Khairlanji episode: Caste divide cemented by brutality from 15 years ago
Khairlanji (Maharashtra): In September 2006, Khairlanji was just another village in Maharashtra’s Bhandara, its 700 strong populace fairly nondescript. 150km from Nagpur, there was nothing to separate the homes in its dingy lanes from each other. Most roads were kuccha. Most houses were kuccha too.
Fifteen years later, there are signs of change. Some roads have gone from dirt to cement, some homes now have tap water. But what hasn’t changed is the distrust in the social fabric of the village, borne out of a heinous crime that sparked angry protests, brought ignominy to the village, and came to be known across the country as the “Kharlainji massacre”.
On September 29, 2006, a group of villagers, mostly Kunbis -- who consider themselves equivalent to the Marathas in western Maharashtra but are classified as other backward classes (OBC), attacked four members of the family of Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange, all Dalits.
They dragged out Bhaiyyalal’s wife Surekha, 44, her sons Roshan, 23, Sudhir, 21, and daughter Priyanka, 18, a Class 12 student, and subjected them to a brutal assault. The victims were paraded naked in the village, the women sexually violated, and all four of them hacked to death.
The massacre rocked the country and sparked protests by Dalit groups across the country. It was a rude reminder that despite stepping into the 21st century, caste attitudes continue to stagnate in primitivity, and Dalit people, especially women, were as vulnerable to the power of upper-caste structure as they were half a century ago. It belied the promise of modernity for India’s most marginal groups.
Today, the violence is gone but its memory lingers -- and Dalits complain that the caste divide is wider than ever. “If we get vocal, they (the upper caste) try to gag us. The reason why there has been no conflict between the Dalits and caste Hindus in Khairlanji for the last 15 years is because Dalits want peace,” said Siddhartha Gajbhiye, Surekha’s cousin.
Among the first triggers was a petty dispute in the middle of September 2006. The village, dominated by Kunbis, beat up Gajbhiye, who lived in the village of Dushala nearby, and frequently visited the Bhotmange family. The villagers suspected Gajbhiye had a relationship with Surekha.
Gajbhiye managed to reach Kamptee near Nagpur where he filed a police complaint, with the case later referred to the Andhalgaon police station. On September 28, 12 villagers were arrested, but got bail from a lower court in Mohadi the next day.
Seething in anger, the villagers stormed Bhotmange’s house at 6.30pm the same evening and broke into his mud hut looking for Gajbhiye. Since he was not present, the villagers directed their ire at the Bhotmange family. The mob dragged out all the members of the Bhotmange family, beat them up with bicycle chains, sticks and other sharp weapons. The violated bodies of Surekha and her daughter were found in a nearby canal the next day. Bhaiyyalal managed to escape and hid behind a tree from where he helplessly watched his family members killed.
Bhaiyyalal pursued the case with the support of several rights activists and subsequently a special court in Bhandara awarded the death sentence to six accused and two were given life imprisonment on September 24,2008.
However, the Nagpur bench of Bombay high court commuted the death sentence of six to life imprisonment on July 14, 2010. The high court ruled out caste discrimination as the reason for the killings, and said it was an act of revenge by the accused who felt that they were falsely implicated by Gajbhiye.
While holding that it was not the rarest of rare case, the court also rejected the Central Bureau of Investigation’s (CBI) appeal for convicting the accused under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. Bhaiyyalal then moved the Supreme Court but the apex court upheld the HC judgment.
Ravi Shende, a Dalit activist who regularly accompanied Bhaiyyalal to court hearings, alleged that the charges framed under SC/ST Act could not stand scrutiny before courts because the district and police administration – right from the lower level to higher ups – diluted the police investigation in favour of higher castes. “Moreover, we also failed to follow it up properly before the high courts over the last few years and hence the rulings,” Shende said.
At the time, a government report on the killings indicted top officers, doctors and even local politicians. The report, prepared by the social justice department and YASHADA – the state academy of developmental administration – described the killings as an “organised conspiracy.”
Uttam Shewde, another Dalit activist and state spokesman of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), echoed similar views. He alleged that there was tremendous political pressure from Day One. “They (upper caste people) succeeded in their mission. However, everyone knew that the entire episode was an outcome of caste bias,” Shewde said.
However, former village sarpanch of Khairlanji, Hasan Dhande, who was detained by the police after the killings, said that it was not a caste-based conflict at all as claimed by politicians – particularly Dalit leaders. He said the incident was entirely the result of a trivial dispute between the Binjewar and Bhotmange families. (Sakru Binjewar and Gopal Binjewar were accused in the case and awarded life imprisonment). “We have no grudge against Bhaiyyalal. He was here twice after the incident and everyone in the village treated him well. The incident was unfortunate and inhuman,” he said.
15 YEARS ON
Kharlainji has not seen any violence in the past decade-and-a-half, but many people from the Dalit community are still conscious of the walls erected around them, often unspoken. Amol Meshram, 29, a distant relative of Bhaiyyalal said, “The upper caste-Dalit divide has minimised in the sense that no such things happen right now. But Dalits are still not involved in the planning of development in the village.”
“They (upper caste community) hardly talk to us and while the social fabric has not been broken since then, bonhomie is glaringly missing,” said Meshram, who received a Bachelor of Science degree from Nagpur university and is now unemployed. “I was 14 when the incident took place. I was so horrified that I remember I stayed indoors for two months and didn’t go to school or anywhere else,” he added.
Durvash Khobragade, another Dalit from Khairlanji, said most Kunbis held the Dalits responsible for the massacre. “They blamed us after the accused were jailed, and that has widened a chasm between us. There is hardly any conversation between people of different castes, and they maintain a safe distance. There are no intercaste marriages in the village,” Khobragade said.
But village sarpanch, Moreshwar Dhumankhele, a Kunbi, rejects these charges of differences, and insists that both communities live in “harmony.” “There has been no dispute or any untoward incident between the communities in the last 15 years. The village was also adjudged as “Tanta Mukti Gaon” (dispute-free village) by the government in 2009,” he said.
Dhumankhele said Dalits form a small minority of the total population of the village, less than 40 residents. To him, the biggest evidence of harmony is the priest in the village temple. “Those trying to raise any unfounded casteist conflagration in the village, here’s a fact-check -- the priest of local Hanuman temple, Kashiram Nathuji Kawase, is a Dalit belonging to the cobbler community,” Dhumankhele said.
In January 2017, Bhaiyyalal died at a Nagpur hospital at the age of 62. With nobody from the Bhotmange family remaining in Kharlainji, his relatives, who live in other villages nearby, have now leased out the family’s 5 acre plot to a man named Bhagwan Dhenge, a Kunbi.
Yet, as the one protagonist of the 2015 massacre that still remains in and around Kharlainji narrates, this 5 acre plot of land was integral to the attack on the Bhotmanges. Gajbhiye, now 62, was then a “police patil”, a state government employee whose job was to coordinate between villagers and the police.
He alleged that the villagers were bent on grabbing a portion of the land to lay an approach road to their farms. This land was also used as a common passage to go to the agriculture fields of other farmers in the village whenever it was left uncultivated. In 1982, Bhaiyyalal married Surekha and after a few years the couple settled down at Khairlanji . He started developing the land for cultivation 1989 onwards.
Gajbhiye said that Surekha was an assertive person, who often confronted villagers for illegal trespass. She was considered very argumentative and would often mince no words. This assertive trait of Surekha did not go down well with the higher castes, he said. “I was a police patil of the neighbouring village and I used to help them in resolving such matters through police and other administrative sources. As they could not grab the land and failed to convince Surekha and her family, they targeted me for my frequent visits to her family,” Gajbhiye said.
Gajbhiye also alleged that the Bhandara police didn’t take prompt action against the accused because of political pressure. Since 2006, he has not returned to Khairlanj.
Ramu Dhande, one of the convicts in the case out on parole from the Gadchiroli prison due to the pandemic, said all he wanted to do was forget. “It was a bad phase for us. We want to live together in peace,” Dhande added.
For the Dalits, a sense of harmony is still a pipe dream. What they will settle for is for history not to repeat itself.