The Lessons from Khairlanji

Anand Teltumbde has an very insightful article in the Economic and Political Weekly on the context and aftermath of the ghastly Kharilanji incident on 15 October 2006. The full article is available at the EPW site in pdf format. Some extracts:

There is a discernible increase in the intensity of atrocities in recent years, which may be explained to some extent by their being committed by a collective. The cruelty displayed in certain recent caste atrocities defies human imagination. The details of the torture inflicted on the Bhotmanges in Khairlanji cannot be believed to be an act of human beings – a mother and daughter being paraded naked to the village centre, the genitals of the boys being crushed with stones, the two women being gang raped to death and the corpses being callously thrown into the canal.

The insidious role the police played in the making of Khairlanji and then suppressing it is quite representative of caste crimes anywhere. Khairlanji is a village of 800 people in which just three households are of neo-Buddhists (dalits) and seven households are of gonds (tribals), who in Vidarbha more or less identify with the caste Hindus, the balance population belonging to the kunabi, kalar, teli, lodhi, dhivar, vadhai and other jatis, which fall under the other backward classes (OBC) category, but serve as upper caste vis-a-vis dalits in a village setting. In such circumstances, dalits will never come out in open conflict with caste Hindus unless there is a grave enough reason. The land dispute that triggered a saga of the Bhotmanges getting ostracised was not unknown to the local police.

Although it would send shivers down the spine at the thought that such a ghastly incident could have been buried in the files of an obscure police station, this is precisely what was initially planned. On hindsight, it might appear foolish on the part of the schemers to have imagined that they would be able to cover up the incident, but the very fact that they tried suggests that this was not entirely out of the realm of possibility. The public uproar over the incident broke out a full month after the incident, during which it was as good as buried. If even Bhaiyalal Bhotmange’s first information report (FIR) led to the arrests of some people (not the real culprits, he kept on shouting until end-November) in Khairlanji, as it actually happened, who would have followed the case, what would have happened in absence of any evidence or any witnesses? Khairlanji, with all its bestiality and gore would have been covered up and forgotten. Nobody would have known about it. Even now that it has got so much publicity, one cannot be sure that the real criminals would ever be punished. If the Ramabai Nagar case in the heart of Mumbai could frustrate dalits, who could be sure of conviction in remote Khairlanji?

What followed Khairlanji was equally grave. As the information on the gruesome murders began leaking out of the factfinding reports and spreading around, it created revulsion among certain sections of the dalit community. The first reaction was to come out in protest on to the streets; a women’s organisation, the Rashtriya Sambuddha Mahila Sanghtana in Bhandara, took out a massive rally on November 1. This rally provided inspiration to others to organise protests in various towns and cities. Soon, the entire Vidarbha region reverberated with protests. It is notable that almost everywhere dalit women had taken a lead.

At the rally in Nagpur, one of the first in a series of protest actions, people expressed their anger by blocking traffic and shouting anti-government slogans, nothing

abnormal, given the context of Khairlanji. However, the home minister of Maharashtra issued a statement on camera that the government suspected Naxalites were behind these protests. Later he publicly retracted the statement, as it led to an uproar among dalits. However, the Nagpur police fully capitalised on it to unleash severe repression on the dalit masses. The brutal lathi charges on protesting dalits, the arrests that followed these protests, the showering of filthy casteist abuses, the humiliations heaped on people in police custody as though they were hardened criminals, and police vehemence in opposing their bail applications, were reflective of a deep anti-dalit bias and intolerance of dalit assertion of their democratic rights.

Beyond the empirical analysis that Anand makes aboves, it is the latter part of the article that holds some very insightful theoretical analysis.

Why, even in the wake of Khairlanji, there were a spate of atrocities in Maharashtra itself, which significantly included the brutal cutting into pieces of a dalit farm labourer in Jahangir Moha village of Beed district of Marathwada in November or the killing of a youth belonging to the matang caste in Umarga Narangwadi in October. But both these atrocities did not create even a ripple among dalits. Outrage over Ambedkar statues however is legion; recall, for instance, the Ramabai Nagar incident that took toll of 10 lives in police firing and self-killing in protest of a revolutionary dalit poet, Vilas Ghogre. It seems that dalits are more concerned with symbolic identity issues than with what happens to the living members of their community. On the positive side, the Ambedkar statue symbolises the loftiest legacy of dalit struggle, which should inspire generations of dalits to take this struggle 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. Considering the state of dalit masses, the latter is more likely to happen. None other than the ruling classes understood this and decided to promote it; the more the creed of the Ambedkar statue takes root, the more would Ambedkar’s ideals be rooted out.

The sensitivity towards dignity, symbolised by the Ambedekar statue, is only justified if it is associated with a similar concern for the plight of living people. While the inversion may be explained to a large extent by the historical alienation of the dalit movement from social movements inspired by the philosophy of historical materialism, it is time for dalits to realise that this reactionary disorientation has already done a great damage to their collective well-being.

Some of the obvious myths that get exploded are the myth that economic development does away with caste, the myth of Maharashtra as 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 others. Many intellectuals hold the notion that economic development will eradicate castes.

There is an associated myth about Maharashtra that it is a progressive state. This myth is built upon and related to its economic development, particularly around the Mumbai-Pune region, which significantly elevates the economic position of the state relative to the other states. Another factor that contributes to this myth is the origin of the non-brahmin and dalit movements in the state by Jotiba Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar respectively. The empirical reality however is quite contrary. Maharashtra is as casteist as any other state. Maharashtra has an inglorious track record of heinous atrocities perpetrated on dalits.

It is a popular myth that there exists a significant progressive section of non-dalits that is against castes. There indeed is a large section of people who hold progressive ideas on many other social issues, such as communalism, gender discrimination, general exploitation of labour and the peasantry, and so on. However, when it comes to caste, they conveniently leave it for dalits to deal with. When Khairlanji protests broke out, they should have come forward to express their support to dalits. After all, it was apolitical and organised by people who in some way shared their progressivism. Why then were they not there? Why do the people who take up the cause of the communal oppression of Muslims so enthusiastically not moved on the issue of caste oppression? Why the people who are genuinely concerned to save Afzal Guru do not show any sensitivity to the pervasive injustice being done to dalits? Why is the opposition to caste bracketed with casteism? It appears, progressivism does not necessarily mean anti-casteism in India. Even the communist parties, who claim to have changed their stand on caste issues, do not think that they ought to go beyond tokenism. Why did they not mobilise their cadres to protest against Khairlanji? Progressivism in this country does seem to include the dispelling of caste consciousness.

Importantly, Khairlanji also blasts the myth that if dalit individuals are placed in the bureaucratic structure, the latter becomes more congenial to dalits. This myth informs a large part of the argument for reservations. As discussed, Khairlanji best exemplifies the complicity of the state machinery in the perpetration of caste atrocities, and interestingly, even when this machinery is largely manned by the people of the dalit community. The superintendent of police, Bhandara, the deputy superintendent of police, the PSI of Andhalgaon police station, a constable under him, the doctor who performed the post-mortems, the district civil surgeon who permitted the doctor to go ahead with the post-mortems without a lady doctor, the public prosecutor who advised against the application of the PoA Act to the earlier cases which were essentially caste-based, the nodal officer at the apex level who is entrusted with the responsibility of reviewing the state of crimes against SCs and STs in accordance with the PoA Act, were all dalits and belonging to the same sub-castes as that of the Bhotmanges.

And the final paragraph is extremely meaningful:

Above all, Khairlanji explodes a mythology, that of bahujanwad, developed and practised by the late Kanshiram with a reasonable level of success. Dalit politicians such as Prakash Ambedkar, Udit Raj, and many others, but without acknowledging his debt, are following bahujanwad. Bahujanwad is basically an expedient strategy of the lower castes to succeed in electoral politics, not very dissimilar to creating a maratha like middle caste identity as successfully done by Sharad Pawar or Mulayam Singh. It assumes that all the lower shudra castes and dalits can come together and create a formidable constituency to bid for power. Indeed, purely from the standpoint of their material status, all these castes are placed similarly and there is no doubt that they should come together. But when bahujanwad aspires to unite them on the basis of caste identities, it misses one point, namely, the fundamental break that divides them into caste and non-castes, varna and savarnas, unlike the maratha or any other caste identities, which fall on one side of the continuum. This divide can only be crossed if one transcends it with an entirely different approach, the class approach that emphasises their similarities. Khairlanji, and for that matter every caste atrocity, confused the bahujanwad because these atrocities are invariably committed by the so-called OBCs.

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