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Khairlanji and Its Aftermath: Exploding Some Myths

The importance of Khairlanji lies in providing a clear illustration of the genesis, development and culmination of a caste atrocity. Khairlanji brings to the fore the irrelevance of dalit politics and politicians and rejection of them by ordinary dalits. But above all, Khairlanji helps dispel a number of myths - the myth that economic development does away with casteism, the myth of Maharashtra being a progressive state, the myth that there exists a significant progressive section of non-dalits that is against the caste system, the myth that dalits placed in the bureaucracy can orient the administration to do justice to dalits, and finally the mythology of 'bahujanwad' developed by the late Kanshiram and followed by other dalit leaders.


Khairlanji and Its Aftermath:Exploding Some Myths

Economic and Political WeeklyMarch 24, 20071020in normal course, is basically mediated bythe perceived strength of each group byboth camps. The state can play an instru-mental role in enhancing the perception ofdalit strength by its protective measures.But the record of atrocities on dalits re-flects the utter failure of the state in thedischarge of its constitutional respon-sibility.6The state has only faithfully servedthe ruling classes, whose vested interestsare in preserving the existing caste divide,even accentuating it. Partly following fromthis, and partly due to its dominant uppercaste orientation, the state has never madea sincere effort to arrest impending casteatrocities. On the contrary, mostly it hasbeen complicit with the perpetrators ofsuch crimes.The state’s complicity has manifestedeven in its post-atrocity dealings in refus-ing to register the case, or, if registered,in not conducting proper investigation, andthereby weakening the case in the courtof law. If the state had performed its roleeven reasonably well, it may be argued,the menace of caste atrocities would haveabated substantially by now. Unfortunately,the incidence of caste atrocities has beengrowing with passage of time. The veryprocess of dalits registering a crime withthe police is fraught with hurdles, startingwith a fear of reprisal from the powerfulupper castes or of incurring social preju-dice, as in the case of crimes involvingwomen at the victim’s end, and thereafterthe reluctance of the police to register thecase. The case gets counted in the statisticsof crimes against SCs only after it gets pastthese hurdles. More often than not, thelocal police clearly take sides with theperpetrators of the crime against the dalitvictims and do everything possible tosuppress the crime at the first instance.Political pressure and money exert a signi-ficant role. Even if the crime is registered,it is the police who investigate the crimeand collect evidence for prosecution. Theshoddy investigation by the police in suchcases is legion, as evidenced by theextremely paltry rate of conviction. Thereis a tacit assurance to the upper castes thatthe official protectors of the law would notcome in their way in their dealings withdalits. This assurance has played a key rolein sustaining the growth of atrocities yearafter year. The temerity of the Khairlanjicriminals also indicates a similarassurance.From the facts of the case, it is clear thatthe incident was sought to be suppressedby the police even as they reluctantly tookit on record. Although it would sendshiversdown the spine at the thought that such aghastly incident could have been buried inthe files of an obscure police station, thisis precisely what was initially planned. Onhindsight, it might appear foolish on thepart of the schemers to have imagined thatthey would be able to cover up the incident,but the very fact that they tried suggeststhat this was not entirely out of the realmof possibility. The public uproar over theincident broke out a full month after theincident, during which it was as good asburied. If even Bhaiyalal Bhotmange’s firstinformation report (FIR) led to the arrestsof some people (not the real culprits, hekept on shouting until end-November) inKhairlanji, as it actually happened, whowould have followed the case, what wouldhave happened in absence of any evidenceor any witnesses? Khairlanji, with all itsbestiality and gore would have been cov-ered up and forgotten. Nobody would haveknown about it. Even now that it has gotso much publicity, one cannot be sure thatthe real criminals would ever be punished.If the Ramabai Nagar case in the heart ofMumbai could frustrate dalits, who couldbe sure of conviction in remote Khairlanji?7Treacherous RoleThe insidious role the police played inthe making of Khairlanji and then sup-pressing it is quite representative of castecrimes anywhere. Khairlanji is a villageof 800 people in which just three house-holds are of neo-Buddhists (dalits) andseven households are of gonds (tribals),who in Vidarbha more or less identify withthe caste Hindus, the balance populationbelonging to the kunabi, kalar, teli, lodhi,dhivar, vadhai and other jatis, which fallunder the other backward classes (OBC)category, but serve as upper castevis-a-visdalits in a village setting. In such circum-stances, dalits will never come out in openconflict with caste Hindus unless there isa grave enough reason. The land disputethat triggered a saga of the Bhotmangesgetting ostracised was not unknown to thelocal police. While resisting the passageof caste Hindus across his fields, BhaiyalalBhotmange was once beaten, for which hehad complained to the police.8 In 2002,Surekha had complained against aneighbouring farmer, Shivshankar Atilkarfor trespassing on her farmland and abus-ing her in “casteist” tones. In 2004,thoughthe re-measurement of the farm-land confirmed the case of the Bhotmangesin a revenue court, in order to buypeace,Bhotmange, with the mediation ofSiddharth Gajbhiye, conceded a smallpassage through the farm. But this concil-iatory measure on his part did not stopharassment. Priyanka, Surekha’s daugh-ter, was teased and verbally harassed bypassing lewd remarks while she cycled toschool. Once she had reported such harass-ment to Siddharth Gajbhiye, who repri-manded the caste Hindus but advised theBhotmanges not to formally complain tothe police. One complaint on record withthe police is of Surekha being attackedwith a sickle by some caste Hindu women.Indeed, there appears to be a series ofincidents that were reported to the policebut there was absolutely no action taken.The Bhotmanges had the support ofSiddharth Gajbhiye, and so the Khairlanjivillagers decided to teach him a lesson. OnSeptember 3 last year, under the alibi ofa dispute over wages to be paid to farmlabourers, some of them caught and beathim unconscious. The following day hisbrother Rajendra went to the Andhalgaonpolice station to report the incident but wasarrogantly turned away. Siddharth wasadmitted to a Kamptee hospital, where thepolice registered his complaint and trans-ferred the case to the Andhalgaon policestation on jurisdictional grounds. As theAndhalgaon police came to take the state-ments of Surekha and Priyanka, the wit-nesses named in the complaint, the sarpanchand upsarpanch of Khairlanji had threat-ened to kill them, and that too, in the verypresence of the police. On September 21,Rajendra was similarly threatened at Kandrivillage. The next day he was involved ina skirmish, for which he had made acomplaint to the police, but there was noaction. The police arrested 12 people forbeating Siddharth Gajbhiye but they werereleased on bail on September 29. It is saidthat as a witness Surekha took advantageof the opportunity and included some ofher old enemies in the list of 12 accused.After the return of these accused, the casteHindus called a meeting and decided toteach a lesson to Siddharth Gajbhiye andtheBhotmange family. When Surekha learntof this,9she informed Siddharth Gajbhiyeand her nephew Rashtrapal Narnaware inWarti village over her cell phone.Each of the above complaints qualifiedto be registered under SC/ST (Preventionof Atrocities) Act (PoA Act), but none wasso registered. Even the case of beating ofSiddharth Gajbhiye in Khairlanji thatculminated in the gory carnage was deemednot fit enough to be registered under the
Economic and Political WeeklyMarch 24, 20071021PoA Act. Had the police taken due cog-nisance of these preceding disputes, onecould argue, that Khairlanji could havebeen averted. It is the complicity of policethat has led to caste Hindus musteringcourage to punish Bhotmanges for up-holding their dignity and self-respect.When the mob actually attacked, Surekhahad called Rajendra Gajbhiye on her cellto seek police help. Rajendra immediatelycalled the police but they did not payanyheed. Mysteriously, the sim card ofSurekha’s cellphone went missing.Rajendra then rushed to Khairlanji andafter witnessing the attack again called thepolice on his cellphone. Bhaiyalal, whosaw the attack ran to Siddharth to savehimself. Siddharth immediately called thepolice and requested for help. The tortureof Bhotmanges lasted for more than twohours thereafter. The police, located justeight km away, could have easily reachedthere in less than 20 minutes, but theychose not to. Bhaiyalal and Gajbhiyepersonally reached the Andhalgaon policestation to report the incident but the policedid not register it and instead sent a con-stable to Khairlanji when everything wasover. The constable just met the sarpanchand returned reporting that everything wasnormal. It was only the next day, whenBhaiyalal went with Gajbhiye and his uncleto the police station that an FIR was regis-tered. When in the morning of Septem-ber30 the body of Priyanka was recoveredfrom the canal and her cousin Rashtrapalidentified her, the police recorded it intheir inquest as “unidentified and un-claimed” and sent it for post-mortem. Thepost-mortem was carried out shoddily andthe body disposed off. The next day, theother three bodies were recovered, buttheywere also similarly disposed off. Theevidence as such was effectively destroyed.The information provided by the policeto the press was obviously prompted bythe schemers – that the Bhotmanges werekilled over the issue of an illicit relation-ship. The strategy appeared to have workedto the extent that none among the largecongregation of dalits gathered to com-memorate the 50th year of conversion ofBabasaheb Ambedkar on October 2 atDiksha Bhoomi at Nagpur noted the news.It was not even noted by the next congre-gation on October 14 that followed theEnglish calendar in observing the anniver-sary. The incident could have easily passedoff as a crime for which some arrests weremade and police investigation was on. Theywould have managed bail for the arrestedpeople and thereafter for the others. Thismight seem implausible, but is actuallywhat happens in most atrocity cases. Evenafter the publicity that the case gets, thereis no guarantee of conviction of criminals.For instance, no one knows what happenedin the case of Gohana10or Jajjhar?Apart from the entire police machinery,the doctors who helped suppress thisincident by their acts of commission andomission, the public prosecutor who inex-plicably advised against the PoA Act beingapplied, in short, the entire state apparatushas actively contributed to the making ofKhairlanji.The AftermathWhat followed Khairlanji was equallygrave. As the information on the gruesomemurders began leaking out of the fact-finding reports and spreading around, itcreated revulsion among certain sectionsof the dalit community. The first reactionwas to come out in protest on to the streets;a women’s organisation, the RashtriyaSambuddha Mahila Sanghtana in Bhandara,took out a massive rally on November 1.This rally provided inspiration to others toorganise protests in various towns andcities. Soon, the entire Vidarbha regionreverberated with protests. It is notablethat almost everywhere dalit womenhadtaken a lead. The people, particularlyyoungsters supported these efforts andpoured out on to the streets in large num-bers. These were genuine protesters whodid not have the usual support system thatthe established political parties have. Mostpeople were educated individuals, em-ployed or otherwise, who were impelledto express their moral outrage against thecriminals of Khairlanji and police com-plicity in the crime. However, the policeeverywhere cracked down on them witha heavy hand, as though they were biggercriminals than the perpetrators ofKhairlanji. At most places the protesterswere brutally beaten. At least one personwas killed and several injured when policeopened fire in Amravati. As an all-Indiafact-finding committee that visited Nagpur,Kamptee, Amravati, Akola and Yavatmal,where significant police action had takenplace, reported that the use of force by thepolice was unwarranted and reflected ananti-dalit bias.At the rally in Nagpur, one of the firstin a series of protest actions, people ex-pressed their anger by blocking traffic andshouting anti-government slogans,nothingabnormal, given the context of Khairlanji.However, the home minister of Maharashtraissued a statement on camera that thegovernment suspected Naxalites werebehind these protests. Later he publiclyretracted the statement, as it led to anuproar among dalits. However, the Nagpurpolice fully capitalised on it to unleashsevere repression on the dalit masses. Thebrutal lathi charges on protesting dalits, thearrests that followed these protests, theshowering of filthy casteist abuses, thehumiliations heaped on people in policecustody as though they were hardenedcriminals, and police vehemence in oppos-ing their bail applications, were reflectiveof a deep anti-dalit bias and intolerance ofdalit assertion of their democratic rights.In Amravati, the protest rally on Novem-ber 14 by the Khairlanji Nished Kruti Samitievoked a massive response; more than25,000 people in attendance, which wasin sharp contrast to just a couple of thou-sand persons at a rally organised by thesenior Republican Party of India (RPI)leader, R S Gavai. After reaching thecollector’s office and handing over amemorandum, the rally formally con-cluded. But as the people dispersed andwere returning home, the police suddenlybegan a lathi charge on the pretext of stonethrowing from somewhere, which accord-ing to organisers was rather in responseto police action. Police did not spare evenwomen and children, one of whom lay inhospital paralysed for life. Irked by thepolice highhandedness, people set fire toa water tanker and a few motorbikes parkednearby. The police burst teargas shells andopened fire on the retreating people. Oneyouth, Dinesh Wankhede was hit in thehead and killed and three others werewounded with bullet injuries on variousparts of their bodies. The fact that all thewounded persons fell down in the by-lanesclearly showed (this was even captured oncamera) that police had indeed fired uponthe people while they were in retreat. Thepolice commissioner justified the firing tothe all-India fact-finding committee mem-bers, saying that there was an imminentdanger of a communal conflagration, withthe Shiv Sena being prepared for that.The police action however did not endthere. The police began rounding up peopleand slapping all kinds of cases on them –cases such as sedition, attempt to murder,rioting, etc, for which it is not easy to getbail. They arrested a mathematics teacherof the local Navodaya Vidyalaya for hav-ing a booklet and a poster on Khairlanji.
Economic and Political WeeklyMarch 24, 20071023has not been any incident that has blem-ished this solemnity, and this, without muchpolice presence (the entire arrangement isoverseen by the Samata Sainik Dal), shouldhave been good enough to dispel anymisgiving. But the state intentionally cre-ated a fear psychosis, duly whipped up bythe media, that lakhs of people decided notto grace the occasion. The entire ChaityaBhoomi and Shivaji maidan had the over-bearing presence of police, which effec-tively took away the solemnity of theoccasion. The administration and the policein effect disrupted one of the most gloriousoccasions of dalit solidarity. Henceforth,the Diksha Bhoomis and Chaitya Bhoomiswill no longer be the same; they will beclosely monitored and controlled by themight of the state.Before the fire over Khairlanji could bedoused, the news of desecration of a statuein Kanpur came in, giving rise to a newwave of violent protests in Maharashtra.InNashik, one person was killed; so too inNanded. In Usmanabad, during a ‘rastaroko’ two persons were killed in policefiring. At Ulhasnagar, the Deccan Queenand a local train were set on fire. Thearreststhat followed thereafter had the same patternof harassment, beating and humiliation inpolice custody, and so on. The fact-findingteam that investigated the Ulhasnagarincidents reported that, according to localpeople, it was not the people protestingthere who set the rear bogies of the trainonfire, but persons patronised by a particularpolitician who caused all the damage.Question of ConscienceThe spate of spontaneous protests overthe desecration of the statue of Ambedkarstunned many people because these tookplace in distant Maharashtra and not in thestate where the desecration happened.While this could be easily explained by theimmediate context of Khairlanji or thedifference in degree of devotion amongdalits vis-à-vis Ambedkar in Maharashtraand elsewhere, these protests exposed thenature of dalit consciousness, which couldbe an eye-opener for dalit movement. Whilein the case of Khairlanji, where four haplesspersons were brutally killed in what couldbe called a pure caste atrocity, it took overa month for the protests to erupt, in con-trast, the news of the desecration ofAmbedkar’s statue evoked an instantaneousresponse. News of the desecration of astatue evokes an immediate public outragebut not that of the brutal killing of humanbeings. The gruesome killings in Jhajjharor burning down of 70 dalit houses inGohana, both in Haryana, surprisingly didnot evoke any reaction in Maharashtra.Why, even in the wake of Khairlanji, therewere a spate of atrocities in Maharashtraitself, which significantly included thebrutal cutting into pieces of a dalit farmlabourer in Jahangir Moha village of Beeddistrict of Marathwada in November or thekilling of a youth belonging to the matangcaste in Umarga Narangwadi in October.But both these atrocities did not createeven a ripple among dalits. Outrage overAmbedkar statues however is legion; recall,for instance, the Ramabai Nagar incidentthat took toll of 10 lives in police firingand self-killing in protest of a revolution-ary dalit poet, Vilas Ghogre.It seems that dalits are more concernedwith symbolic identity issues than withwhat happens to the living members oftheir community. On the positive side, theAmbedkar statue symbolises the loftiestlegacy of dalit struggle, which shouldinspire generations of dalits to take thisstruggle further, but on the negative side,Ambedkar could become just a god head,like that of erstwhile vithoba or mhasoba,that could enslave their spirits. Consider-ing the state of dalit masses, the latter ismore likely to happen. None other than theruling classes understood this and decidedto promote it; the more the creed of theAmbedkar statue takes root, the more wouldAmbedkar’s ideals be rooted out. Khairlanjiserves as one more reminder for dalits torethink these matters. Looked at from astrategic angle, the resource scarce peopleas they are, dalits should have an acutesense of priorities. The sensitivity towardsdignity, symbolised by the Ambedekarstatue, is only justified if it is associatedwith a similar concern for the plight ofliving people. While the inversion may beexplained to a large extent by the historicalalienation of the dalit movement from socialmovements inspired by the philosophy ofhistorical materialism, it is time for dalitsto realise that this reactionary disorienta-tion has already done a great damage totheir collective well-being.Irrelevance of Dalit PoliticiansThe identity orientation of dalits serveswell a politics that does not have anythingto offer dalits other than empty slogans andhollow symbols. Intrinsically incapable ofcomprehending and confronting the reallife problems of dalits, the politiciansembracing the politics of identity abide bythe practices of the ruling class politicalparties to maintain the vacuous characterof dalit politics. The Poona Pact of 1932had deprived them of the possibility ofindependent representation on the basis ofa communitarian identity. And, the pos-sibility of an alternative politics, involvingalliances with the working class as a wholeand the communist parties, and embracingthe politics of class was not as easy asidentity politics and did not attract dalitpoliticians aiming at a quick buck. Theresult was that dalit politics and politiciansgot subsumed as adjuncts of the rulingclassparties for which symbols and identitiesmattered more than the material interestsof the people.Khairlanji conclusively exposes thebankruptcy of dalit politics and politiciansin its comprehensiveness. The absence ofthese politicians in Khairlanji was asconspicuous as in all the earlier incidentsof atrocities on dalits. It is significant thatdalit politics, whose raison d’etre it is tosafeguard dalit interests fundamentallyfrom caste discrimination, is not concernedwith atrocities on dalits, which indeed arethe concentrated expression of casteism.The reason behind this is that the dalitpoliticians cannot afford to embarrass theirruling class political patrons. In the caseof Khairlanji, it is said that one senior dalitpolitician had deliberately ensured that thenews of Khairlanji was suppressed in thecity edition so that the celebrations of50thanniversary of the ‘DhammachakraPravartan Din’,which has been reducedover the years to an event for self promo-tion passes on without any disturbance.Some politicians pursuing the ephemeralcaste-based bahujanism could not figureout what stand to take when they foundthat kunbis and kalars were pitted againstthe dalits. Reared on anti-brahmin symbol-ism, they are intellectually so bereft as notto see that atrocities on dalits are mostlycommitted by the backward castes whohave assumed the baton of brahminismduring the post-independence period.The protesters over Khairlanji thereforezealously kept away the entire set ofmainstream politicians from their midst.Abhorrence of these politicians was sointense that the participants in protest rallieseven did not let the organisers speak intothe mike at many places lest they shouldseem like the mainstream dalit politicians.The anger of dalit protesters was as muchagainst the perpetrators of crime as wasagainst the complicity of the state and the

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