Strange And Bitter Crop
By Satya Sagar
01 December, 2006
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the
crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Meeropol, a member of the American Communist Party wrote this poem on
seeing photographs of the lynching of two black youth Thomas Shipp and
Abram Smith way back in 1939.
Replace the American South
with much of India, black with Dalit and this poem, that went on to
become a popular resistance song among African American activists, will
hold perfectly true in the contemporary Indian context too. (The white
perpetrators of such atrocities in the United States replaced by the
self-styled ‘higher’ castes of India of course.)
The latest incidence of this
‘strange and bitter crop’ was in Khairlanji,
a small village in Bhandara distict near Nagpur in the western Indian
province of Maharashtra and a horrific ‘harvest’ it was
On September 29 this year
as Surekha Bhotmange (45), a Dalit peasant, prepared her family’s
evening meal a drunken mob of ‘higher’ caste villagers broke
down the door. They dragged out Surekha, their 17-year-old daughter
Priyanka, and two sons, 23-year-old Roshan, who also happened to be
blind and 21-year-old Sudhir.
The four victims were dragged
away to the village centre, Priyanka strapped to a bullock cart. According
to India media reports what followed was a gruesome orgy of violence
and sexual assault as men from the entire village of about 150 families
gathered, raped the women and killed all four, even as their own womenfolk
looked on. Later, a village meeting was called and everyone present
ordered not to mention the massacre to any outsider.
Unknown to the mob however
Bhaiyalal, the head of the Bhotmange family, had witnessed the entire
incident and escaped to tell the tale to a typically indifferent police.
It was only when the mutilated bodies were found the next day that a
formal report of the crime was recorded.
The reasons for the violence
against the Bhotmange family were not very complex at all and can be
whittled down to just one sentence- they were Dalits who were economically
independent and unwilling to be bullied by the ‘higher’
castes. Worse still in the eyes of their killers- they dared to educate
themselves - with Sudhir being a university graduate and Priyanka having
completed schooling and planning a career in the Army.
This is the way it has been
for centuries in this land of institutionalized apartheid known as varnashrama
dharma or the caste system under which the Dalits, who make up 16 percent
of India’s population, are treated as ‘untouchables’.
The penalty for defiance of any kind by the Dalit man across India has
always been - at the minimum - grievous injury and far too often a public
lynching by bloodthirsty mobs. For Dalit women it has far worse- humiliation,
rape, mutilation and a painful death.
The immediate incident that
is supposed to have incensed the ‘higher’ castes was one
where Surekha had signed on a complaint to the police against some of
them who had beaten up her cousin Siddharth Gajbhiye. The latter was
helping Surekha protect a portion of her three acres of farm land from
being grabbed by villagers who wanted it for a waterway to their own
The Bhotmanage family originally
had five acres on which they grew rice and cotton and two acres had
already been taken away in 1996 to build a road so that neighbouring
farmers from the ‘higher’ castes could drive their tractors
through the land. Gajbhiye and Bhotmange belonged to the Mahar caste,
the same as the architect of the Indian Constitution and great Dalit
leader B.R.Ambedkar, and were practising Buddhists.
Adding insult to all the
injury heaped on the Bhotmanges there was also an attempt to cover up
the true nature of the incident under pressure from the ‘higher’
caste murderers. The first post-mortem report on September 30 claimed
that there had been no rape at all. Under pressure from Dalit and other
activists the bodies were later exhumed and the report of a second post-mortem
Currently thirty-eight Khairlanji
men are in jail as accused, but activists of the Vidarbha Janandolan
Samiti (VJAS), a farmers organization in the area, say that some of
the main perpetrators are still free due to political pressure. The
organization claims that there is an attempt to cover up the incident,
and has filed a case in the Bombay High Court against the state police.
The Congress Party led Maharastra
government has also been criticized for its tardy response to the atrocity,
promising to handover the enquiry to the Central Bureau of Investigation
only after violent demonstrations by Dalit and other activists broke
out in several towns in the state. R R Patil , the Maharashtra Home
Minister claimed that the protests were the work of ‘Naxalites’
and ‘Maoists’ as if putting such a label would in any way
damage the credibility of the protestors.
If things have been sordid
at the local and provincial levels they have not been any better nationally.
The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government of Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh, busy attending summits proclaiming India as the ‘next super
power’’ had little time for the woes of the Bhotmange family
or even to publicly condemn the Kherlanji atrocity. The rising incidence
of attacks on Dalits in Congress ruled states like Punjab, Haryana and
now Maharashtra is an indicator of how cut off the party, which leads
the UPA coalition, is from the grassroots of the country.
Other sections of the national
elite, in particular the media, too have not come off looking pretty
in all this. For instance, it was a full month before the national media
picked up the story and that too in a marginal ‘yes, this too
happened’ kind of way. Already accused of lacking any Dalit representation
in its ranks and of promoting ‘higher’ caste interests the
media needs to do some soul-searching to live up to its tall claim of
reflecting the views of the Indian public in its entirety.
What has been heartening
however is the upsurge of militant protests by Dalits and organizations
sympathetic to them in many parts of Maharashtra. Though it was a bit
slow to take off once it did start the demonstrations of thousands of
people in town after town demanding justice for the Bhotmanges has been
The blame for the initial
confusion and delay in responding to the atrocity should go to the timid
and opportunist Dalit leadership both in Maharashtra and in the country.
As a write-up in Tehelka, a weekly English magazine from New Delhi,
on the incident pointed out on October 2, when lakhs of Buddhists from
all over the world had converged in Nagpur to celebrate the fiftieth
anniversary of Dhammakranti — Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism
— the organisers kept quiet about the massacre lest the issue
‘go out of hand’ in such a large gathering.
As another editorial in a
Maharastra based daily put it ‘if it would not have been the pressure
from the grassroots and the churning among the dalit masses, the issue
was largely forgotten. Perhaps it would be more apt to say that Kherlanji
also represents the birth of a ‘new’ dalit movement which
is once again refusing to play a ‘guest actor’ role in the
polity and is equally fed up with the cravenness of the Dalit leaders.”
And it is here there lies
the hope for the future, in a resurgence of the Dalit movement in the
hands of a younger, more committed and intelligent leadership.
If ever the Dalit movement
in India needed a Malcolm X of its own it is now.
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