Murder by another name isn't murder, murder in the name of social justice isn't murder. This is what hundreds of women in Nagpur's Kasturba Nagar basti want us to believe.
Theirs is a chilling tale of crime and punishment. Only, the punishment was meted out not by law enforcement agencies but by the enraged women themselves. Nearly 200 of them marched into the courtroom of a magistrate on the afternoon of Friday the 13th and lynched their tormentor Akku Yadav to death with knives and stones. Yadav had 24 cases of assault, dacoity, murder, molestation and extortion against him, he had been arrested 12 times in as many years but had managed to secure bail on each occasion. He was subsequently externed from Kasturba Nagar in January this year but he moved freely till a week back. Yadav was in court for one of the cases that day but the women had decided he would never return to their basti. "We freed ourselves and our daughters that day. We also freed our men," says a rather demure Pinky Shambarkar.
She, along with four other women, was arrested by the police within hours of the courtroom murder and spent five days in police custody, strangely happy and breathing free for the first time in many years. But hundreds of other women wouldn't have it this way. Still bound together, they filed for bail for five of their 'sisters'. The groundswell of support to the women was unparalleled—130 lawyers in the city pledged their services to the cause, support came in from women's organisations across the political spectrum, a retired high court judge spoke up, and National Commission for Women chief Poornima Advani said the Kasturba Nagar women had no choice because the police had proved helpless in containing Yadav's reign of terror. Despite this, when bail seemed a distant possibility, the women threatened mass surrender to collectively face the murder charge. On Wednesday, some 150 of them marched to the court, ironically where Yadav had been lynched, in solidarity with the five accused—and to surrender if the magistrate refused bail.
The judicial magistrate court had become a fortress with as many men and women in khaki, armed with teargas shells and water cannons, as the sloganeering women. The women, some with children in arms, were refused entry into court premises. As passions rose outside, the police counsel told magistrate R.N. Mehre that there was no evidence against the five women and they did not need further custody. The magistrate, however, kept his order pending for a day. The women protesters refused to accept the order, parked themselves on the pavement and stated they would not move till bail was granted, whenever. The defence counsel then moved the district court where judge G.S. Kaswah granted bail. Their release from Nagpur Central Jail and homecoming in the basti resembled the celebration of a much-awaited festival.
Along the narrow lanes of the basti, the leitmotif is terror-molestation-rape; most of the 250 households here have a story their own. The basti—comprising poor Dalit families who keep their home and hearth together with daily wage labour or driving autos and doing domestic work—lived the last 14 years in perpetual terror of Yadav and his band of 15-16 men. The gang would knock on doors at midnight, assault men, molest and rape women, kidnap children and extort money, say residents. Any complaint to the local police station would only bring a fresh round of terror. Despite this, Yadav was facing 24 cases, among them the case of killing a woman who had dared to complain against him and raping her sister who was witness to the murder. Despite there being 43 testimonies of rape, not a single case was registered in the police station. Yadav's externment this January made little difference as he and his gang still came by every night, say residents.
The last six months saw 20-odd families lock up their homes and relocate to another part of Nagpur only to escape Yadav's terror. "I have three young daughters and he came by so many times asking for water at night, threatening us, even picking up my youngest once. I have to protect myself and my daughters. So, we moved," says Pramila Shinde. Ranjana Inamkar too persuaded her husband to leave the basti and rent out a smaller house in another area.
There are several layers to this unique tale of woman power. A broad canvas view is the consolidation of women and their desperate need for security and justice that led them to bond with each other, plan their revenge and lynch Yadav to death. It released them from the midnight knock terror but can public retribution disguised as murder be condoned? "It's a difficult question," says retired high court judge Bhau Vahane, who spoke out for the women. "If they took law into their hands, it was because the law and law-enforcing agencies had not given them succour." The basti's woman leader, Bhaganbai Meshram, and activist Usha Narayanan do not deny the murder in the courtroom; only they do not call it murder. "It's justice, we secured justice for ourselves. We were pushed to the wall," says Meshram. Can mob justice be the answer to incompetent police and judiciary?
The legal-criminal layer becomes even more complex. No one denies that Yadav was done to death in the courtroom but there is no accused on record now. The police registered an FIR the day he was lynched but it does not mention anyone by name, nor identify anyone by description. There was murder but there's no suspect. "There are 200 women who say we did it. The investigating officer found no weapon or blood marks on the five women who were arrested, we found no evidence against these women," says ACP Dalbir Bharati. The police counsel was, in fact, urging for their bail. The state CID, now investigating the entire case, has reportedly found definite clues in the courtroom lynching but any action would mean the wrath of the basti women and the citizenry of Nagpur in general.
The sequence of events leading up to Friday the 13th is no less complex and confounding. A week before the bloody courtroom drama, Yadav had been finally arrested for violating the externment order. His mother had vacated their one-storey house near the basti which was subsequently stoned and broken down by a mob from the basti. He was produced in the magistrate's court two days later. That day too, a large group of women, backed by men, managed to get into the court premises and threaten action against him. The police had managed to contain the mob. When Yadav was produced in court again, there were only three constables guarding him, and three other accused.
Back in the basti, local police hint at gang-war rivalries between Yadav's group and a smaller one which is believed to have helped the women. Social activists like Comrade Chandra and others pooh-pooh the suggestion. "Now people will start talking loose and cheap things. Now, there will be politicians too milking this for their benefit. But it's all rubbish. Women were pushed to the wall, they showed their strength, that's all," she says. Meshram agrees, "If Manipuri women can stand up, we too can."
Yadav's nephew has now sworn revenge. Yadav's men are still free, waiting perhaps for the solidarity and security to ebb before they strike again. The difference between then and now is the presence of a makeshift police picket—two tables, a few chairs, couple of wireless sets under a waterproof tent and two vans standing close by—at the entrance of the basti. So long as there is vigil, things will be calm but retribution for the courtroom murder will happen, believe the basti's people.
In Kasturba Nagar, the cloud of fear has only parted a bit, it hasn't gone away. For the world outside, troubling and tantalising questions remain.
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