New Delhi: On the tenth anniversary of the Khairlanji massacre, it is 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.
Ten years ago on September 29, 2006, a mob of men from this predominantly OBC village fell upon their dalit neighbours — 44-year-old Surekha Bhotmange, her 17-year-old daughter Priyanka, her sons Roshan and Sudhir — because the two women had showed the audacity to testify to the police about an attack on their relative Siddharth Gajbhiye.
They were beaten and strangled to death with cycle chains and bullock goads. Their corpses were thrown into a canal. The partially blind Roshan cried for mercy. Surekha's husband, Bhaiyalal Bhotmange alone survived the massacre, and the vagaries of official justice. CPM leader Brinda Karat, who was instrumental in bringing Khairlanji to national attention, says the incident was barbaric. "There was not an inch on their bodies that was not injured," she says.
In Khairlanji, people have a mirror-version of this narrative — there was no caste animosity, and that charge was politically driven. Siddharth Gajbhiye was not attacked, instead his bike slipped on a bad road. Surekha used her testimony to implicate anyone with whom she had a score to settle. Surekha and Siddharth had an illicit relationship, they say, as though neighbourly morality could explain the attack.
Nobody admits to knowing what happened, even though there are around 160 families in this small village. And the four Bhotmanges were found, chased and killed out in the open. Budhaji and Prabhavati Kadav, a couple in their 70s, speak of how the police went on an indiscriminate arrest spree — "picking up anyone they saw". Their son, Bhaskar Kadav, was initially one of the main accused. According to his parents, he was at a bank in Kandri at the time. Budhaji himself was at prayer, and had no idea what happened.
Bhotmange's neighbor Krishna Titarmare, also among those first accused and then let off by the police says, "I don't know what happened that day, we were at the fields when the news was conveyed to us." Despite the assurances of caste amity, it is hard for people hide their dislike for Surekha. "When she pulled out a match to set fire to her home, she said she would file a case under the Atrocities Act. That rattled the men," explains Prabhavati. So who, in their assessment, killed the Bhotmanges then? "We can't say… we just keep to ourselves," she adds.
The event mobilised Maharashtra's Dalits and reverberated far beyond. Independent fact-finding groups came to Khairlanji, their reports and photographs of the disfigured corpses were put online, bringing the horror home to many. While the investigation was first grudging, the case was fast-tracked, and the CBI took over.
Within two years, the Bhandara sessions court had sentenced 8 men to death and acquitted three. In 2010, the Nagpur bench of Bombay high court commuted the sentences to life. The case is now pending with the Supreme Court. But the bereaved Bhaiyalal Bhotmange says he has not seen justice, and is awaiting the final verdict. "Otherwise, they will just live and die having done what they did. One of them has already died," he says.
Even if one believes that the more gruesome activist accounts are only thinly corroborated, some things are a matter of record — the friction over land, the attack on Siddharth Gajbhiye that the Bhotmange women gave witness to, the arrest, release, and rage of the caste Hindus of Khairlanji, and the extended torture that the corpses reveal.
Caste hatred and sexual violence, though, were rigorously kept out of the official version. "Everybody knew that there were sticks in Priyanka's body, it was naked and brutalised, there were photographs to prove it, but it was taken out of police reports," says Chhaya Khobragade, of the Sambuddha Mahila Sangathan, one of the first to go to Khairlanji and probe the issue. The early investigation and medical examination were a sham, as acknowledged by the court. Dalit activists blame powerful politicians for warping the judicial process, allowing the accused to build alibis and influence witnesses.
"Even the prosecution refused to take cognisance of circumstantial evidence," says writer-activist Anand Teltumbde, who has written a book on Khairlanji. The court accepted the credibility of witnesses who reported cries of 'kill the Mahars', and yet, did not see it as a caste atrocity, but a heat-of-the-moment crime, a personal animus.
"The trial was stage-managed," says Rajendra Gajbhiye, Surekha's cousin who claims to have witnessed the savagery in the village square. "Those who got convicted were just like the bullocks, they only carried out the crime. Those directing the bullocks have been let off," he says. Neither Siddharth nor Rajendra was cross-examined, despite their key roles in the event.
"First, they erased the reality of the crime. Then they reduced the punishment, and many of the accused are not in jail. What does that say about the value of Surekha's life for this society?" asks Karat. After all, could anger over being implicated in the relatively small crime of beating up Gajbhiye have justified this scale of vengeance upon an entire family? The court failed to look closer at the nature of that fury. "Caste atrocities happen when a Dalit like Surekha refuses to grovel, and takes her due. That fuels this self-righteous brutality," says Teltumbde.
Since Khairlanji, NCRB figures on atrocities against Dalits show a rise of 86% in Maharashtra, a staggering 105% for major atrocities like murder and rape. Meanwhile, Marathas are agitating for the atrocities law to be diluted, after a Maratha girl was raped, allegedly by Dalit men, in Ahmednagar's Kopardi village. ""Any criminal law that shakes up the social status quo, even in a marginal way, is seen as a challenge by dominant castes," says Karat.
A rusty bedframe is the only thing that marks the Bhotmange home now. Their brick hut has been destroyed by the many monsoons since, and weeds have grown over the plot, covering it like it never was.