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Above: Members of the Maratha community represented by the Maratha Kranti Morcha demanding death sentence for the three accused in the Kopardi rape case. Photo: Lilly Paul

After 16 months of the infamous Kopardi rape case, which brought to the forefront the underlying caste tensions in the state, a special court in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district on Wednesday (November 29) pronounced the death sentences for the three accused. Additional Special Judge Suvarna Kevale awarded them death in a verdict that was reserved last week.

There were special security arrangements done in the Ahmednagar court during the 11-month trial of the case. Members of the Maratha community, represented by the Maratha Kranti Morcha rallies, had gathered in large numbers in the court premises during every hearing. The conviction of the three accused was announced over loud speakers for these agitators.

Jitendra Shinde (25), Santosh Bhaval (36) and Nitin Bhailume (26)—all from the Dalit community – were accused of brutally raping and murdering a 14-year-old girl belonging to the Maratha community on July 13 last year. Shinde, the main accused had tortured and raped the girl who was returning from her grandfather’s house in the evening. He had also called his friends to join him in the heinous act. The trio had later murdered her brutally, a way which finds resemblance with that of Nirbhaya gang rape. The murderers had strangled her to death, after mutilating her genitals and dislocating her shoulders.

The case is of Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, a rather caste-sensitive area which has witnessed a number of incidents sparking tension between the Maratha and the Dalit communities. It was after the Kopardi incident that Kranti Morcha rallies took to the streets carrying out silent marches across the state including in the Ahmednagar district.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis was quick to react to the community’s growing agitation. He announced that his government will request the judiciary to appoint a fast-track court for the speedy trial of the case and that the celebrated special public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam would fight for the victim.

However, the Maratha community, which had initiated the agitation with the prime objective of justice for the Kopardi victim, also brought in other demands such as amendments to the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and reservation for the Maratha community.

The Kopardi incident was first of its kind where the victim was from the influential Maratha community. Maharahstra has witnessed killing of people belonging to the Dalit community by the upper caste Marathas. The Ahmednagar district itself has many such cases to its record. A 17-year-old Dalit student Nitin Agey was allegedly murdered by people from the Maratha community in 2014 for having a love-affair with a Maratha girl. The court was forced to let free all the accused, because no one came up to testify in the incident despite it having happened in broad-daylight.

—India Legal Bureau

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