By Quaid Najmi
Mumbai, Apr 15 (IANS): Though a year has passed since the ghoulish mob-lynching of two Sadhus and their driver in Palghar district in Maharashtra, the politically sensitive case is still very much alive in public memory and keeps popping into headlines at frequent intervals.
The two Sadhus - Kalpavrikshagiri Maharaj (70) and his assistant Sushilgiri Maharaj (35) - and their driver Nilesh Telgade (30) were waylaid by an angry mob of tribals and villagers and were brutally lynched to death on the night of April 15-16, 2020.
The incident took place at Gadchinchale village in Dahanu tehsil of Palghar district, nearly 120 km from Mumbai, shocking people as it came at the height of the Covid-induced lockdown declared three weeks before.
The Nashik-based Sadhu duo, belonging to the Varanasi-headquartered Shri Panch Dashnam Juna Akhara, the biggest order of sadhus in India, was proceeding to Surat in Gujarat to attend the funeral of their guru, Shri Mahant Ramgiri.
The Gadchinchale village, falling in the jurisdiction of Kasa police station, had been agog with wild rumours of robbers who had allegedly sneaked to fish for kidneys of young children and sell them in the organs black market.
These canards spurred the villagers to mount a 24x7 vigil within and outside the village, on all approach roads, the state and national highways, etc.
On that fateful night, the Sadhus and their driver, who were driving down near the village, were stopped and brutally attacked by a group of nearly 500 villagers who suspected them to be the kidnappers and much-dreaded organ harvestors.
As the incident came to light the following morning, it triggered national political shockwaves and alarmed the five-month-old Maha Vikas Aghadi government of Shiv Sena-Nationalist Congress Party-Congress, which came under fierce attack from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Among other things, the BJP in the state and a the national level targeted Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, questioned his Hindutva credentials, and raised apprehensions over the safety of Hindu religious personalities in the state, among other aspects.
However, with some deft political management - deflected by a similar tragic incident that occurred in Uttar Pradesh soon afterwards - the MVA government managed to weather the crisis.
Nevertheless, the BJP kept firing its missives at regular intervals, occasionally demanding a CBI probe claiming that people had lost their faith in the MVA regime, etc.
Acting quick, the then state Home Minister Anil Deshmukh took away the case from the local police and handed it over to the state CID, which arrested a total of 251 people, including 13 juveniles (then), of whom 12 have been bailed out.
Of the 251 arrested persons, 75 are still in custody in various jails in the district while the others have been released on bail. The charge-sheets have been filed and the case proceeds in the courts, even as the CI plans to arrest another around 55 accused persons.
Veteran Mumbai lawyer Satish Maneshinde is leading the government's charge as the special public prosecutor, while prominent Palghar lawyers Amrut Adhikari and Atul Patil represent the accused.
Interestingly, Adhikari has set a new legal record of sorts - representing the highest number of accused in any case, a staggering 250-plus, but he declines to comment on this.
There were other repercussions also with ex-minister Deshmukh shunting out the then Palghar Superintendent of Police Gaurav Singh on compulsory leave and a shake-up of the entire local police department with 35 officers and policemen getting transferred within the district.
Subsequently, after a department enquiry, Assistant Police Inspector Anandrao Kale was dismissed, while two others -- Assistant Sub-Inspector Ravi Salunkhe and constable Naresh Dhodi -- were retired compulsorily, and different types of exemplary punishment were meted out to several other policemen.
The Ganchinchale village - barely a few metese from the state borders with the Union Territory of Dadra & Nagar Haveli - has a population of around 1,300, including 93 per cent Scheduled Tribes, as per the 2011 Census.