A recent verdict of the Bombay High Court in the Khairlanji massacre case convicting all accused to life imprisonment could have been a welcome one and gone a long way in restoring the common man's faith in the judiciary and the rule of law. It could have marked a historic juncture in the life of the nation announcing that the rule of law has firmly established itself despite all the inadequacies the country's judicial system demonstrates in both crime investigation and trial. It could have ensured that Dalits and other underprivileged groups will face no discrimination at least within the judicial system.
For these reasons, the verdict was long awaited. And in its final coming, it proved highly inadequate, rightfully outraging civil society. The outrage, though, is highly misplaced. The failure of justice is not rooted in the commutation of the death sentence of the six convicts to life terms for 25 years, as capital punishment is unacceptable in any civilised society. It is, indeed, painful to see some of the most genuine civil society members decrying the commutation and demanding the death sentence to the accused. One, retributive justice is no justice and no studies have confirmed any ‘deterrence effect' of the capital punishment. Rather, any statistic bears out the fact that it is used mostly against the poorest and weakest sections of society. In that, it emerges as an official version of mob-lynching.
For the same reason, the death sentence awarded by the session's court in this case was no victory for social justice. The judge has held the case as “revenge murder” and, citing the same, had refused to invoke the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The judge was seemingly convinced by the prosecution's poor case augmented by shoddy investigation with arguments to pass off the case as one of mere revenge killing.
The travesty of justice lies here. The 2006 massacre was not just another among the 32,481 reported cases of murder tucked in the pages of the statistical records of the National Crime Records Bureau of the year. Nor was it just one of 19,348 reported cases of rape (though the charges of rape were not invoked by the court). The gravity of the case did not lie in its being a gory instance of a mob bludgeoning a full family to death while raping women and mutilating their bodies.
It was a massacre to uphold the feudal values in a modern, democratic India. The perpetrators had not massacred the family in a fit of rage. Their anger was not momentary. It did not emanate from any personal enmity. The family had not done anything to provoke or to tick them off. The only ‘crime' the Bhotmanges had committed was to make efforts to escape the low social status ascribed to their ex-untouchable caste. The fact that they were trying to come out of the dehumanised existence the Dalits have been condemned to for centuries was a provocation enough for the killers belonging to the dominant castes.
That the prosecution did not press the PoA Act shows the systematic and institutionalised nature of casteism. Further, the fact that the massacre took place in full public view and yet there was no opposition to the killings shows how deeply ingrained the ideology of caste is.
Further, not bringing these spectators complicit in the crime by acts of omission at least, if not commission, to book shows how state institutions tolerate caste-based atrocities or actually are in cahoots with them. The case proves that it is in fact the pre-modern, barbaric and regressive social structure of caste that rules under the democratic facade of the Indian nation and that the idea of modernity is a mere superimposition upon this primitive mode of social organisation. It reminds us that we are decades, if not centuries, away from achieving the goals we had set for ourselves on the night we made a tryst with destiny, the goal of becoming a sovereign, secular, socialist and democratic republic.
In this sense, Khairlanji is a negation of the very idea of India and its democracy. It is an assault on the basic principles the country is based upon. It shows what kind of a decayed and deficient democracy we have evolved into.
Unfortunately, Khairlanji is no isolated case of some rogue elements in Indian society going insane. Rather, it is just one among the many like Jhajjar, Haryana, where five Dalits were lynched on the suspicion of trading in cows to Patan, and Gujarat, where a Dalit girl was gang-raped and put into submission in the teacher's training school.
But then, till now the response of the Indian state and its civil society too has remained the same — of getting outraged, making a lot of noises and then forgetting the issue till another such gory incident occurs. And precisely because of that, Khairlanji should shake us out of the deep slumber and make us introspect and act to put an immediate end to caste-based atrocities. By dealing not only with the perpetrators but also silent spectators approving the incident, cracking down on illegal institutions like khap panchayats legitimising caste. That would serve as a bigger deterrence than the death sentence, as the caste communities will get to know that all of them would be punished and not only the ‘heroes' carrying out their dictates!
Killing the demon of caste was the primary wish and clarion call of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, the father of our Constitution, lest we forget.
(The writer is at the South Asia Desk of Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong.)