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Indian democracy is dishonoured from time to time by brutal massacres of the country’s historically oppressed communities — mostly Dalits and Muslims. But its even greater disgrace is that mass killers who periodically target people only because of their religion or caste are rarely punished. This legal impunity of mass murderers indulging in hate crimes derives from deep institutional prejudice, which scars India’s otherwise independent judicial system.
It is for this reason that the April judgment of the Andhra Pradesh high court — ignored in the heat and dust of the elections — which acquitted all 21 men who were serving life sentences for the massacre of Dalits in Tsundur, should have shocked and grieved observers much more than it did.
In 1991, a minor altercation in a cinema hall had spiralled into a terrifying massacre. A high-caste Reddy man was enraged when a Dalit college student Ravi rested his feet on his seat. In reprisal for his impudence, Ravi was first attacked in his village Tsundur, then charged with theft and arrested. Following this, the upper-caste community fell back on old weapons commonly deployed by higher castes through the ages to subdue disadvantaged communities: An economic boycott was imposed to break their back, as upper-caste farmers refused to employ the landless Dalits as farm labour or tenants.
Emotions were then further ignited by widely circulating a false charge against a Dalit youth, that he was sexually harassing local Reddy girls. (This allegation is chillingly similar to the one made 22 years later in Muzaffarnagar, which again was later proved false, but which similarly led to a violent reprisal against local Muslims.) A fever of mass rage gripped the surrounding countryside, and this led to the well-planned attack on the Dalits. As they desperately tried to flee the village they found it surrounded on every side by Reddy men in tractors armed with daggers and iron rods. They were brutally assaulted, and many mutilated bodies were flung into the Tungabhadra canal. This caste slaughter left eight men dead and three badly injured.
What followed was a rare judicial victory heroically won after many years of struggle by the Dalit survivors of Tsundur village, who braved boycott, violence, and social and state intimidation in an epic battle for justice. Determined that the perpetrators of these atrocities should not go unpunished, as they always had in the past, as Subash Gatade recalls in an article in ‘Kafila’, the survivors refused to accept court summons or to appear in court until the government agreed to appoint a special court to hear the case and, for the first time, to conduct the special court in their village. They also demanded and ultimately secured both a public prosecutor and judge with reputations for fairness.
Typically these cases drag on for years, and witnesses and survivors are wearied and coerced into rescinding on their statements. But not in Tsundur, where they did not allow their poverty and centuries of social oppression to break their resolve, resisting powerful attempts to buy their submission with threats, money and jobs, and raising the slogan ‘justice not welfare’. Young Dalit men abandoned their education and refused to marry until justice was won for the survivors of the butchery. Gatade recalls many people who stood tall for justice. Merukonda Subbarao, a daily wage worker became a local hero after he identified and named 40 of the accused in the court room from among the 183 accused. It took great courage for him to resolutely identify powerful men in court who earlier he could never even walk alongside or look in the eye.
But their epic resistance and success in securing justice from a criminal justice system infamous for its anti-Dalit bias has been today reduced to nothing. More than two decades after the crime, the Andhra Pradesh High Court ordered that 21 men serving life sentences for the massacre walk free (and one of them even joined Jagan Reddy’s election campaign).
The high court ruled that “the prosecution failed to prove the exact time of the death of the deceased and place of occurrence and the identity of the persons who attacked them”. It found further fault with the prosecution, because no complaint had been filed about the attacks, and the judges rejected the witness statements because of “contradictions”.
In so doing, the high court ignored the formidable challenges of fear and loss faced by survivors of caste and communal mass crimes when confronting an openly partisan police system. The Tsundur Special Court, which severely indicted the police for its anti-Dalit bias, rightly acknowledged that a defective investigation could “naturally” lead to “contradictions and omissions” from prosecution witnesses. Therefore it accepted a certain amount of omissions in witness statements, rightly noting, “Every omission is not a contradiction.” Indeed the Supreme Court in many rulings has held that it is unreasonable and unjust to expect the same standards of evidence in mass crimes as in regular individual crimes, because of embedded institutional bias.
The rejection of the veracity of the statements which the Dalit survivors courageously made in open courts, battling violence, intimidation and boycott, is therefore a grave setback to the greater idea of justice. It was unjust for the judges of the Andhra Pradesh High Court to close their eyes to the larger context of economic and social violence and power imposed by caste superiority and ownership of large land holdings in rural India, and the close nexus of rich upper-caste landed communities with the police and ruling establishment.
The survivors of the Tsundur massacre chose to fight the injustice and bloodbath to which they were subject not by picking up arms and joining the Maoist rebellion, which already has struck deep root in the surrounding countryside. Instead they rightly placed their faith in the ponderous processes of a democratic state and its criminal justice system. But by letting them down so profoundly, India’s superior courts have fuelled further the despair that is gripping segments of young Dalit, tribal and Muslim men and women, confirming to them once again that justice and security is hard to secure for historically oppressed people in India’s republic.
This is the agonising reality of oppressed communities that we collectively must reverse.
Harsh Mander is Director, Centre for Equity Studies
The views expressed by the author are personal