A Professor was beaten up, arrested, and suspended in the climax of a grand, long war waged against him.
“I had never imagined that a WhatsApp forward would cost me my job, my dignity, and everything that I have loved”, said Professor Sunil Waghmare, worriedly. “I want my life back. I have had no experience of fighting injustice of this scale before” he says, referring to the mob that humiliated and slapped him within the campus premises, in public view. He was forced to leave his small room in Khopoli after the incident, and left for his village along with his family.
A whole month after the incident, Waghmare’s complaint to the police has led to the registration of a First Investigation Report (FIR) at Khopoli police station, accusing the principal Dr. Pawar of casteist discrimination, describing years of mental as well as physical harassment. The FIR was filed on 1st of May, at 00:57 hours, after a day long intense effort at the police station. On the following day, an all-party meeting of Khopoli’s political outfits was held. As local media reports show, the leaders threatened to launch a morcha if the “fake” atrocity case was not withdrawn.
The WhatsApp Incident
But how did this happen–how could a message sent in a closed group spiral into such violence within an interval of two days? Letters and memos served to the Professor over the past eight years reveal that he has been targeted for a much longer period. The WhatsApp based incident, his arrest, and suspension are only the climax of a protracted, targeted discrimination.
Was this the first time that a joke was shared on the group?
“It is not true that the group members would share messages purely administrative or official in nature. However, I was the only one to be warned after I forwarded a text about Shivaji Maharaj, someone I deeply respect. It was a forward about his birthday (being commemorated twice). I had received this on a different group, and simply re-posted it on my college group.” Screenshots of messages previously shared on the WhatsApp group reveal that prior to this incident, various kinds of messages were posted by members–jokes, comments, wishes, and festive greetings, among others. The WhatsApp group was far from being the “official communication” channel of the college, as the FIR against him says. When the police arrived at the scene of violence, they picked up Waghmare and subsequently summoned the WhatsApp group administrator, Professor Nagargoje, to lodge an FIR against Waghmare. (FIR no. 44, dated 17 March 2017, 5:35pm, Section 295A–Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs).
The WhatsApp group was created four years ago and has 34 members–the Professors and principal of KMC College, Khalapur. What transpired between the time the message was posted, that is on 15 March 2017 at 23:41 hours on the WhatsApp group, and the mob incident within campus premise in the afternoon of 17 March 2017? How did the “mob” get access to screenshots of the message shared on a closed group comprising only 34 members? Who really forwarded the message to outsiders? Who had gathered the mob that publicly thrashed Waghmare? What were their motives?
Video clips on YouTube by a local channel, Sanwad Marathi, depict the episode of the violence unleashed on Professor Waghmare. In the management office room (located within the campus premise next to the principal’s room), the Professor is seen sitting on a chair surrounded by about twenty people. He is initially asked questions about his WhatsApp message. The faces of the people are clear in the video clip. Suddenly, one person walks forward and starts slapping Waghmare and a commotion breaks out. Some are seen stopping the blows, some are seen contributing to it. When this ends, the people present in the room suddenly decide that Waghmare must not be allowed to sit on the chair. In the video clip on Youtube, they are seen asking him to sit on the floor. The clip then shows the Professor unconscious, resting his head on a table, and the police are lifting a semi-conscious person from the floor and then taking him to the police van, amidst loud chants of “Jai Shivaji, Jai Bhawani” by the onlookers. Matters get worse–he is arrested by the police, and made to spend a night in the police lock up. An emergency meeting of the management committee is held the same evening and he is suspended for six months with immediate effect.
Eye-witness accounts, the principal, colleagues of Waghmare, as well as local activists insist that those who entered the college premises on 17 March 2017 were neither students nor colleagues (as the media had initially reported) but were outsiders, most of whom belonged to political outfits. But how exactly were these “outsiders” mobilized based on a post shared on an internal WhatsApp group? If this was indeed about an offensive post, why was this not resolved in a non-violent way by a group consisting of Professors?
Relationship with the Principal
When one examines the kind of relations Waghmare shared with the members of the WhatsApp group, the one that stands out is his relationship with the principal, Dr. N.B. Pawar. Numerous memos, letters, and complaints over an eight-year period reveal the bitter relationship that the two shared. In a written statement submitted to the police urging for an FIR, Waghmare describes in detail his difficult relationship with the Principal. In the year 2014 alone, the principal had served as many as five memos (dated 12/03/14, 11/07/14, 17/09/14, 10/10/14, 27/11/14) to Waghmare–at least one every two months. The letter also reveals that the principal made Waghmare conscious of the latter’s dalit identity on numerous occasions over the last eight years, subtly as well as overtly. The principal has said, “Since you (Prof. Waghmare) belong to the SC community, it is on account of reservations that you have got these posts, despite not being capable,” according to Waghmare’s letter.
Born into the Maang community in Nanded, 34 year old Prof. Waghmare’s journey and career are characterized by struggles. After completing his M.Com in Nanded, and B.Ed in Yavatmal, he joined the KMC College, Khopoli on November 6, 2009 as an Assistant Professor in the Commerce Department. In September 2010, he was given additional responsibility by being appointed Vice Principal of the Commerce Department. “There were no problems that the management had reported with my work. But things changed once Dr. Pawar became the principal in 2012. Suddenly, I was slapped with several memos and show cause notices, and finally in March 2014, I was unfairly removed from the post”, said Waghmare, who is currently the Head of Department but was suspended after his arrest. His family has returned to their village in Nanded.
A Hurried Suspension on Vague and Frivolous Grounds
There are safeguards and university guidelines on suspension of a Professor belonging to an SC community. As per the rules, a three-member committee is to be constituted to decide upon the suspension of such a Professor, with one of the three members belonging to the SC community. However, this procedure was not followed in the hurry to suspend Waghmare for a six month term. In the suspension letter dated 17 March 2017, the charges mentioned are–“a) misconduct, b) moral turpitude etc., c) and misuse of social media (WhatsApp)”, with salary reduced to half the amount along with disciplinary enquiry. However, in reality, he has not received these half wages for the last two months, straining his already vulnerable financial situation.
One of the most detailed letters in this context is one written by Waghmare describing the discriminatory and prejudicial behavior of the Principal, dated 19 January 2015, two years and three months prior to this incident. At the time a copy of this letter was also sent to the President of the Khalapur Taluka Shikshan Prasarak Mandal (KTSPM), Khopoli which runs the college.
Why was a formal complaint with the police or SC/ST commissions not lodged before this incident?
“When I gave the management my complaint letter in January 2015, they assured me that they would take action on it. It was on their request that I did not formally lodge a complaint anywhere else. To avoid badnaami (shame). For a few months after this, the principal was silent. However, nothing was done on my letter and a few months later he began harassing me again.”
Suddenly thrown out of his teaching Profession, Waghmare has been shuttling between the police station, courts, and lawyers in order to have the case against him quashed.
Reversal of Victim and Accused
With the victim facing arrest and the perpetrator free, the extent of subversion of justice leaves much to be answered. According to sources, the police had received several letters from various local level organizations and political outfits such as the Shiv Sena seeking Waghmare’s arrest for his WhatsApp forward. The response demonstrated by the police in arresting the victim, and inviting the assailants to lodge a case against him reveal how the system has responded to local political pressures instead of upholding law and order. In cases of caste atrocities, matters get worse with the threat of agitations and strikes. When met in person, the police denied that any such incident had taken place, and refused to talk to a fact-finding team that had visited the station. The consistent demand of the mob that Waghmare not be allowed to sit in a chair but be made to sit on the floor demonstrates the desire of the people to humiliate him. According to Waghmare, the mob reappeared at the police station and repeated the same demand there, due to which even at the police station, Waghmare was asked to rise from the chair and sit on the floor.
A copy of Waghmare’s statement seeking justice has also been sent to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (Pune), the Superintendent of Police (Raigad), Vice Chancellor of the Mumbai University, the Reservation Cell of Mumbai University, Joint Director of Education (Panvel). The demands are: quashing the FIR against him, revoking the illegal suspension, dismissing the Principal who has had a history of targeting Dalits and initiating proceedings against him under the SC/ST laws.
On 1 May, 2017, an FIR was finally registered by the police in the name of Waghmare against the principal, Dr. Pawar, at 00:57 hours after a day-long drama at the police station. The recent Maratha agitations have meant that every case of caste atrocity is dismissed as false and it is a battle before an FIR is even lodged. However, the accused, Dr. Pawar, has not been arrested.
Prof. Sunil Waghmare, his wife Jyotsna, and their young twins continue to wait for the elusive silver lining to what seems like their life’s darkest time. They just want to be able to return to their home and their life.
This article was first published on indiaculturalforum.in.