Monday, August 2, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Khairlanji verdict blind to dalit cause

Khairlanji verdict blind to dalit cause
BRINDA KARAT, Aug 1, 2010, 12.33am IST

Four years ago, Surekha Bhotmange, a dalit woman farmer living in the
village of Khairlanji in Maharashtra was brutally killed along with
her two sons, Roshan, the visually handicapped Sudhir and her
18-year-old daughter Priyanka. Her husband Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange
escaped. The method of killing was brutal. Each was hunted down and
beaten to death by a mob of men belonging to the dominant caste in the

Recently, the Nagpur bench of the Mumbai High Court gave its judgment
in the case. It held that caste had nothing to do with the killings.
It agreed with the judgment of the sessions court on the
non-applicability of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes
(Prevention of Atrocities Act) (POA). As a consequence, it reduced the
sentence from death to 25 years imprisonment. If there were ever a
case where the POA was applicable, it is Khairlanji. But the caste
hatred angle was played down from the initial, flawed investigations,
to the arguments of the prosecution, including those of state
prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam (now made famous by the Ajmal Kasab case) and
finally the interpretations in the present judgment.

The evidence, however, is unambiguous. The Bhotmange family, one of
only three dalit families in the village, was forcibly prevented from
building a pucca house. They were told that dalits could not do so.
Even though the family owned five acres of land, the village
authorities refused to levy tax as they wanted to take over the land
and deny proof of occupation. The family was constantly harassed but
refused to accept the supremacy of the dominant castes.

Surekha used to go for help to a fellow dalit, Siddharth Ghajbiye, a
police patil in a neighbouring village. On September 3, 2006, angered
by his help to Surekha, a group in Khairlanji beat up Ghajbiye. He was
rescued by Surekha and Priyanka, who were witnesses in the case
against the attackers. On September 29, 2006, the men involved were
arrested but immediately released on bail. Acting in concert, they
returned to the village and, in broad daylight, brutally killed
Surekha and her three children. Their mutilated bodies were found

The judgment took a very narrow view of the motive of revenge, failing
to appreciate that the dimensions of revenge against dalits are quite
different from other cases, given the caste-ridden nature of our
society. The judgment states: "In the present case, the whole object
of the accused was to take revenge against Surekha and Priyanka
because the accused believed they were falsely implicated in the
assault of Siddharth Gajbhiye by them and, in the process, committed
not only the murders of Surekha and Priyanka but of Sudhir and Roshan.
Therefore, it is difficult to hold that the accused intended to insult
Surekha (on basis of caste) or the other deceased admittedly belonging
to the scheduled caste."

By separating the motive of revenge from the caste angle, the women by
their actions, so to say, become responsible for their own killing.
What prevented the judges from holding that the motive of revenge was
precisely because two dalit women refused to be bullied and gave
witness truthfully? The judges did not take into account that among
the convicted are those who had nothing to do with the case of assault
on Ghajbiye. What would their motive be, except that of caste?

Common sense tells us that it is most unlikely that murder can be
committed only because two women stood witness in a bailable offence
in a minor case of beating. But the judges found that myth easier to
believe than the caste motive. If the Bhotmanges had belonged to
another caste, it is probable that others of the same community would
have intervened and found a solution. It is precisely because the
Bhotmanges were dalits and in a minority in the village, refusing to
be subordinate to others, that such brutal reprisals were carried out.

The most unfortunate aspect is that on the basis of this erroneous
interpretation, the judgment absolves the accused of any crime of a
sexual nature against the dalit women. In dealing with a case of
police manhandling of women demonstrators, the Supreme Court issued
guidelines that only policewomen should be deployed. It was felt by
the apex court that if male police handle women demonstrators, there
is likely to be sexual misconduct. For similar reasons, in cases of
arrest, a male policeman is prohibited from touching a woman. If an
enraged mob of men is manhandling a woman, holding her, dragging her,
beating her, stripping off her sari, as was done with Surekha, can
there be any doubt that she would be sexually abused?

Priyanka's body was found stripped of all her clothes. The dreadful
photographs show that there was not an inch of this young woman's body
that was not marked by bruises. The judgment mentions that six of the
accused "removed clothes of Priyanka before disposing of her severely
injured dead body and thereby wanted to get satisfaction to their
sexual eyes at such extreme circumstances." Yet, the judgment in an
outrageous conclusion holds that since revenge is the motive, there
was no intention on the part of the accused to insult the deceased or
to "dishonour or outrage (their) modesty."

If the court was against capital punishment in principle, it could
have said so, in so many words. But to advance the kind of arguments
that it has is to obliterate the reality of caste violence and to
reduce the sentence is to insult the memory of the victims and set a
precedent which has grave implications for others seeking justice
under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of
Atrocities) Act.

If Khairlanji was a shame and disgrace to our nation and our
Constitution, the judgment adds another chapter to it.

The writer is a CPM leader


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