The July 14 judgment of the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court in the Khairlanji massacre case relating to the lynching of four members of a Dalit family at a Maharashtra village four years ago has understandably disappointed large sections of Dalits and, more particularly, activists championing Dalit cause across the country. This is in striking contrast to their unconcealed satisfaction over the capital punishment awarded by the specially appointed Fast Track trial Court in 2008 to six of the eight accused, who were charged with brutally wiping out all but one of a Dalit family. The High Court, on appeal, commuted the death sentence on the grounds that it was “not the rarest of the rare cases,” warranting the death penalty. The appeal court modified the sentence on these six persons and the two others, who were given life terms by the lower court, to a 25-year imprisonment.
Dalit activists are also dissatisfied with the contention of the judges that the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 was not applicable to the Khairlanji case because, in their perception, there was no caste angle to the crime. Justices A.P. Lavende and P.C. Chavan of the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court, who heard the appeal, held that the multiple murder (of Surekha, wife of Bhaiyalal Bhotmange, her daughter Priyanka and two sons, Sudhir and Roshan, the latter a visually challenged youth), was not pre-meditated or motivated by caste prejudices; it was a case of “revenge killing.” The High Court judgment said that the incident had occurred not because of hatred but because “the [massacre] accused [non-Dalits] felt that they were falsely implicated” by Surekha and Priyanka in a case of assault on Siddharth Gajbhiye (a Dalit police patil and friend of the Bhotmange family). Hence the finding that it was a clear case of wreaking vengeance.
The barbaric murders on September 29, 2006 were seen by the court as an offshoot of an incident that happened 16 days earlier. On September 13, 2006, according to the judgment, Siddharth Gajbhiye, a Mahar, slapped Sakru Binjeswar, one of the accused in the case later, following a brawl between the two over non-payment of part of some back wages Siddharth owed to Sakru. Later in the day, when some persons assaulted Siddharth, Surekha and Priyanka went to the rescue of Siddharth.
After two days, Siddharth lodged a complaint with the police that he was assaulted, and Surekha gave the police a statement in which she identified the attackers. Those identified were arrested and released on bail on September 29. The same evening about 40 persons, including Sakru and his men, encircled the Bhotmanges' hut. They shouted at Surekha for identifying them to the police and for ‘implicating' them in an assault case. They also abused the Bhotmange family. When Surekha allegedly set fire to a cattle shed to divert the attention of the crowd and attempted to run away, Sakru's men killed her. The murder of the other three, Sudhir, Roshan, and Priyanka followed. The bodies were carried in a bullock cart and disposed of in a canal.
Exemplary role played by media
The attempts by the non-Dalit people in the village to suppress the news did not succeed. The news spread fast and caught the full attention of the news media and Dalit activists and progressive political parties. The media took the issue to larger sections of people across the country and thwarted the attempts of the State authorities to project the brutal killing of Dalits as “a Naxalite effort” to mislead the people. The role of the media in sustaining the campaign for justice and fair and early action against the perpetrators of violence against the Dalit family was exemplary.
A look at the caste profile of Khairlanji village in Bhandara district is relevant here. Other Backward Castes people formed the vast majority of the village. There were also some ‘upper caste' Kunbi families. Three families, including Bhotmange's, were Mahars, a Scheduled Caste. The rest are Scheduled Tribe families. Of the three Mahar families, the Bhotmanges were the most assertive. The village was known for the deep-rooted prejudices among caste Hindus against Dalits.
Even when the Dalit killings took place on September 29, 2006, there were reports that the investigation was being hampered by virulent sections of the dominant castes. When the nearest police station was informed of the crime, a constable arrived at the scene of occurrence but was in no mood to start the investigation. He blamed his failure on “the darkness” around, which only reflected his own caste-based prejudice against the affected Dalit family. Dalit activists contended that their complaints about the atrocities and the fact that many people were missing did not evoke any notable response from the policeman as well as the people of the dominant castes, simply because the victims were Dalits. Had the investigation started without any loss of time, particularly with post mortem and laboratory tests on the women victims for evidence of alleged rape, things could have been different. But that was not to be. Statements made by the numerous Dalit activists, media reports, accounts of witnesses, and the findings of visiting teams of journalists and independent observers representing various organisations all made it clear that the fatal attack on the four Bhotmanges was a clear case of premeditated massacre of Dalits because of caste-based prejudices of sections of the dominant non-Dalit community in the village.
Media reports published, telecast, and broadcast at the time of the 2006 murders and later when the Fast Track Court came out with the capital punishment for some of the accused only presented it as an outrageous crime against Dalits by non-Dalits. This warranted trial under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, in short the Atrocities Act. The appointment of a Special Court as prescribed by the Act and the government's action in entrusting the investigation to the Central Bureau of Investigation conveyed the impression that the Atrocities Act had been invoked for the purpose. And that was why not only Dalits and Dalit activists but also other human rights workers, political supporters, and journalists who had been consistently working for justice in this case felt let down by the court's ruling that the Atrocities Act was not applicable in the Khairlanji massacre case.
“An Act with teeth”
This has to be seen in proper perspective. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 has been the first major legal instrument to achieve the empowerment of Dalits in India. The need for this Act arose from the realisation that the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, which was brought in to implement the abolition of untouchability mandated by the Constitution, in addition to protecting the civil rights of people in general, could not do much to protect Dalits from ‘upper caste' atrocities. The Atrocities Act, seen as “an Act with teeth,” has emerged as a powerful tool to empower Dalits in their prolonged struggle for social emancipation. In the Atrocities Act, the complainant is justifiably given more weight than the defendant. There are also stringent provisions against the police for negligence in performing its duty. The Act has made District Collectors and Superintendents of Police accountable in respect of its implementation. Another important aspect is that it looks at the problems from the angle of the victims. Besides, it provides for payment of compensation to Dalits affected by atrocities of various kinds. The plight of Bhaiyalal Bhotmange, who lost all the members of his family in the Khairlanji killings, is a classic example. Had the Atrocities Act been applied in the Khairlanji case, he could have been provided substantial monetary relief under the Act, though no amount of money could compensate for his loss.
However, while there is dismay that the Atrocities Act was eventually not applied in the case, the 25-year imprisonment for eight of the accused is no mean punishment of the guilty. The answers to the troubling unanswered questions might lie elsewhere. The gaps in the police investigation, the unpardonable delay in carrying out necessary medical tests in time on alleged victims of rape, and the prosecution's failure to present the case effectively combined to compromise the case. Given the deep-rooted prejudices against the mass of Dalits and the poor rate of conviction (only 25 per cent) in cases of atrocities against Dalits filed under the Atrocities Act, it is not surprising that justice waits to be done.