When will Dalits get justice in this country, asks protagonist

The story of Khairlanji as a story of the plight of the Scheduled Castes in scores of villages has joined the pantheon of protest literature of the Dalit movement with the staging of Marathi play Tanta Mukta Gaon (Dispute-Free Village).

The Maharashtra government in 2010 declared the village of Khairlanji, infamous for the brutal killings of four members of the Bhotmange family, a “Tanta Mukta Gaon” under a government programme which seeks to resolve disputes at the village level through community intervention.

The play, written by young Sandesh Gaikwad, opened this week here. It invokes the extreme brutality of the incident that has left an indelible mark on the Dalit consciousness. Depicting the events that led to the killings, the play offers a glimpse into the mechanics of caste oppression at the village level.

It reveals how the jealousy of the dominant castes over the awakening of the Dalits and their subsequent assertion of rights was the true reason behind the atrocity. One full Act is used to show the impoverished yet progressive life of the Bhotmange family. The play dwells on the aspirations of the family, which is striving to rise up through education, and their refusal to be cowed down by the upper castes.

In a rare sympathetic advice, the village police inspector tells the family to leave the village. “Your crime is that you are a Dalit,” he says.

The play asks some very direct and pertinent questions to which perhaps no one has an answer even after 60 years of Constitutional freedom. Bansi, a young student who returns to Khairlanji with the dream of reforming it, is thwarted by the local administration. His bagful of books of renowned thinkers is seen to be more dangerous than weapons of mass destruction. Driven to despair, he asks: “When will Dalits ever get justice in this country?”

The play does have some shortcomings. For instance, its departure from factual events for the ending, endorses a violent revenge, which perhaps may not find resonance in certain sections of the community. Use of the stereotype of the bumbling havildar seems irrelevant to the narrative, although like Shakespeare's Fool, he is chosen to utter the uncomfortable truth about injustice and discrimination to his superior.

Infused with a quintessential Ambedkarite perspective, this real-life depiction offers a sweeping critique of caste oppression and the political establishment. It does not leave out Dalit leaders either. “Our politicians are like me, blind,” says the visually impaired Roshan Bhotmange.

In the backdrop of the protests that mark the killings, the government is shown to play a crucial role in stifling the subaltern voice and maintaining the structures of oppression.