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Khairlanji : All Nero's Brethren

By Subhash Gatade

18 November, 2006

‘(they) were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle.’

Tacitus (Roman historian and official, c.58 to 115 C.E.)
The Annals, Book XV, C.E. 62-65

Dead bodies don't speak.

But for the near and dear ones it is always possible to reconstruct what must have bothered the dead person at the fag end of her/his life when her/his eyes still exhibited the yearning for life.

And if the death itself would have been a public spectacle where people from your own neighbourhood, whom you know very well have joined the orgy , have called others for brutalisation of your bodies, then someone living thousands of miles away could also scribble the last flashes of ideas flickering in the dead persons minds.

It is now part of the public memory how Surekha Bhootmange, aged 45 years, a dalit (mahar) by caste, mother of two sons -Roshan and Sudhir - and a bright daughter Priyanka, who yearned to join the military, all the four spent the last one hour of their lives. Ordinary looking people who had to pay a very dear price for standing up to the local dominant castes attempts at snatching their small piece of land.

A few fact finding reports which have come out provides details of the gory end. They also tell us how all their bodies were dumped on a cart and were thrown in different corners of the village. But the worst was yet to come. Despite this public spectacle of murder and rape there was no movement for quite some time, it appeared as if the rest of the state machinery had decided to side with the marauders. The loneliness of Bhaiyalal, Surekha's husband and Siddarth, her cousin brother was so acute that they lived in constant fear of death.

According to close watchers of the state, Khairlanji rather represents a climax of a situation in a state which despite its 'progressive' image has systematically ingrained denial of justice to dalits and the other marginalised sections of our society.May it be the ongoing social boycott of Dalits in Aarajkheda village, Renapur tehsil in Latur district which happens to be Chief Minister's home district or the similar boycott of dalits in village Yavati in Nanded district, the state has never tried to shed its partisan image vis-a-vis attacks on dalits.

The barbaric killings were followed by a systematic coverup operation with due connivance of the local police and administration. Village level Panchayat was held immediately after the gory incident and it was 'decreed' that nobody would utter a word about it. The police officials also 'complied' with the request and cases under some vague sections of Indian Penal Code were filed where bail would have been easier.

It is also alleged that the local MLA who belongs to the BJP was also instrumental in instigating the perpetrators and then helping them hush up the case. It is not surprising that the BJP-Shiv Sena leadership which is ever ready to put the ruling coalition on the mat has maintained complete silence over the incident. The Nitin Gadkaris or the Mundes or the Thakres have not even condemned the barbaric killings of the dalits. In fact to defuse and deviate people's attention from the spontaneous and militant assertion of the dalits, the Bhandara district units of the Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal have joined hands to raise a counter agitation on an emotive issue.

The deputy Chief Minister who also manages home portfolio expressed satisfaction over the direction of investigation. Later when the militant movement of dalits compelled him to wake up from deep slumber, he instead of taking urgent step to defuse the movement preferred to make some irresponsible statements. Instead of addressing the roots of the dalit anger, he 'discovered' that their anger was a pointer towards growing naxal-dalit affinity.

While the the state government and its machinery merely tried to put the issue below carpet and the opposition saffron Parivar maintained a studied silence to suit its own interests, the response of the leadership of the mainstream dalit movement was not qualitatively different. Neither those factions of the Dalit formations which are participating in the state government nor those which have remained outside decided to raise the pitch over the incident. The conspiracy of silence on part of the dalit leadership was so blatant that when lakhs of people converged (2 nd October) in Nagpur to celebrate golden jubilee year of historic conversion of Dalits to Buddhism, none of them deemed it necessary to highlight the Khairlanji killings. Even according to conservative estimates 15-20 lakh people visited Deekshbhoomi during those celebrations which continued for a fortnight.

In the backdrop of the Kherlanji killings a demand has been raised for formulation of new law ‘specific to the situation in the state’. The state government also has formed a committee to look into the actual implementation of these law(s). Of course even a cursory glance at few of the earlier reports by various agencies can give one an idea what sort of conclusions would be arrived at.

The ‘Report on Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes’ (NHRC, 2004,Delhi) which studied the way the law unfolded itself, underlined how the ‘state has failed in this respect’ on ‘several fronts’. These are ‘failure to effectively implement the laws relating to atrocities against SCs and STs’ which is ‘reflected both in respect of preventing violence from taking place’ as well as in the ‘inability to punish perpetrators of violence after the crime is committed’; ‘failure to act against its own agencies involved in the commission of violence ;’ failure to strengthen the watchdog institutions’ etc. ‘

There have been innumerable reports detailing how the local police in connivance with the perpetrators themselves; sabotages implementation of laws basically meant to protect the dalits and the tribals. It is noticed that instead of filing cases under the SC-ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, it prefers filing cases under normal provisions of Indian Penal Code, which facilitates release of the accused on bail easily. It also facilitates filing of ‘counter cases’ against the victims, so that a compromise could be reached. The Third Report of the NPC (New Delhi :GOI, 1980- p.31) had rightly underlined how “ [f]alse criminal cases are sometimes engineered merely for the sake of making arrests to humiliate and embarass some specified enemies of the complainant, in league with the police for corrupt reasons”.

Looking at the fact that a militant mass movement has arisen to protest the killings, one can surmise that the legal wranglings in the Kherlanji massacre would not lead us to a blind alley and the perpetrators of the massacre would receive exemplary punishment. But there is no guarantee that it would be the case.

It has been a general experience of activists or social workers who help marginalised section fight cases of atrocities that a delay in judicial verdict is always beneficial to the perpetrators. The most important lesson is that we should be constantly on the vigil and demand that the trial should be conducted by a special court and on a day to day basis.

The public activism which was on the display in the case of Priyadarshini Matto , Nitish Katara or Jessica Lal has been much talked about. Can one expect any replay of the same spirit. Although as Priti Singh puts it in an op-ed piece in HT 'Priyanka's Khairlanji, I'm afraid, unlike Priyadarshini's Delhi, doesn't have an India Gate for the pupose of holding candlelight vigils.'

Contact : [email protected]


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