A small farmhouse marks the spot of a mysterious triple murder in western India's rural flatlands that has sparked protests as far away as New York.
Sanjay Jadhav, his wife Jayashree and their teenage son Sunil were found chopped up and thrown into nearby wells in late October, drawing shivers from some of their fellow Dalits -- those formerly known as "untouchables" in India's rigid caste hierarchy.
AdvertisementThey fear that the usually peaceful Javkheda village, where flower-garlanded portraits of the dead family hang on a wall, has become the latest example of deep-rooted prejudice against those at the base of Indian society.
"We are in danger. It could be us tomorrow," said Sindhu Dharsalvi, a Dalit farmworker living in a small settlement of tin-roofed huts in the same Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra state.
India banned caste discrimination decades ago, but suspicions around the Javkheda killings show the issue remains a toxic and highly sensitive one.
The deaths mark the third high-profile case of Dalit murders in Ahmednagar since early last year, when the body parts of three young male cleaners were found in and near a septic tank.
Several higher-caste men were arrested in that case, believed to have been motivated by an inter-caste love affair, and the matter is still at court.
"Dalits have completely lost faith in the government as well as the police. The question haunting them is: why are Dalits being murdered?" said local activist Baba Rajguru.
Whether the recent Javkheda deaths were in fact caste-related is a matter of speculation -- despite 100-plus police officers working on the case over the past six weeks, the motive is unclear and nobody has been arrested.
Police suggest the culprit probably came from inside the Dalit community, while varying rumours point to an affair with a higher-caste woman, a property dispute or even links to local communist guerrillas.
But the Dalit status of the victims has drawn a stream of Indian politicians, activists and journalists to the village, set amid jowar and cotton crops, where police are keeping watch.
Rallies have been held in Indian cities and on the streets of New York, where a global Dalit group submitted a petition to the United Nations chiding the "clueless" police and calling for Ahmednagar to be declared an "atrocity prone" area, according to reports.
"If it doesn't get solved, the relationship between us and the Dalits is going the get worse," said Javkheda's village chief Uddhav Wagh, himself of the higher Maratha caste, over tea in his spacious home.
Wagh is convinced the murders were not caste-related, and he said such speculation was mainly from outsiders and was fuelling tensions in the community.
He pointed to the lack of any discord during his six decades in the village, where Dalits still tend to live on the outskirts, although he takes a dim view of inter-caste romance among the village youth.
"If such kind of affairs are known about by the parents, they make them understand not to do this," he said.
Uneven progress has been made in loosening caste restrictions since India?s independence in 1947. The constitution abolished "untouchability" ? the custom of ostracising low-caste workers because they are seen as "unclean", and who usually do jobs such as rubbish disposal and sewer cleaning.
Now known as Dalits or the "oppressed", the lowest caste has become a potent electoral force, regularly wooed by politicians. Some Ahmednagar residents say this explains the multiple VIP visits to the latest crime scene.
"They are only using this issue as a political tool, and at the ground level no one is interested in creating social harmony," said social worker Girish Kulkarni, who founded a local shelter for prostitutes and their children.
Kulkarni said inter-caste relations had much improved in the area over the years. But stories of inequity still blight parts of rural India.
A Human Rights Watch report in August said low-caste Indians were still routinely forced into manually removing human waste from toilets, despite a law brought in last year to end the "discriminatory practice".
Another teenager to lose his life this year was Nitin Aage, a 17-year-old Dalit in Ahmednagar, who was beaten and strung up from a lime tree. Police said he was attacked after being seen talking to an upper-caste girl.
Sitting on a rug outside their shanty home with a portrait of Nitin, his parents wept as they spoke of the loss of their only son, who they had hoped would go to military college.
"The upper caste people thought there was no point in talking to my son so it was better to kill him, which would also spread terror across our village," said father Rajendra Aage, who crushes stones to make a living.
He said despite a flurry of arrests and interest in the case after the killing in April, some of the accused had since been bailed and legal proceedings had stalled.
Aage now fears for his remaining family's safety, saying he too has received threats after pushing for justice for his son.
"Either the government should give us lifetime police protection, because I can't afford to protect myself, or they should quickly give me a licence to hold a gun."
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