“I WANT justice. I want the death penalty to the convicts in my family’s brutal carnage.”
Ten years have passed since the Khairlanji massacre of September 29, 2006, and Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange, 61, who lost four of his family, was repeating what he has said countless times since. The reiteration on the eve of the anniversary, however, sounded all the more potent as it coincided with the Maratha-Kunbi movement for abrogation of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.
The case is now in Supreme Court, with all sides having appealed a Bombay High Court (Nagpur bench) verdict that commuted the death penalty to eight accused (one of them since deceased) to life imprisonment for 25 years.
The caste politics, meanwhile, has come full circle. Then, it was Dalits who had hit the streets, demanding the death sentence for the accused, most of whom were Kunbis and Kalars, both OBCs. Now, following the rape and murder of a 14-year-old in Kopardi, it is the Marathas who are demanding death for the accused, who belong to the lower castes. And if the Marathas have been campaigning against the SC/ST Act, Dalits had invoked the same Act in Khairlanji. Charges under this Act were eventually not upheld in court; the convictions were for murder.
“If Marathas are asking for reservation, they should be given it. The Kopardi victim family too must get justice,” Bhaiyyalal said.
The anniversary of the Khairlanji massacre appears subdued. Every year on September 29, Dalit-Buddhist organisations light candles on the spot where Bhaiyyalal once lived with his wife Surekha, 45, sons Sudhir and Roshan, 21 and 19, and daughter Priyanka, 17. Their hut is gone; only an iron cot remains. “I have kept it there as remembrance,” Bhaiyyalal said in Bhandara city.
Bhaiyyalal survived the massacre as he was out on his farm. For three hours that evening, a group of villagers surrounded the hut and abused, assaulted and eventually killed the four, including the blind Roshan.
Khairlanji’s 800-odd population includes an overwhelming Kunbi majority, 20-odd Kalar families, five of STs and two of SCs — the Khobragades and the Meshrams who have dropped their demand for rehabilitation outside. “We pursued it for three years,” said Durvas Khobragade, 76, who took over as up-sarpanch last year along with sarpanch Archanna Mandlekar. “They (government) said you have everything here, why go out.”
Do they face isolation? “No, there is no problem as such. I have two acres and manage to eke out a living,” said Khobragade, whose family comprises his son, daughter-in-law, two grandsons and sister Panchashila, an anganwadi sevika in the village school. “We behave extra carefully,” she explains her brother’s “no problem” assertion.
They say the Bhotmange family had done nothing wrong to deserve what happened. “Why shouldn’t Dalits lead a life of self-respect and aspirations?” said Panchashila.
For many others in the village, journalists are not welcome. The prominent Dhande family made no effort to hide their displeasure. Four of the family — a father, a son and two other young men — were sentenced for life. “My son has gone to the field. I can’t talk to you,” said an elderly woman.
Jaswant Mandlekar, 64, father of Prabhakar who is in jail, said, “Nobody feels this should have happened. I was away when my son chose to be part of the crowd that allegedly killed the four. Now he says he is suffering his destiny,” Jaswant said.
Had he been home, would he have dissuaded his son? “Now these are all questions of ifs and buts. There is no point discussing that,” said Jaswant, who farms on two acres.
“The accused too basically belong to poor families,” said Neeraj Khandewale, one of the lawyers for the accused. “They cannot afford to keep fighting in courts. They don’t come often to either meet their relatives, or even to me to know what’s happening in the case.”
Bhaiyyalal today lives in a three-room concrete house, provided by the government in the MHADA colony of Bhandara city along with a guard’s job at a hostel, which earns him Rs 15,000 a month. He has bought a colour TV; a cousin sister looks after him.
What brought him all this still pains him. “There is not a day when I don’t remember my family,” he said.
Bhaiyyalal has rented out his farm at Rs 20,000 a year and some rice. A lot of his earnings and time is still consumed by travels to Delhi and Mumbai for the case in the SC.
“I go to Khairlanji every year on September 29 to pay tribute to my family along with many community organisations and leaders. Nobody in the village talks to me,” he said. He moves around with a police constable, which he had asked for. “I feel there is still some danger to my life,” he said.
Then and now
“The continuance of atrocities on Dalits from Khairlanji to Una must not be lost sight of in the creatively organised Maratha upsurge of perceived victimhood triggered by the Kopardi incident,” Anand Teltumbde, author of The Persistence of Caste: Khairlanji Murders and India’s Hidden Apartheid and Khairlanji: A Strange and Bitter Crop.
“What is remarkable about injustice to Dalits is the state’s calculated intervention to stub Dalit resistance from going beyond a certain point. That is exactly what happened in Khairlanji, where it was not adjudged as an atrocity case by the judge,” he said.