This story first appeared on Catch News on 29 September 2016.
On the tenth anniversary of the Khairlanji massacre, Catch revisits the crime that shook Maharashtra when a Dalit family was slaughtered by a subsection of Marathas in a ‘revenge crime’. As the Maratha agitation gains traction, the anniversary is a timely reminder of what’s at stake in a state where caste prejudices are deeply entrenched.
As the sun makes its lazy journey up the sky, Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange, 61, prepares for his yearly visit to the place where he once lived with his family. Every year, on 29 September, Dalit activists gather in Maharashtra’s village of Khairlanji in Bhandara district to light a candle at the spot where Bhaiyyalal’s hut once stood.
Today, only a symbolic iron cot acquires a bleak presence.
10 long years
Exactly 10 years ago, Maharashtra’s conscience was shaken by one of the most horrific caste crimes the state has ever seen. On the fateful day, as Bhaiyyalal worked on his farm, a massive group – most of them Kunbis (a subsection within Marathas) – surrounded his hut, and lynched his family: wife Surekha (44), daughter Priyanka (17), sons Roshan (19) and Sudhir (21). Surekha and Priyanka were reportedly gangraped and paraded naked in the village before being killed.
After the carnage, Dalits had poured into the streets in protest.
“I would say what I have been saying for the past 10 years,” says Bhaiyyalal, who now leads a lonely life as a security guard of a boys’ hostel in Bhandara city, 40 kilometres from Khairlanji. “I want justice. I want the culprits hanged.”
The case has been languishing in the Supreme Court where the 2010 High Court judgment – in which the death sentence to six of the eight convicted was commuted to life imprisonment – has been challenged.
A full circle
The tenth anniversary of Khairlanji comes at a poignant time, when Maharashtra is engulfed in the mammoth protests conducted by Marathas.
In July, a Maratha girl was brutally raped and murdered by Dalit youngsters in Ahmadnagar’s Kopardi village, which triggered the endemic demonstrations. In Maharashtra, the infamous Dalit-Maratha animosity has resulted in some of the most gruesome atrocities on Dalits inflicted by Marathas. Commentators believe Maratha groups, through Kopardi, are trying to negate the history of violence Dalits have been subjected to for all these years.
The Maratha movement, as it has grown, now comprises of both radical and progressive influences within the caste. The anti-Dalit undercurrent has gradually become palpable as the protests first demanded the abolishment of Atrocity Act, which was formulated in 1989 to end the discrimination against Dalits.
After severe reactions from Dalit groups, the demand was later diluted to regulating the Atrocity Act. Maratha protestors have also demanded reservation, which would possibly eat into the reservation quota of the lower castes.
Entrenched caste prejudices
Marathas allege the Dalits misuse the Atrocity Act to blackmail the ones they want to frame. However, the tenth anniversary of the Khairlanji massacre is a timely reminder of the Dalit atrocities prevailing in Maharashtra, and the need to persist with the act.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), atrocity numbers have swelled by 74% from 27,070 in 2006 to 47,064 in 2014 at the all-India level. As far as Maharashtra in concerned, the graph has risen even more ominously at 86%.
The increase in murder and rape is higher at 105%. Activists say these are conservative numbers, with many going unreported.
Interestingly, the Bhandara court had deemed the Atrocity Act inapplicable for the Khairlanji case. The bench had said there was no caste angle to the barbaric murders. It was a case of “revenge crime”, the court said.
A few days before the murders took place, Siddharth Gajbhiye, a Mahar, and Sakru Binjeswar, one of the accused in the case later, got into a brawl over non-payment of wages Siddharth owed to Sakru. According to the judgment, Sidhharth slapped Sakhru. Later in the evening, Sidhharth was rescued by Surekha and Priyanka when he was being attacked. Sidhharth lodged a police complaint and Surekha identified the attackers. The ones identified were arrested and released on bail on 29 September. The same evening, Bhaiyyalal’s hut was encircled by Sakru and his men. After they murdered the Bhotmanges, their bodies were dumped in a bullock cart and disposed off in the canal.
Khairlanji village, at the time, was known for its entrenched caste-prejudices. OBCs happened to form the majority in the village. Including Bhotmange’s, merely three families were Mahars, a Scheduled Caste. Of the three, the Bhotmanges were perceived as the most forceful.
A botched investigation
Subodh More, an activist, member of CPI(M) and someone who was the member of NGO Manuski’s fact-finding team in the case, said the police were “consciously lethargic” in investigating the case. He said merely eight people could not have carried out the brutality of the massacre. “Initially, the police had arrested 46 people,” he said. “But only 11 were charged, out of which three were acquitted.”
He added the post mortem was not conducted properly. And in spite of the women being paraded naked, there was no rape or molestation charge. When the constable from the nearest police station arrived at the spot, he was in no mood to begin the investigation, which he later blamed on the “darkness around”.
The whole investigation betrayed the caste-bias of the authorities, said More. “Those involved in the case had political connections,” he said. “The police wanted to let people off the hook. Some of the policemen have also been suspended in the case.”
A delay in justice
The government prosecutor in the case was Ujwal Nikam, who is often blamed by activists for the derailment of this case. “He failed to convince the judge regarding the atrocity act,” said More. “The state did not follow up the case at all.”
Nikam, however, said he only represented the case in the Bhandara court and he is not responsible for what happened after that. When asked why did the court reject the application of Atrocity Act, he said, “It has been so many years. I do not remember.”
10 years later
To mark the anniversary and condemn the delay in justice, activists in Pune and Mumbai organised a protest march. Sanjay Dabhade, one of the organisers in Pune, said the demand to reconsider Atrocity Act is deplorable. “The act is being enforced lethargically, denying Dalits justice,” he said. “If the so-called misuse of the act is authentic, why does the government not release a white paper and statistically educate us about the bogus cases lodged under the act?”
When the Khairlanji incident transpired, the village tried to suppress it as much as it could. Initially, the public was fed that the crime was an offshoot of an illicit affair. Aspersions had been cast regarding Surekha’s character. A section of the media even carried such news reports. The protesters who took to streets thereafter were dubbed “naxals”.
While the Maratha agitation and especially the youth have a lot to complain about, the 10-year anniversary of the whole Khairalnji episode comes as a timely counter to its anti-Dalit connotation. Bhaiyyalal, when asked about the prospects of abolishing Atrocity Act, said, “The Kopardi victim deserves justice. But please do not encumber the rights of the deprived sections of the society. I would not want anyone to suffer the way I did.”