The September 29 butchery of four Dalits in Khairlanji village of Maharashtra's Bhandara district by fellow villagers is a heart-breaking reminder of the anti-human nature of caste prejudice. The victims, members of the Bhotmange family, were bludgeoned to death in full view of people of the village. Their mutilated bodies were dumped in a nearby canal. The `provocation' for the bestial killings was that Bhaiyalal Bhotmange's wife, daughter, and two sons were educated and asserted their right to a life of dignity despite their poverty. This was clearly unacceptable to the OBC-dominated village that has only two other Dalit families. When the sole surviving member of the family, Bhaiyalal, reported the crime, the police showed an unserious and even contemptuous attitude to the investigation. The post-mortems were not done in accordance with law. As a result, the desire of Mr. Bhotmange to get justice rather than accept the Maharashtra Government's belated offer of cash and a government job as compensation is likely to remain unfulfilled. The heartlessness of the state, and the intolerance shown by dominant castes towards any signs of progress among Dalits, stand indicted before the bar of humanity. Only political protests and pressure have ensured the transfer of the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Khairlanji is not an isolated case. Across India, with some exceptions, authorities tend to ignore atrocities sections of dominant castes commit against Dalits as though by social right. "Indifferentism," noted Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, "is the worst kind of disease that can affect people." Khairlanji also underlines the absence of a united Dalit leadership in Maharashtra. The recent protests in Nagpur, Yavatmal, and Bhandara were mostly undirected and resulted in violent clashes between protestors and the police. This in turn gave the police the excuse to block attempts by Dalit activists to hold peaceful protests such as the `Long March' planned from Nagpur to Khairlanji. Dalit activists and academics who have spoken out against the atrocity are being targeted and harassed. Such a response by the state is not just grossly unjust; it is also counterproductive. Khairlanji is a tragic reminder of the distance India has to travel in removing caste prejudice and ensuring that the poor and the powerless also get justice. Dr. Ambedkar defined democracy as "primarily a mode of associated living... [and] essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards our fellow men." His searing analysis of the distinction between `political democracy' and `social democracy,' and of the huge social democracy deficit in India, is as truthful and relevant today as it was in his lifetime (1891-1956).