ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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After Khairlanji: Dalits and the State

Dalits and the State The massacre of four members of a dalit family in Khairlanji village in Bhandara district has stunned the nation and brought the caste issue again to the fore. The outburst of violence in much of northern and western India, especially in Maharashtra, in the wake of the desecration of Ambedkar


Dalits and the State

he massacre of four members of a dalit family in Khairlanji village in Bhandara district has stunned the nation and brought the caste issue again to the fore. The outburst of violence in much of northern and western India, especially in Maharashtra, in the wake of the desecration of Ambedkar’s statue in Kanpur should be understood in the context of what happened at Khairlanji and the State’s reaction to the ghastly incident. First there was the crime of Khairlanji, then the crime of delayed or no response from the State, followed by suppression of dalit protests in Vidarbha against the murders in the village in Bhandara district in Maharashtra, and then the bizarre observations by a senior minister on what was driving the protests only stoked dalit anger further.

The media appeared stunned by the uncoordinated violence after the desecration of the Ambedkar statue in Kanpur. It cannot comprehend that dalits always react spontaneously in moments of crisis, caring little for their leaders, who they see as traitors to their cause. Recall, a leader like Ramdas Athavale could barely save himself from the fury of the crowds in the wake of the Ramabai Nagar incident in Mumbai in 1997, when again an Ambedkar statue was desecrated.

Khairlanji, with all its bestiality, is not the first such atrocity on dalits, either in terms of scale or intensity. In recent years, interestingly during the very decade when the process of globalisation has accelerated, there has been a marked increase in every class of atrocities on dalits, which belies the commonplace notion that globalisation would have a modernising influence on Indian society. Rather than any muffled expression, the recent atrocities reflect a defiant assertion of caste prejudice by the perpetrators of the crimes, with visible support from the state machinery. It is done in a collective mode, even in broad daylight as in Jhajjar in Haryana, where a crowd of caste Hindus lynched five dalits to death in front of 50 policemen, a senior police official and a magistrate. In Khairlanji, similarly, the entire village were present at the rape, torture and murder of a mother and her three children in a sadist festivity that lasted two hours.

Khairlanji also stands out for the manner in which the state machinery behaved with such extreme prejudice. The role of the police in first suppressing the ghastly incident and later presenting it as the collective reaction of villagers against an “illicit” relationship of a woman is by now public. That the police also acted at the instance of local politicians and destroyed crucial evidence is also clear. What is not known is the history of police inaction in handling previous cases, which can be seen as directly leading to the carnage of September 29. The police had a complaint of the Bhotmanges, the family whose members were later murdered, against villagers in a land feud that qualified to be registered under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989. Likewise, the case of a dalit, who was beaten by the upper castes in Khairlanji, was also shoddily dealt with, by not booking the suspects under the Prevention of Atrocities Act. If the police had acted upon these cases, Khairlanji would not have happened. The entire state machinery comprising the local body, the police hierarchy, doctors, public prosecutors, and so on, can thus be seen as active contributors to this carnage. The much publicised fact that most state functionaries involved were themselves dalits is irrelevant. It only proves the larger point that merely putting dalits in administrative positions does not change the innate anti-dalit character of the State.

When news of Khairlanji finally began to be covered in the media, agitated dalit youth, enraged by the role of the State in the incident, came out to vent their anger all over Vidarbha. The police took the cue from R R Patil, home minister of Maharashtra, who publicly stated that Naxalites were behind the protests. They rounded up scores of youngsters and slapped cases on them. Such actions made the dalits wonder who was guilty: the casteist criminals of Khairlanji or the State, which was assaulting them.

The police killed three dalits and arrested thousands during the violent protests over the Kanpur incident. Then state action over the past week once again spoke volumes about the government’s attitude towards the community. The manner in which Nagpur was turned into a police camp to thwart the all-party dalit rally on December 4, the manner in which scores of people were detained ahead of the proposed rally, the way the state government and city authorities spread the scare of a “Mumbai under siege” on the eve of Ambedkar’s death anniversary, the overbearing presence of police in the name of providing security in Mumbai, which discouraged lakhs of dalits from paying homage to their messiah on the special occasion of the 50th year of their conversion to Buddhism, are all obvious indications of what the State thinks of dalits.EPW

Economic and Political Weekly December 9, 2006

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