Vol. XL No. 40 October 02, 2016

Ten Years after Khairlanji: New Impetus for Struggles

SEPTEMBER 29, 2016 marks the tenth anniversary of the Khairlanji atrocity. The brutal murder of Surekha Bhotmange along with her daughter, Priyanka, and her two sons, Sudhir and Roshan (visually challenged) in this small hamlet in Bhandara district of Maharashtra revealed many old and new facets of the violence that dalits are subjected to. 

The Bhotmange family was one of only three dalit families in the hamlet.  They owned five acres of land but the village panchayat refused to levy and collect land tax in order to deny the family any proof of ownership.  Permission for the building of a pucca house was also refused.  Clearly, the panchayat had plans to take over the land.

Ten years later, Surekha’s husband, Bhayyaji, is still fighting for justice.  Of the 54 persons named as being responsible for the attack, ultimately eight were charged.  Of them six were sentenced to death and two to life imprisonment by a fast track trial court.  The following year, the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court commuted the death sentence of the six who were sentenced to death and sentenced all eight to life imprisonment.  Their appeals are now pending in the Supreme Court.

None of the accused however, was charged or convicted under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. As a result, Surekha’s husband, Bhayyaji, did not receive any compensation.  Today, he works as a watchman in Bhandara town.  He has had to lease his land in the village to non-dalits at a pittance and the expenses of attending court hearings in Maharashtra and Delhi have left him impoverished, exhausted and desolate.

Ten years after Khairlanji, all the issues that that terrible tragedy highlighted have lent themselves even more grave as there are greater and frequent assaults and atrocities on them.  The coming to power of the BJP at the centre and in several states has meant that a political party that is part of a larger parivar or family committed to the upholding and strengthening of varnashrama dharma and preserving the hierarchical nature of Hindu society, is now unabashedly implementing its agenda of increasing both caste and class exploitation. It is important to note, however, that this is giving rise to tremendous anger and opposition among dalits who are throwing up new kinds of leaders, raising new kinds of demands and looking for new kinds of alliances.

The tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Phd student at the University of Hyderabad in January 2016 is rightly being characterised and seen as an ‘institutional murder’ in which at least two cabinet ministers of the Modi government are complicit.  His death is being seen as the result of the Modi government’s deliberate denial of the basic right to education and a life of dignity and equality to the dalit community. The tremendous response that his death evoked among dalits, students, progressive and Left forces was unprecedented. 

The flame of protest that was lit across the country is still ablaze.  If anything, it became even stronger after the July atrocity in Una, Gujarat, when four young dalits who were skinning a dead cow were bound hand and foot, tied with wire to a jeep and beaten mercilessly by self-styled ‘Gau rakshaks’ who were so intoxicated by their own sense of authority and superiority that they filmed their own acts of inhumanity and shared them on the electronic media.

The sea of dalits that collected in Ahmedabad to protest on July 31 and then marched 400 kilometers to Una, raised two new slogans, both of which will be very far-reaching in their effect.  The first was “You hold on to the tail of the cow” and the second was “Give us five acres of land”.

The first slogan accompanied as it is by the refusal of thousands of dalits to flay dead animals, challenges the very grounds of untouchability and caste-purity and the second finds resonance with the landless all over the country and has the potential to unleash united struggles for the just and democratic distribution of land and resources.

These attacks, the resistance to them and the demands being raised by those resisting have to be seriously addressed by the Party and other forces on the Left.  A new opportunity for common struggle is unfolding but determination, sacrifice and sensitivity are the need of the hour.

The joint rally of Left and dalit organisations on September 16 gave a fresh direction. But much more needs to be done on the ground, in common struggles for dalit rights and demands, against atrocities and caste oppression and for land for the landless. 

The tenth year of Khairlanji should witness new, united struggles to ensure that Khairlanjis are not repeated.

(September 28, 2016)