Khairlanji: Dalits Rise Against A Caste-Patriarchy Backlash
Though the Khairlanji Massacre has been white-washed as a land dispute, or a minor incident of aberration, by sections of the media and political mainstream, the Kharilanji killings were definitely a case of a backlash against the assertion of dalit and women’s rights. Two women, the mother Surekha and the daughter, Priyanka Bhotmange simply defended their right to use their land as they wished…but this assertion by women, and that too, dalit women upset the caste hierarchy in society and painted them as quarrelsome, immoral and fit to be taught a lesson. Priyanka was the only girl in the village who had studied up to Std. XII ; their family was friendly with a police patil of a neighbouring village, one Siddhartha Gajbhiye who was a politically aware and assertive person. So, after the heinous incident and to build up towards it, a story was spread that the Bhotmanges sold liquor, that they practiced prostitution and that the mother, Surekha had an affair with Siddhartha. How convenient is the patriarchal texture of the fabric of Indian society! Rape and kill women, brutalize their bodies sexually and then blame it on them to clear your conscience. Victim becomes the accused and the real accused go scot free. Perhaps it is this reality that dalits, for generations have seen, all over the country and it is for this reason that in protest against the Khairlanji incident they came out on the streets in huge numbers, faced the wrath of the police and gave a challenge to the state—the Brahmanical, patriarchal state that invariably turns a blind eye towards the dalits and working class women. It is not surprising then that in many of these agitations, the leading activists were women. ……….
About seventeen years ago, the Bhotmange family came to live in Khairlanji village as they had got 5 acres of land there. Khairlanji is a village in Bhandrara district in the Northeast of Maharashtra, bordering Madhya Pradesh. In this village about 180 people and 125 families live, but only three families belong to the dalit community. Among these three, the Bhotmange family were rising socially and economically. Their son, Sudhir had graduated, Priyanka was in Higher Secondary and their second son, Roshan, though blind was also a student. Their family friend, Siddhartha Gajbhiye, of Dhusala village, was also an upcoming dalit. He even employed farm workers belonging to the OBC castes on his farm. He was also a police patil. Now, the land acquired by the Bhotmanges used to be uncultivated. It was used as a common passage by other farmers on their way from the village to the fields. When the Bhotmanges began cultivating this land, it caused a dispute and the Bhotmanges made a pathway for people to use. However, some of the neighbours wanted enough space to drive their tractors and vehicles and this they objected to. This kind of a dispute was going on in the village, with police complaints registered since the last five years. A recent altercation between the villagers and Siddhartha Gajbhiye took place on September 3 and the villagers abused him on caste grounds and beat him up. When he tried to register a case, it was not registered. But the two families came together against this injustice and pursued the matter. A few days later, a case was registered and some villagers arrested. Surekha gave evidence in this case.
On 29th September, the accused were released on bail. They immediately went to Siddhartha’s house to take revenge but he was not at home. They returned to the village, instigated the other villagers and decided to attack the Bhotmanges for standing witness. On 29th evening the villagers arrived at their ramshackle hut, in tractors with sticks, axes and other such weapons. When the mother Surekha called the Gajbhiyes for help using a cell phone, Siddharth was out. His brother Rajendra rushed to the police station and then cycled to the village. When Rajendra reached the village he saw the attack taking place and due to fear hid behind a tree. Surekha Bhotmange (45), Priyanka (19), Sons Sudhir (18) and Roshan (17) were all victims to this barbaric brutality. One of the sons was blind. Activists say that they were all paraded naked, the women raped, a stick was shoved into the girl’s vagina, the brother was told to have sex with the sister and when he refused his genitals were crushed with sticks. All of them were attacked on their private parts by axes etc and finally killed. The bodies were dumped in a bullock cart, taken to the fields and dumped in a canal.
From the very beginning, the police machinery showed a sense of callousness towards the dalit families. When the villagers came to attack them, Surekha Bhotmange called the Gajbhiye’s on a mobile phone. Since Siddhartha was out, Rajendra took his cycle and first informed the police station at Andhalgaon and then rushed to the village. But for hours on end, the police did not turn up. When they did come, they could not find the body. After the bodies were found, they were not identified. Though the female bodies were naked, no tests were conducted for rape. In fact, the evidence of sexual assault was all over the bodies but the law defines rape as penetration of the penis and so people can escape from crimes sexual in nature. No arrests were made, no FIR registered initially. Though, due to the agitations about 42 villagers, including women were arrested, it is a well known fact that the future outcome of the trial depends largely on the initial police panchanama and delays can destroy evidence. Some local activists told CAVOW members that the police efficiency was largely due to political pressure from the local BJP MLA. When finally the police personnel and government hospital doctor and Public Prosecutor of Andhalgaon PS were suspended, it so happened that almost all of them were dalits and the PP a dalit woman. This only goes to show that very often, when oppressed sections, like women, dalits, adivasis etc are co-opted into important posts in the government or state machinery, they tend to side with the ruling classes and not with the suffering people.
A question came up in the minds of most women and democratic rights activists….why did the families belonging to other backward castes attack this family so brutally. The answer can perhaps be found in the way in which the ruling classes have been spreading communal and casteist hatred for the last many years. They have brainwashed the lower rungs of the OBCs, many of whom are more exploited than a section of the dalits, to believe that by tailing along with the Hindutwa forces, they will be able to progress. Heinous crimes against Muslims in Gujrat, Christians and dalits on the whole are getting a kind of social sanction in the name of protecting Hindu religion. The large number of crimes, of this nature which have gone unpunished have sent the message that mob violence, lynching people of the minority communities like Muslims, Sikha and Buddhists will be condoned. Even after the CBI took over the inquiry they first declared that there was no evidence of rape and then filed charge-sheets only on 11-12 of the arrested people….that too, after the whole of Maharashtra was burning!
The major political parties, the factions of the RPI, the BSP and Buddhist religious leaders initially chose to ignore the incident. Huge celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism had been planned in Nagpur. The co-option of the Dalit intellectuals and leaders can also be seen in the way lakhs of rupees were being spent on this grand spectacle, where women governors and Congress leaders were the main guests of the women’s “seminar”. Though thousands of poor dalit women thronged to the Deekshabhoomi for the celebration, the voices on the dais did not express their concerns. On October 14, BSP leaders Mayawati came to Nagpur for the same purpose but ignored the issue. It was the second ranking leadership, the local level dalit leaders who rose to the occasion. To rise above the factionalism in the dalit movement, the women of Bhandara, along with some dalit women intellectuals of Nagpur and Nashik organized a huge rally at Bhandara on Nov 1. That was the turning point. At this rally the Long March from Nagpur to Bhandara was also announced. Some Dalit leaders of Indora Nagpur, from various RPI factions as well as some women active in the Akku Yadav lynching case were in the fore front of this initiative.
The first half of November saw this huge upsurge of dalit militancy…a spontaneous outburst of pent up anger, frustration with the system. People just spilled out on the roads and fought pitched battles with the police. From where did this kind of courage spring, except from their suffering and history of dalit struggles that in spite of severe lathi-charge, abuses and house to house police raids, the agitations went on and on? Curfew, arrests, teargas, firings…nothing seemed to intimidate the people. The desecration of Dr. Ambedkar’s statue at Kanpur, around the same period added fuel to the fire.
Just as the Bhandara rally was organized by a women’s united front called Sambudhha Mahila Sanghatana, so also at Amravati and Yawatmal it were women who initiated the protests. Many women like Nanda Tayade, were in jail in Amravati and a lady lecturer could not join her job for many days fearing arrests. In Yawatmal, Pramodini Ramteke took the lead in organizing peaceful protests. In Bombay women who had spearheaded the Bar-girls struggle as well as dalit intellectuals and other women activists stormed into the Sachivalaya to protest these atrocities. In many cities like Chandrapur, etc women’s organizations took out rallies and had demonstrations against Kharilanji incidents.
However, the police unleashed a terribly brutal kind of repression on the people. The Fact-Finding report of various mass organizations on this issue gives the details. In this process, many women’s lives have been permanently damaged. Apart from losing their loved ones or their sources of income, they themselves have had severe injuries on their bodies. Sarla Deshbratar is hospitalized with a severe back injury. The police have beaten her so badly that she cannot even sit up and probably has a slipped disc. Sarla works in a private hospital as an attendant and is the sole breadwinner of her family, her husband being an alcoholic. She has two girls, the elder, a college student. She is totally traumatized about her future and the future of her family. We also met Raubai Tukaramji Wargante who is 70 years old and is in hospital with injuries all over due to beating and stampede. Vishakha Bhaisane is a female police constable working in the department since 18 years, presently posted at Nagpur. On 6th November, Vishakha was working in her office till 7.30. She reached home at Kamthee at 9 p.m. When she was on her way to buy medicines that night, she mingled with the crowds on the streets who were protesting the Khairlanji incidents and she became a victim of both mob violence and police violence. Though she kept shouting out loud that she was in the police department, API Thosare kept on beating her. Her hand was fractured due to this severe beating. She was dragged by the police into the police station but in spite of her injuries she was not taken to hospital. At about 1.30 in the night, she says that she was taken on the police motorcycle to Chaudhary hospital Kamthee, where she was admitted. Many cases under different sections have been foisted on Vishakha. These are a few examples of how women were targeted by the police for protesting against the callousness of the state machinery.
Apart from this, to justify this level of repression, the Special IG Anti-Naxal Operations, Pankaj Gupta along with the Deputy CM, R.R. Patil spread the bogie that there was a Naxalite hand in these militant agitations. The Maoists later issued a statement generally supporting the dalits in their struggle and demanding the resignation of government, police officials and established dalit leaders. An independent voluntary organization, YASHADA along with a Training Institute under the Department of Social Justice GOI, brought out a Fact-Finding report corroborating what other activists were saying and squarely blaming Pankaj Gupta for stating falsely that the women victims were not raped. They even alleged that Gupta took a bribe for this.
The Khairlanji incidents and the widespread protests that followed only indicate the extent of casteism in our semi-feudal society. It shows the brahmanical and patriarchal nature of the Indian state and is another example to show how women’s bodies are brutalized to teach a community a lesson.
Many of the women, who were victims of state violence, told the fact-finding team, that the police were threatening them: “We will do a Khairlanji on you”. Can the much talked about police reforms ever change the mentality and role of our state machinery? While the state wishes to use the word Khairlanji as a threat, we of the women’s movement will always remember it as a word synonymous with struggle, when an entire community of people rose up as one to fight for their rights.
Cavow was part of a fact-finding :
Suppressing the Voice of the Oppressed—State terror on protests against the Khairlanji Massacre—A report to the Nation.
Copies are available at:
LHS, C/O Dr. J.D. Vohra, 34, Malviya Road, Vile Parle East, Mumbai 400 057.
CPDR, C/O P.A. Sebastian, YMCA Hostel, Wodehouse Road, Colaba, Mumbai 400 005.