On Tuesday morning, I got a message on Whatsapp. A friend from Karjat told me about Ajit Dabholkar’s arrest. The name sounded familiar. Instantly I remembered the couple of hours I spent there in early January last year. I switched on TV and found the story flashing on tickers of different Marathi channels:  Dabholkar,52, the founder of the Chandraprabha Charitable Trust and Lalita Tonde, 35, Caretaker at his shelter-cum-school in Takawe- Karjat arrested by Karjat police after FIRs by the Pune and Raigad branches of the NGO Childline.

As of now both are remanded in Police Custody till June 5 and are booked under IPC sections 377 (unnatural offences), 354 (assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty), 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman) and 342 (wrongful confinement) and under sections 3, 5 and 7 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012.

Many in Karjat, especially in the village Takawe are in shock. Some are angry, while some think Dabholkar is innocent. As for me, I don’t really know what I feel. Doubt, anger, sense of justice it’s a mix.

I was introduced to Dabholkar by an acquaintance and had been to the ashram once. The village Takawe is quite far away from the town and the facility is even farther on a remote hillock. A dusty road leads to the bungalow, which is converted into a residential facility. The classrooms for school were being constructed as an extension building. The place looked normal, well structured and carefully manicured but felt gloomy and the campus had an eerie silence around.

Children were quiet and bit hesitant but responded well when we started chatting. I felt sad and an unexplainable negative vibe- I noted this in my diary and thought maybe it’s because they all are away from home. Now I know what might be the reason.

Dabholkar showed me around the campus. He appeared to be a soft-spoken and kind hearted man.  But given my previous interactions with ‘social workers’, I felt sceptical about everything. I had asked him where they have registered. He said he started the school and have applied for license. I decided, let them finish the paper work and then I would think of helping. May be I should have probed further? And checked on a year later? In the hindsight, yes..

I had almost completely forgotten about the visit and then suddenly, I saw him on TV. Since then, I’ve been talking with a few of those who knew him. Most of them have refused to speak on Camera, they discuss it in hushed voices. As I mentioned earlier, everyone has a different opinion about the case. A teacher who was working at the school, but left it recently, is shocked by the allegations and feels it’s an attempt to tarnish Dabholkar’s image. A lawyer and social activist highlighted need to inspect several such institutions and even farm-houses which have sprang up in Karjat since past two decades. Many people from Mumbai and Pune, and abroad, have made the town their second home. Nobody knows what happens in such seemingly empty bunglows. He also stressed the need for extra police force in Karjat.

It is not the first case of child abuse in shelter home in Raigad district. There are many isolated areas and it’s difficult to keep an eye on such places. This is perhaps making it a safe-haven for criminals.

   If the abuse at Chandraprabha Shelter has been going on for years, it’s a failure on part of both authorities and the society. Why, in all these years, nobody could detect it? Why are pedophiles freely roaming around? Will people have trust in such charitable trusts?

It’s up to police to tell us what was really happening there and the court to decide what happens with both the accused.  But as a society, somewhere we have also failed.

– Janahvee Moole

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