Was justice really done in the Khairlanji massacre? Is there any let-up in atrocities against Dalits? More importantly, will the victims get justice given the depressing trend in recent judgments, where perpetrators of violence against Dalits have been repeatedly acquitted?
On 29 September this year, the infamous Khairlanji caste atrocity would be 10 years old. It is on this fateful day in 2006 that Bhaiyalal Bhotmange’s entire family—his wife Surekha (44), daughter Priyanka (17), sons Roshan (19) and Sudhir (21)—was lynched to death by a mob of caste-Hindu villagers. For various reasons, the case had evoked late responses from Dalits, but when it did, it spontaneously engulfed the whole of Maharashtra in conflagrations of protest.
It even had reverberations abroad. It was tried as one of the fastest-tracked cases and punishments were meted out to the culprits within two years. The decision in the case was appealed in the high court, which also came to a judgment within two years. The case is now with the Supreme Court.
Despite this seemingly satisfactory progress, relative to many other such cases of atrocities, it does raise questions. Eight people were convicted by the lower court and are in jail. The high court confirmed the decision, albeit with commutation of death sentences of six of them to life imprisonment. One convict died two years ago. The fiendish act was committed by a mob of 40–60 people as noted by various fact-finding reports, corroborated by the initial arrest of 46 people.
The question that arises is: are the ones in jail the key culprits? When the punishment was pronounced by the Bhandara court, some Dalit leaders celebrated it by distributing sweets. Was justice really done? What has been the impact of Khairlanji? Is there any let-up in the atrocities? Or at least in Maharashtra? More importantly, will justice be done to the victims given the depressing trend in recent judgments? Many such questions naturally crop up, and crave for answers.
Strange and Bitter Crop
I learnt of Khairlanji while I was in China. When I returned around mid-October and made enquires, I was puzzled by the contradictory responses. While activists were outraged, Dalit politicians smugly opined that it was just an issue of an illicit affair and did not have anything to do with caste. This was precisely the police version which the media unquestioningly carried. In Nagpur, there was unease in the activist circles who were trying to mobilise people for protest. Even after achieving economic independence and a good amount of cultural awakening, even after having a history of caste clashes on police record, with all the nodes of the state machinery around the incident having been manned by Dalits, mostly of the same sub-caste as that of the victim, a Dalit family met such a horrific end. Despite it taking place less than two hours’ drive from Nagpur, a hub of the Ambedkarite movement, and a million-strong congregation at the Deekshabhoomi within the same week, it created no ripples among Dalits. I was seized by the strangeness of Khairlanji, and was provoked to write a book, perhaps the first devoted to caste atrocities, Khairlanji: A Strange and Bitter Crop. It was not to be a melodramatic narrative of the incident, nor even a statement of facts, but a mirror to Dalits to show where they stand in the contemporary social, political and economic dynamics that historical forces have brought about.
Khairlanji exploded many myths. The myth of globalisation being against caste propagated by a section of middle-class Dalits. The myth of economic upliftment of Dalits being the best antidote to their disabilities, a dearly held view of the orthodox communists. The myth of the bahujan, which says that people could come together on the basis of their caste and religious identities to defeat the 15% upper-caste rulers, as the Kanshiram–Mayawati duo did to capture political power in Uttar Pradesh. The myth of civil society having enough progressive forces which could be on the side of Dalits in their anti-caste struggle. The myth of the independent media and the neutral state. And most importantly, the myth of representation, which holds that if the state apparatus is manned by Dalits, its character could be pro-Dalit. This entire network has been privy to the systematic weakening of the case, duly contributed to by the public prosecutor, which later led to the court making it out to be just an act committed in the “heat of anger.” It did not see it as a caste atrocity, or a conspiracy, or a case of outraging women’s modesty.
Persistence of Atrocities
After the killing of 10 innocent Dalits in Ramabai Nagar that devoured an additional life, that of a revolutionary balladeer Vilas Ghogare in 1997, Khairlanji had created a wave of condemnation of casteist Maharashtra. One may reasonably expect some let-up in atrocities out of the ignominy it entailed, but in vain. The atrocity numbers of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) only show persistent growth, having gone up by 74% from 27,070 in 2006 to 47,064 in 2014 at the all-India level. For Maharashtra, as shown in Table 1, the increase has been still higher at 86%. The rise in major categories of atrocities such as murder and rape is even higher at 105%. These numbers, as admitted by NCRB, do not reveal the complete picture of crimes, and are underestimates.
These numbers anyway do not convey the intensity of human tragedy behind them. One may get a glimpse of it from a sample of six atrocities that happened just within seven months (from July 2008 to February 2009) and over a small area of Maharashtra: Baban Misal (32), a promising young Dalit politician, was brutally killed for challenging the monopoly of the upper castes in Ahmednagar on 5 July 2008; Sahebrao Jondhale (40), a taxi driver, was beaten and burnt to death just for his assertion of independence; a Dalit woman, Sushilabai Pawar (42), was beaten to death by upper castes on 1 January 2008 for disallowing physical relationship with her daughter-in-law; houses of Hirabai Pandurang Waghmare (56) and Mahadev Yadav Waghmare (21) were burnt just because a Dalit head of the village hoisted the national flag on 26 January 2009; two Dalit teenage girls, Diksha Shinde (18) and Panchasheela Shinde (19) were abused, assaulted and humiliated by the dominant-caste people on 19 January 2009 because they did not respond to their lewd remarks; a Dalit youth, Rohidas Tupe (23), was mercilessly beaten to death on 24 February 2009 by the dominant-caste villagers just because he happened to love an upper-caste girl in Aurangabad (Manuski Centre nd). In the larger Marathwada region, atrocity cases rose from 135 in 2011, to 534 in 2012 to 759 in 2013 to 771 in 2014 (TNN 2015). This is the state of the Dalits in the so-called progressive state that never tires of claiming the legacy of Shahu–Phule–Ambedkar.
Khairlanji has been lucky in getting past the high court without acquittal of the criminals for “want of evidence,” as a series of its infamous predecessors had. In Kilvenmeni, the inaugural case of the new genre of atrocities, which happened in 1968, the Madras High Court had acquitted all 23 landlords simply saying that the gentlemen could not commit such a ghastly crime as killing 44 Dalits. Incidentally, eight Dalit farm labourers had undergone punishment, one, a life sentence, and others from one to five years of imprisonment for the alleged murder of P Padaiyacchi, the hitman of the landlords (Teltumbde 2014). The saga of injustice from the justice delivery system that began there has only grown over the years. In the infamous Tsunduru case (in which eight Dalits were brutally massacred by the upper-caste people on 6 August 1991) the Andhra Pradesh High Court had quashed the trial court’s order sentencing 21 persons to life terms and 35 others to one-year imprisonment, simply saying that the prosecution failed to produce sufficient evidence before the court. It is incidental that the Supreme Court has stayed it. In the previous case of a massacre of six Dalits in Karamchedu on 17 July 1987, the Andhra Pradesh High Court had similarly struck down the Ongole trial court’s conviction of 159 people to life imprisonment. It is only recently, after 23 long years that the Supreme Court has delivered its final verdict—a life sentence to the main accused, Anjaiah, and three years of jail for 29 others.
In the 1990s, there were bloody caste atrocities by upper-caste armies, though these were more or less ignored by Dalits because of their association with communists. Three Dalits were awarded death sentence and six life imprisonment for killing 35 Bhumihar–Brahmins in Bara in February 1992, which was confirmed by the Supreme Court within a year in 2002, and three more Dalits were given death sentences by the TADA court as members of the Maoist Communist Centre, while in cases of massacre of Dalits by the upper castes, there have been a series of summary acquittals before the Patna High Court. In quick succession, the court acquitted all Ranvir Sena convicts in Bathani Tola, Laxmanpur Bathe, Miyapur, Nagari Bazaar, and Khabra Muzaffarpur cases.
This being the trend, justice for the Bhotmanges is certainly a far cry!
Anand Teltumbde ([email protected]) is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.
Manuski Centre (nd): Atrocities on Dalits in Maharashtra, Manuski Centre: Pune.
Teltumbde, Anand (2014): “Of Caste Massacre and Judicial Impunity: Bloodstains in Bathani Tola and Laxmanpur Bathe,” Countercurrents.org, 5 March.
TNN (2015): “Atrocity Cases Rise, Conviction Rate Remains Low in Marathwada,” Times of India, 4 June.
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