(September - December 2006)
An atrocity left unpunished and a hero’s statue desecrated drive untouchable masses into the streets across India’s second-most populous state.
September 29: Four members of an untouchable family are
horrifically lynched by men and women of the dominant caste in
the tiny village of Khairlanji.
November 6: After over a month of negligence by the police and
inaction from the state government, mass protests by
untouchables break out in Nagpur and spread throughout the
November 28: A statue of the Independence-era untouchable
leader B.R. Ambedkar is beheaded in the city of Kanpur.
November 29-30: Untouchable youth take to the streets in
spontaneous protests across the state. In Bombay large groups
target public transportation, emptying buses and a train and
setting them on fire.
The rape/murder of the Bhotmange family in Khairlanji village occurred on September 29, but it was only at the end of October that the story first broke in the national press, under the ironic headline “Just another rape story.” There are hundreds of atrocities against untouchables and over a thousand rapes of untouchable women officially reported every year in Maharashtra state alone. And how many go unreported? As the Khairlanji lynching itself might have. If it hadn’t been for two surviving blood relatives who secretly witnessed this public massacre, the case would never have been registered with the police: even now, no one else will talk.
So why did the news of this particular horror spread mainly by word of mouth throughout the region and across the state? Why this time did rage over the incident simmer for two full months before finally boiling over in an unprecedented statewide uprising of the untouchable masses that took India by surprise?
Part of it may be the fact that the Bhotmanges were not quite a typical untouchable family. Although poor enough to live in a hut with a low, thatched roof and a dirt floor, they owned a few acres of land that gave them a little independence. Smruti Koppikar wrote in Outlook India (December 5) of the murdered woman of the family:
The 40-something Surekha tilled her land till it yielded something, anything. She put her children through school and college. Her daughter was reading Political Science and Sociology--no mean feat for a Dalit girl in a back-of-the-beyond village. OBC men had, on several occasions, tried to usurp the land and drive the family out of the village but Surekha--more than her husband Bhaiyyalal--had stood up to the men and their machinations.
The financial independence, the education, the aspirations, the standing up to pressure--all must have made them special targets for dominant-caste bigots.
The Bhotmanges were Mahars, historically a relatively advanced untouchable caste. Traditionally village servants, Mahars later served in large numbers in the British colonial army. The unusual exposure this gave them encouraged aspirations far above their social and ritual status, and it was out of this community that the untouchable leader B. R. Ambedkar emerged. The Bhotmanges’ forebears, along with many fellow Mahars and other untouchables throughout India, had followed Ambedkar at the end of his life in renouncing Hinduism and converting to Buddhism to escape the stigma of their caste--with all the success that their fate implies.
Mahars are the most widespread caste in Maharashtra and the most thinly spread. Every village has a few Mahars, but only a few. The Bhotmanges were one of only three Mahar families living in a segregated section of Khairlanji. Most of the other families in the village--numbering no more than 125 in all--belong to the kunbi caste and the rest are powars and kalars. These are all backward peasant castes that are commonly oppressed by those higher in the ritual hierarchy. But in the tiny village of Khairlanji there are none higher, and as caste Hindus they rank above the outcaste Mahars.
The Bhotmanges had been fighting their caste-Hindu neighbors for ten years. Two of their original five acres were seized in 1996 to make a road to other villages. More recently neighboring farmers were trying to build yet another road through their land to irrigate their own crops more easily. For ten years the local police had refused to register any of the Bhotmanges’ complaints.
Surekha Bhotmanges’ cousin had some ties to the police and to the Congress Party organization. He was using the little influence he had to defend the family, and for that he was beaten up by a gang of local men on September 3. Surekha and her daughter Priyanka, who had witnessed the beating, boldly identified those responsible to the police. Over three weeks later, on September 29, twelve men were finally arrested, presented to a local court, and promptly released on bail. They went directly from the courtroom to the Bhotmanges’ hut, leading a mob--on the pretext of punishing Surekha for an extramarital affair they claimed she was carrying on with the cousin she had spoken up for. This was understood to be a legitimate cover for their actions. In this case, as in so many others, women’s oppression and caste oppression reinforced each other.
Surekha was cooking dinner inside. Her three children were with her. There was Priyanka, seventeen years old, who had graduated twelfth form (high school) at the top of her class. She was a member of the National Cadet Corps and was planning a career in the army. Her mother had recently managed to save up the money to buy her a bicycle. Surekha’s two sons were there too. The elder, Sudhir, had graduated college. Her younger son, Roshan, was blind. Both worked as laborers for hire on other people’s fields--the one despite his education, the other despite his disability--in order to bring the family extra income. Surekha’s husband was still out in the fields with his cousin, far enough off to escape the mob’s attention but close enough to hear the commotion. They would follow the attackers surreptitiously and helplessly witness what happened next.
What happened next, as pieced together by us from a number of English-language sources that vary in some of their details, is substantially this. The caste-Hindu mob easily broke into the defenseless hut. They stripped Surekha and her three children. Sudhir and Roshan were ordered to rape their mother and sister. When they refused, the family was beaten with bicycle chains and paraded naked through the village about 500 meters to the village square. As they went along the mob grew to about 60 men and women.
The village head, or sarpanch, was officiating. Some men called out, asking permission to rape the two women. Surekha and Priyanka were gang-raped for over an hour while Sudhir and Roshan were hacked to death with axes. Then the women were killed and men shoved sticks into their genitals. The bodies were dumped into a canal. This level of savagery, as unbelievable as it sounds, is not rare at all among the tens of thousands of cases of atrocities against untouchables reported across India every year.
The night of the killings a village meeting was called and everyone was told to keep quiet about what had happened. Police initially ignored charges brought by the two family witnesses. When the bodies were finally fished out, evidence of rape was suppressed. Much later, in the wake of the protests, five local police officers would be dismissed for their complicity and negligence. This indifference is not unusual either: an Indian government report found that less than a quarter of atrocity cases registered in the year 2002 were prosecuted, and only a tiny fraction (2.31%) even of those resulted in convictions.
A report by Lyla Bavadam in Frontline (November 18-December 1) explains how the mass protests got started in nearby Nagpur, the nearest urban center and the state's third-largest, and the surrounding region:
[T]he 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.
Police were pelted with stones, a police station was attacked, roads were blocked, cars and tires were set on fire. Activists closed down Nagpur’s markets in a one-day bandh. Lyla Bavadan describes the state's attempt to suppress the 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.
At the end of November, at the news that an Ambedkar statue had been beheaded in the city of Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh--a completely unrelated incident in a far-off state--this new militant protest movement exploded for two days in cities and towns all over Maharashtra. Most spectacularly in Bombay, where groups of hundreds of untouchable youth stopped 32 buses and at least one train, asked passengers to get out, and set the vehicles on fire--paralyzing traffic and destroying a million rupee’s worth of state property. The train was the prestigious Deccan Queen used by well-to-do commuters from Pune and seen as a “symbol of Mumbai-Pune caste and class superiority” (Smruti Koppikar).
The government was rattled. Police were ordered to hold their fire to avoid making the crowds any angrier (not that they always did so, unfortunately). Over 1500 were arrested across the state on November 29 alone. India Express reported (December 1) that “[a] day after Maharashtra's Dalit heartland went up in fiery protest, Congress president Sonia Gandhi today pulled up [Maharashtra state] Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, got his foreign trip cancelled and put political secretary Ahmad Patel to monitor the situation in the state.” The day after that Sonia met Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange and assured him that his family’s killers would be brought to justice.
The uprising, which has been compared to that of poor immigrant youth in France last year, shocked and puzzled everyone. The sight of untouchables taking to the street in protest like this was completely new. Where did the impulse for it come from? Certainly not from the leaders of the dalit organizations. Shivam Vij notes that a month earlier, three days after the Khairlanji lynching, when hundreds of thousands converged in Nagpur to celebrate (ironically enough) the fiftieth anniversary of Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism, “the organisers kept quiet about the massacre lest the issue go out of hand in such a large gathering.”
Nor did the initiative come from any mainstream political party, such as the low-caste-based BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) or any of the six fractured factions of Ambedkar’s old Maharashtra-centered Republican Party of India. The Statesman News Service reports (November 30) that the “outrage among Dalits baffled the government” because “[i]t is not being led by any political leader.” The columnist P. Sainath comments that electoral parties “did not set off this process, even if they sought to engage with or exploit it. Ordinary Dalits were on the streets long before Dalit party leaders were.” And Smruti Koppikar agrees that while “the violence proved a god-send for many Dalit political leaders consigned to the margins [...] they cannot claim to have aroused and inspired the mobs.”
Nor, finally, was the unrest directed by the Maoist-guerillaist Naxalites, as the state government initially claimed in an effort to set up both the Naxalites and the protesters for repression. Few seemed to buy that idea. The protests were notably centered in cities and towns rather than the countryside, where the Naxalites operate.
An editorial opinion (November 16) in Central Chronicle, a Bhopal-based daily, concludes that “if it would not have been [for] the pressure from the grassroots and the churning among the dalit masses, the issue was largely forgotten.” “Nobody can deny that here lies the hope,” the paper adds. “Perhaps it would be more apt to say that Khairlanji 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.”
But what can a “‘new’ dalit movement” do that the old one couldn’t? What can slum kids armed with kerosene do to fundamentally change a three-thousand-year-old social system? That will ultimately take a revolution, and not just in India but in the imperialist centers as well. Untouchables and other oppressed sectors of India need a revolutionary party that fights to mobilize the real social power of the working class behind their cause, including in defense of any activist targeted in the recent unrest.
For more on these events, see the links in our news section here. For research purposes, please consult these and other reliable journalistic reports.