the village.
My unnamed source rose suddenly. I have to go now, he said. But since you are writing about this, I thought you should get an idea of what led to these murders.
And I did get a sense of that background. It put in some context a conversation in Kherlanji, a day earlier. Roaming the village, I ran into the same uniformed man twice. The third time, I stopped and asked if he could tell me what had happened here on September 29.
He nodded. And how should I refer to you, I asked.
Oh, just call me a reliable source, he said. Don't use my name. But here's how we reconstructed the events of that day while investigating. It's important to understand how it all happened.
A mob of about 45 or 50 people converged from three different directions on the Bhotmange hut. Bhayyalal's wife, Surekha, and their children Roshan, Sudhir and Priyanka were inside. Well, we're not sure about the boys, but if not inside they were somewhere nearby. The two women were definitely inside the hut.
Bhayyalal heard the mob coming and ran for his life, calling to the rest of his family to run too. But they couldn't get away in time. The mob entered the Bhotmange's hut and pulled out the two women, Surekha and 17-year-old Priyanka. They killed Surekha on the spot, just outside her home. Priyanka tried to run, but only got as far as the compound of the next hut where she tried to hide. The mob dragged her back from there and killed her too.
Both women had smashed skulls, meaning they were deliberately hit on the head with some blunt instrument. This is why I say they died almost immediately. The two boys were found and also beaten to death with sticks, but did not have significant head injuries.
The murderers then put the bodies on bullock carts, took them to a canal some 3 km away and threw them in. The next morning, the sarpanch of the nearest village found one of the bodies and lodged a complaint. The police then arrived and eventually found the other three bodies too, spread out over a seven-km stretch of the canal. Two had sunk with the weight of their clothes.
Just one other thing to say. The mob came from three different directions, you remember? Each group was preoccupied with its own murder, so they could not tell us anything about what any of the others were doing.
My reliable source explains all this while standing in the Kherlanji village square in spotless starched khaki uniform and gleaming brown shoes. His hat is pulled low over his craggy face. He emphasizes each point by drawing lines and dots with his silver-tipped cane in the loose mud at our feet. Sometimes he thumps the cane in his palm.
Two days later, I reflect: thanks to these sources, I know the background. I know how it happened.
But do I understand why these four people died so horribly? No.