When four members of the Dalit Bhotmange family in Khairlanji were murdered by a group of people belonging to an OBC caste from the same village, the state and its institutions refused to accept that it was a caste crime. A fast-track court sentenced eight of the 50 accused to death for the murders and the high court reduced it to life — while rejecting the charges made under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. State institutions and the law continue to fail Dalits. But, 10 years later, powerful new voices are emerging from within the community, forcefully articulating a politics of rights and justice. It reflects an ongoing churn in society, where new social, economic and political forces are shaping a modernity that challenges the old caste order even as they are set in it.
The Khairlanji violence also had a lot to do with Dalit assertion. The Ambedkarite politics of the 20th century had radicalised and empowered Dalits, threatening the very foundations of the caste-centric feudal hierarchy of rural Maharashtra. Political mobilisations, then and now, in the state reflect the deep unease among the caste elites with Dalit empowerment, reflected in community members gaining education, employment outside the “traditional” caste occupations, and acquiring material assets. Maharashtra’s political narrative is not exceptional. At the heart of the anti-Dalit violence reported from across India, be it in Tamil Nadu or Gujarat, seem to be non-Dalit anxieties about losing social and economic dominance as Dalits increasingly access modern education and assert their rights as citizens. The life and death of Rohith Vemula mirrored the Dalit upsurge and the extreme reactions to it. Vemula’s layered articulation of identity and emancipatory politics unnerved the establishment, which sought to first isolate, and then, penalise him. He chose death to assert his self, and his suicide roiled campuses across the country. Similarly, the attack by “gau rakshaks” on Dalits in Una has triggered a political response that has resonated across the country. Vemula, even after his death, and Jignesh Mewani in Gujarat, represent a new language of assertion of the marginalised and disprivileged that transcends the exclusive character of Dalit identity politics.
The emergence of the Bahujan Samaj Party in the 1980s as a political movement and an electoral force could be seen as the big breakthrough in Dalit politics since Ambedkar. The post-Vemula mobilisations indicate a new exciting phase. The political establishment has no option but to engage with these large transformations.