In the ten years that have passed since the Khairlanji massacre took place on 29 September 2006, the exact circumstances of the tragedy still remain hazy.
If you read one of the early extensive reports that appeared in The Times of India, a month after the incident and the latest, in the same newspaper, which revisits the scene of the crime, you will be disturbed by the persistence of ambiguity in the two narratives, set apart by a decade. The exact trigger behind the atrocity remains uncertain, compounded by conflicting accounts by eye-witnesses, law and order officials, social activists and the criminal justice system.
Let's ignore the Rashomon effect for a moment and lay down the bare facts of the case, the ones we know are indisputably true.
On this day, ten years ago, four members of a Dalit family, including a mother and her three children, were tortured for several hours and publicly humiliated, before being killed by a group of men in a village called Khairlanji in the Bhandara district of Maharashtra, about 800 km from the capital, Mumbai. The fifth member of the family, Bhaiyalal Bhotmange, now 61, survived the carnage as he was away at the time.
While the killings were undeniable, the circumstances that precipitated them remained murky.
Bhaiyalal's wife Surekha Bhotmange (44) and daughter Priyanka (17) were allegedly stripped and paraded in public by a gang of 40 to 60 men, subjected to sexual assault and brutal beatings with cycle chains and bullock goads, before they were killed and their bodies thrown into a canal. His sons, Roshan (19) and Sudhir (21), were also lynched by the mob. Roshan, who was visually impaired, pleaded for mercy, but was not spared.
It is believed that the village, predominantly inhabited by people belonging to the Other Backward Class (OBC), pounced on the women for testifying to the police against their neighbours for attacking one of their relatives, Siddharth Gajbhiye. The moral police claimed that Surekha was in an illicit relationship with Siddharth, a fact which Bhaiyalal denied, as though were that to be true, she would have deserved the monstrosity inflicted on her.
CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat, one of the first people to bring this incident to the attention of the national media, recalled her experience in an article in The Indian Express.
According to her, Siddharth, also a Dalit who was a police patil, had stood by Surekha when attempts were made by her neighbours to seize the five-acre land owned by the Bhotmanges. She was prevented from building a pucca house. Priyanka, who topped her school, was subjected to casteist taunts. When Siddharth was roughed up by local rowdies for supporting Surekha, she decided to give her testimony to the police as a gesture of reciprocation. Additionally, she threatened to retaliate with a case against the men under the Prevention of Atrocities Against Dalits Act.
It was this decision, to extend her help to a man she and her family were indebted to, that apparently lit the fire of revenge.
Of the 40-60 people who were involved in the 'retribution' they meted out to the Bhotmange family, as many as 46 were initially arrested and the case was escalated to the fast-track courts. In two years, the lower court convicted 8 and gave death sentences to 6, which were later changed to life imprisonment by the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court. One of the men died in jail a few years ago. Bhaiyalal is still waiting for the Supreme Court to decide on the final penalty for the others.
"I want justice. I want the death penalty to the convicts in my family's brutal carnage," he told The Indian Express recently.
Bhaiyalal now lives in Bhandara city, where he works as a guard at a hostel, making Rs 15,000 a month. He leases out the land his wife had fought hard to save for a measly sum of Rs 20,000 a year. He returns to his village every year on the day he lost his family, though nobody speaks to him there. No trace of his old life remains but for an iron cot, which he has held on to as a memorial.
Khairlanji's population is a mix of various castes, with the Kunbis being in the majority. From reports it is clear that people are reluctant to admit any caste tension, now or ten years ago. Public consensus seems to be that the Bhotmanges were chased out and killed due to personal vendetta and not caste hatred. People are uneasy about talking to the media, their cageyness sitting oddly with the wave of rebellion by Dalits in other parts of the country, especially in their neighbouring state, Gujarat.
But Khairlanji debunked many myths. In the words of social activist Anand Teltumbe, who wrote the book, Khairlanji: A Strange and Bitter Crop, "Khairlanji exploded many myths.... The myth of economic upliftment of Dalits being the best antidote to their disabilities.... 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.... And most importantly, the myth of representation, which holds that if the state apparatus is manned by Dalits, its character could be pro-Dalit."
Since Khairlanji, data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) on atrocities against Dalits show a rise of 86% in Maharashtra, with a 105% rise for major crimes like murder and rape.
Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought himself up to decrying the spate of injustices against Dalits over the recent months, Home Minster Rajnath Singh made an impassioned speech in Parliament, in the course of which he claimed that crimes against Dalits have declined since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance came to power in 2014. A closer inspection revealed he was only speaking a partial truth.
Since Khairlanji, data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) on atrocities against Dalits show a rise of 86% in Maharashtra, with a 105% rise for major crimes like murder and rape. These figures, as NCRB points out, are but estimates; the real picture is bleaker than what the statistics reveal.
As India confronts the spectre of Khairlanji, the Marathas in Maharashtra are up in arms against the Dalits once again, this time to seek justice for a comparable crime, in which a 14-year-old girl was raped and murdered by Dalit men in Kopardi village of Ahmendnagar district. The resonances from a decade back are uncanny, including the demand for an amendment to the Prevention of Atrocities Against Dalits Act.
But to people, especially for someone like Bhaiyalal who has lost everything, the human cost is all that matters. "If Marathas are asking for reservation, they should be given it," as he told The Indian Express. "The Kopardi victim family too must get justice."
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