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Trajectory of injustice

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TAPAN BASU

Putting into perspective the outrages of caste oppression .

The kharlanji massacre is... a paradigmatic event of violence against dalits in post-independence india. “Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.” Mark Twain, The Adventures of Hucklebury Finn.

Khairlanji : A Strange and Bitter Crop, Anand Teltumbde, Navayan Rs. 190.

Anand Teltumbde’s Khairlanji: A Strange and Bitter Crop is a tale of cruelty perpetrated on human beings by human beings, but not, therefore, a tale narrated in terms of an universalistic discourse of human fallibilities or frailties. Instead, as the sub-title to Teltumbde’s book, ‘A Strange and Bitter Crop’, as well as its epigraph, the powerful poem about the lynching of black people in racially-segregated United States, indicates, the tale is located in the specific context of a society characterised by the unequal distribution of power and privileges among its members. This is the social context of Khairlanji, at once “an obscure village in the unheard-of Mohadi taluk of Bhandara district, Maharastra” and “the quintessence of caste India –– that [requires] people... to observe their ascriptive statuses; stay put in their place.”

Acts of sadism

At the core of the story is the shocking episode of caste atrocity that happened in Khairlanji on 29 September, 2006, but came to light only a month later. The entire family of Bhaiyalal Bhotmange, a Dalit farmer of the Mahar caste –– comprising his wife, two sons and a daughter –– were lynched by a mob of caste Hindus of the village. The lynching was preceded by dastardly acts of sadism towards the victims, including thrashing, sexual abuse, gang-rape and mutiliation of parts of their bodies. The bodies of the four persons were dumped, following the massacre, into a canal that irrigated the farmlands of Khairlanji.

Teltumbde’s project is to put in perspective the Khairlanji massacre by reading it as a paradigmatic event of violence against Dalits in post-Independent India. Thus, after listing the notable cases of anti-Dalit violence in India since 1947 –– Kilvenmani (44 Dalits burnt alive in Tamil Nadu, 1968), Belchi (14 Dalits burnt alive in Bihar, 1977), Morichjhanpi (hundreds of Dalit refugees massacred by the state in Sunderbans, West Bengal, 1978), Karamchedu (6 Dalits murdered, 3 Dalit women raped and many more wounded, Andhra Pradesh, 1984), Chunduru (9 Dalits killed and dumped in a canal, Andhra Pradesh, 1991), Melavalavu (an elected Dalit panchyat leader and 5 Dalits done to death, Tamil Nadu, 1997), Kambalapalli (6 Dalits burnt alive, Karnataka, 2000) and Jhajar (5 Dalits lynched near a police station, Haryana, 2003) –– he states the purpose of his monograph :

... This book chronicles the [Khairlanji] massacre and its genealogy; tracks the anger and disgust that was uncorked among the Dalits and the brutal state repression that ensued; looks at how and why ordinary people fighting the state-corporate nexus are being branded as naxals and attacked; offers an analysis of the content and the prejudice of the mass media with reference to crimes related to Dalits; surveys the limitations of the constitutional measures to mitigate the sufferings of Dalits in the face of systemic inertia and societal indifference; examines the political economy and mechanics of atrocities; and finally looks at how Khairlanji blasts many myths about caste, including the belief that globalisation and neo-liberalism are weakening the hold of caste.

No longer unattainable

Within this ambitious agenda which Teltumbde charts out for his book, the most valuable item, in my opinion, is his intention, expertly fulfilled, to explain the re-structuring of the traditional caste hierarchy, the varnavyavastha as outlined in Hindu scriptures, through its encounter with the institutions of capitalist modernity. Contemporary caste society, according to Teltumbde, has re-invented the relations between the varnas by pitchforking into prominence, at least in the countryside, the erstwhile Shudras or menial classes (the Backward Classes and Other Backward Classes of today) via developmental policies such as land reforms and the Green Revolution.

It is the Shudras who now dominate the social terrain of rural India, while the so-called twice-born castes, once the ruling elite in the villages, have shifted to the more prosperous urban territories. Coupled with the flight to the cities on the part of the upper castes is a new-found assertiveness in the ‘untouchables’ of yesterday (presently Dalits) for whom the prospect of upward mobility in society no longer appears unattainable. The changed equations between castes has engendered fresh contradictions, manifest most of all in increased clashes between the Dalits and the Backward and Other Backward Classes, of which the Khairlanji conflict was only one terrible example. Thus, to quote Arundhati Roy from the blurb of the book under review, it’s “not a book about the last days of relic feudalism, but a book about what modernity means in India.”

The paradox of Indian modernity, the book suggests, is that it instigates Dalits to fight for social justice, even as more and more social injustices are heaped upon them everyday.

Tapan Basu is Reader, Department of English, Hindu College, New Delhi.


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