A decade ago today, a group of caste Hindus surrounded a Dalit villager’s house in Maharashtra’s Khairlanji , attempting to teach the Bhotmange family “a lesson” for filing a land dispute-related complaint against the dominant community.
They dragged out Surekha Bhotmange, 44, her sons Roshan, 23, Sudhir, 21, and daughter Priyanka, 17, and assaulted them brutally. The victims were paraded naked in the village, sexually abused and hacked to death. The women were gangraped. The only member to survive was Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange, Surekha’s husband, who was in the field and hid from the mob.
The incident unleashed a wave of fury across Maharashtra, mobilised Dalits and held a spotlight on the vulnerability of the community. The incident flew under the radar until massive crowds of Dalits across Maharashtra forced the administration to lodge a case. Six people were convicted and the case is pending before the Supreme Court.
But for the family, and millions of Dalits across India, little has changed. Crimes against the scheduled castes are committed frequently, and with impunity. In some places, Dalits have fought back--such as in Gujarat’s Una , where an assault by alleged cow protectors triggered a massive movement. That movement was rare: an overwhelming spectre of caste-based violence continues to haunt the 200-million-strong group. Last year, five crimes were committed against Scheduled Castes (SCs) every hour.
“Nothing has changed, in fact, crimes against Dalits have only increased. Eveo in Maharashtra, the crime rate has gone up,” says Anand Teltumbde, academic and writer of a book on the Khairlanji massacre. He points out that Khairlanji was part of a broader pattern of violence against Dalits that has been seen again and again: in Andhra Pradesh’s Karamchedu in 1987, in Tsunduru in 1991, in Bihar’s Bathani Tola in 1996 and Laxmanpur Bathe a year later, and in Haryana’s Bhagana in 2014.
In a majority of these cases, the legal fight has been frustrating with a long string of acquittals. Though considered one of the world’s strongest anti-discrimination statutes, it is almost impossible to get police to register and secure convictions under the SC/ST prevention of atrocities act. Even in Khairlanji, the courts refused to consider applying the SC/ST act, saying it was a simple case of revenge killing.
Conviction rates under the law remain low: just a fifth of the cases that do get registered result in convictions. In Gujarat and Maharashtra, the conviction rates are just 6% and 2%, as reported by the National Crime Records Bureau in 2014.
The 10-year anniversary of the Khairlanji massacre is also witnessing massive protests by the dominant Marathas demanding the scrapping of the SC/ act. “Marathas are the ruling class. Dalits are just 10%. How can they misuse the law? Look at the conviction rates. The argument is self-defeating and a threat to both Dalits and the nation,” says Teltumbde.
But the violence exemplified by Khairlanji isn’t going away anytime and will grow as Dalits assert themselves more, feels Vivek Kumar, a professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
He says Dalits are under attack from two sides. In cases such as Una, they’re condemned to traditional practices such as manual scavenging and picking up carcasses, and any assertion against that oppression invites anger from the dominant communities. On the other side, in Khairlanji, a family trying to claw up the social ladder with modern tools such as education was brutally suppressed by caste Hindus.
A third, more endemic form of discrimination has also shown itself, most prominently with the January suicide of Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad. This form of discrimination is subtle and almost impossible to monitor as it functions within the seemingly egalitarian space of universities, where Dalit students fail, are given low marks, humiliated in public and have no access to opportunities. “If a professor doesn’t sign a Dalit student’s fellowship form, nothing can be done,” says Kumar.
Ten years ago, Khairlanji showed us that half a century of independence meant little for Dalits, who were still hounded and punished for any social progress or defiance of caste hierarchy. But apart from the violence, caste is an evil that lurks in our everyday lives: in the books we read, the friends we make, the people we fall in love with and the ones we mourn.
Until we recognise and start working against caste in our everyday lives, and not wait for Dalits to die, Khairlanjis will continue to happen. Until Dalits have independent political power, Vemulas will continue to die. Until the government and public commit to upholding the law and constitutional safeguards for backward communities, India will not progress.