Print edition : December 01, 2006

BHAIYYALAL'S WIFE AND three children were dragged out of their house, stripped and paraded to the village square where they were beaten to death.- Photo: VIVEK BENDRE

BHAIYYALAL BHOTMANGE, WHO has lost his family to caste prejudice.-PICTURES: VIVEK BENDRE Photo: VIVEK BENDRE

GATHERINGS SUCH AS this one in a Buddha vihar in Nagpur are a way for Dalits to discuss the discrimination against them. Members of this group and many others in the area were held by the police to prevent protests.- Photo: VIVEK BENDRE

The murder of four Dalits in Khairlanji village illustrate that casteism still flourishes in Maharashtra. (Published in the issue dated December 1, 2006.)

IT is about 500 yards from Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange's hut to Khairlanji village square. Like all such villages the square is a hub of activity - the school, the village meeting hall and the common well are clustered at this point. It is surrounded by homes, including that of the sarpanch. It would be extremely difficult for anyone from the village to say they knew nothing about an incident in the square. Yet this is exactly what the people of Khairlanji say.

Before sunset on September 29, a mob of about 40 Kunbis from Khairlanji entered Bhotmange's hut and dragged out his wife, daughter and two sons. Forty-year-old Surekha, 17-year-old Priyanka, 19-year-old Roshan and 21-year-old Sudhir were stripped naked and paraded to the village square where the women were probably raped. All of them were beaten with bicycle chains and other implements and their leg bones were broken, presumably to prevent their escape. Finally, they were killed by axe blows. According to the forensic report they died from,"intracranial haemorrhage and neurogenic shock". The bodies were loaded on to a bullock cart and dumped in a canal about two kilometres away.

Since no eyewitnesses have come forward, the sequence of events was reconstructed from forensic evidence and the information given by Rajan Gajbiye, who witnessed the victims being stripped. Gajbiye, a Dalit from neighbouring Dhusala and a friend of the family, was already on his way to Khairlanji when Priyanka called for help from her cell phone. He was fearful of the Bhotmanges being lynched because the same mob had descended on his village earlier that day searching for his cousin Siddharth, a police patil of his village. On September 3, following a land and labour-related dispute the Kunbis in Khairlangi assaulted him. At the time, the women of the Bhotmange family who witnessed the attack filed a police complaint.

The details of the story vary but the essence is clear - these were caste-related murders of the Dalit family. "Upper-caste" Kunbis deny any knowledge of the murders and possible rape. They do not know Bhaiyyalal's family or house. No one knew anything about the murders, until the next day, when Priyanka's body was accidentally found some kilometres downstream. Their claim flies in the face of the reality of a typical village where everyone knows everyone else by name.

The Sarpanch, Upasrao Khandate, says he was away in his fields and returned late (a fact challenged by Panchsheela Shendge, a Dalit). Khandate is one of the prime suspects named by Bhaiyyalal, who says he arrived at the moment when he saw his family being dragged out but was too scared to intervene. He hid himself for a while and then ran away to get help. Despite being named, the sarpanch was not among the 44 taken into custody. He denies knowledge of the murder and says no one from his village was involved. Superintendent of Police Bhandara Suresh Sagar told Frontline that many of the accused had confessed to the crime in front of the police, but not in front of a magistrate.

Panchseela Shendge is a bit more forthcoming in her account, but her story appears to be tempered by fear: "We heard loud sounds from the direction of Bhotmange's house. People were saying `Catch them', `Stop them from running, hold them down' but we thought they were chasing cattle." She is a member of one of the two remaining Dalit families and one can understand why she does not want to say more.

Casteism still flourishes in Maharashtra. This has hampered the investigation in Khairlanji from the start. Immediately after the murders the local police station was informed of trouble in the village. A constable arrived but said it was too dark to conduct any investigations. Dalit activists contend that the complaint of people missing and rioting was not taken seriously because the victims were Scheduled Caste people. Suresh Sagar admits: "No cognisance was taken of the complaint and the local police were lax in conducting an immediate investigation." A search could have helped preserve crucial evidence of rape, especially. The first information report was registered after 24 hours.

The post-mortem was handled in a slipshod manner. Dr. K.D. Ramteke, Civil Surgeon at Bhandara Civil Hospital, said: "The most basic post-mortem calls for preservation of viscera. This was not done by the doctor-in-charge." The doctor who conducted the post-mortem was dismissed but he claimed that the police did not ask for a test for rape. However, Dr. Ramteke said, "Finding a violently beaten and naked body of a young girl automatically calls for vaginal swabs as well as the usual procedure to remove the uterus and other internal organs."

The post-mortem report said that the cause of death was through intracranial haemorrhages. Incensed, Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange, demanded a second post mortem. "I always suspected rape," he said, recalling the scene of his family being dragged out of the hut. When the bodies were exhumed they were in an advanced state of decomposition. Dr. Ramteke has recommended that "on the basis of circumstantial evidence, [the probability of] rape should be considered".

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior official said that the case was being blocked at all levels by a pervading "casteist mentality" in the local administration. A Dalit woman told a fact-finding team that she knew of plans to assault and kill the Bhotmange family but did not report them because of the likely complications she would face from the police and her upper-caste neighbours. Subodh More, a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) who was part of the high-profile fact-finding team led by retired Justice B.G Kolse-Patil, said their primary observation was that "it is possible that pressures from higher levels might sabotage justice and divert investigations away from the main issue." The team is yet to release its full report. The case has been transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Brinda Karat, Polit Bureau member of the CPI(M) and national vice-president of the Akhil Bharatiya Janwadi Mahila Sanghatana (AIDWA), led a CPI(M) team to Khairlanji. They met Bhaiyyala and Siddharth Gajbiye. In a statement, the party demanded "the immediate prosecution and arrest of all police officers and doctors concerned who have connived in helping the accused. The photographs of the two women show that there is no single inch on their body that has not suffered some injury and the post-mortem request does not reflect it at all. Clearly, the investigation is contaminated and polluted with crass anti-Dalit prejudices. Evidence has been destroyed, the post-mortem report fudged, the accused given time to build their alibis and witnesses threatened. Even a month later, the State government has not intervened to prevent this grave assault on justice and the constitutional provisions for Scheduled Castes."

The party also condemned the statement of Home Minister R.R. Patil that the Dalit protests are motivated by the extremist elements. It indicated the insensitivity of the State government to the violence, the party said. The delegation expressed shock that the complaints made by the victims prior to the incident were ignored by the police.

In this situation the work of political parties like the CPI(M), civil rights organisations, web sites and Internet discussion groups has kept the case alive. All through October democratic and peaceful means were used to demand justice. By November patience wore thin and anger was expressed at the manner in which the investigation was handled. Photographs of the victims' bodies after they were pulled out of the canal were printed and pasted on the walls of Dalit bastis. Members of Buddha vihars across Vidarbha (of which Nagpur has more than 300) met to discuss protest marches and a silent dharna. From the first week of November some protests became violent.

The protests have two broad aims, first to get justice for the Bhotmanges, and second to highlight the fact that the murders were caste-related. The administration has unfortunately missed the point. The "long march" from Nagpur to Khairlanji, which was planned by Ambedkarite organisations on November 12, was denied permission by the authorities. Worse, Khairlanji was turned into a fortress with four Central Reserve Police Force check posts en route, and two units patrolling the village. The rationale was that Khairlanji would be torched in retribution. However, the arrangements inflamed Dalit sensitivities even more. If something as obvious as the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, had been invoked when Siddharth Gajbiye was first assaulted by the Kunbi villagers, the entire sequence of events could have been avoided.

The administration that was so lax initially in handling the case showed a great deal of energy when it came to dealing with public protests. Pre-emptive arrests were made of a wide cross-section of people. Random arrests were made for reasons ranging from a visit to a Buddha vihar or sitting in silent support at a dharna. Forcible entry into the homes of activists, pre-dawn arrests of social workers, arrest and detention of women without the presence of women constables were all part of its strategy. Furthermore, through some inexplicable logic it was concluded that naxalites were behind the sporadic violence at the dharnas.

Politics and other concerns of the government (such as the fight against naxalites) are being used to divert attention from the Dalit cause. "Political opportunism is rife. The Congress claims to be closer to the Dalits than the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party]. And the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] says Dalits should be allowed to be priests in temples. Local politicians have been trying to jump onto the bandwagon by saying they were behind the protests even though all these were organised by Ambedkarite organisations. In the final analysis, they are all casteist regardless of their political affiliations," says Prashant Tambe, a social worker with the Nagpur-based Youth For Social Justice.

While the widespread protests will fuel the fight for justice, the main concern is that other issues should not sideline justice for the Bhotmanges.

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