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Khairlanji to Kanpur
Statues of B.R. Ambedkar dot small town and rural India. Sometimes his familiar, bespectacled face comes awash in a bright pink hue and the regulation blue of his suit is a trifle loud, but there is an iconic significance about these figurines for the dalit community that may escape the urban sophisticate. Here, quite literally, is the representation of dalit pride and aspiration. The constant evoking of Ambedkar, whether in these plaster of paris figurines or in the greeting ‘Jai Bhim’ (victory to Bhimrao Ambedkar), signifies his continuing import to the dalits of India 50 years after his death. A reflection, both of the conspicuous lack of leaders to replace him, as indeed the internalisation of the insecurity of an entire community believed to number 167 million.
But why should the desecration of an Ambedkar statue in Kanpur, UP, have resulted in the raw, incandescent display of dalit anger that we saw in Maharashtra, hundreds of miles away? To put it another way, if the brutal killing of four members of a dalit family in a nondescript village in Maharashtra was handled with a measure of justice, would Maharashtra have burned? The answer is, probably, not. No amount of political mobilisation could have triggered the spontaneous rampage that saw the burning of two trains and the widespread vandalisation of public property witnessed on Thursday. If the Khairlanji killings hadn’t come as a recent and brutal reminder that dalit lives continue to be vulnerable despite constitutional protection, decades of affirmative action and political mobilisation we would have been spared this odorous whiff of anarchy.
It becomes important then to revisit the incident that took place in Khairlanji village, Bhandara district. According to information pieced together later, the Bhotmanges were one of two or three Mahar families in that village of a 150-odd households. On the evening of September 29, the mother and her daughter was stripped in public, gang-raped and hacked to death. Her two sons were not spared either. This was in the nature of “settling scores” over a land dispute and to teach both women a lesson for the temerity they displayed in being witnesses to a criminal attack on a relative.
What is striking about this story is that none of the people with whom the Bhotmange family had lived among all these years intervened. They were all rendered impassive spectators to the barbaric tableau playing out before their very eyes. Caste divisions have always enforced a deep silence in situations such as this, a silence that is contagious. It spreads to the very institutions that represent the state in all its majesty at the grassroots. The village panchayat decides to hush up the case and ensure that the local police gets the message. The case was duly registered the next morning in a lackadaisical manner — certainly not under the Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989. Though the women were sexually attacked, no attempt was made to preserve the evidence of such a crime. Even their clothes were not made available for a forensic examination.
The pattern is fairly predictable. As C.V. Shankar, director of the Adi Dravida Tribal Welfare Department, Tamil Nadu, had once put it, “They (the police) are biased because of their own caste. The police in general try to avoid registrations... There are many power politics at the local level. Unless there is public pressure, the police administration tends to side with the landowning communities that have political clout. The scheduled caste person is therefore at the mercy of the landlords.”
What happens next is also entirely according to the script. When local dalit anger grew grave enough to rattle the windows panes of Mantralaya back in Mumbai, the state’s home minister and chief protector of Mumbai’s morality, R.R. Patil, pretended that the dalit anger on display was a “Naxalite” conspiracy. A few days later, he attempted a course correction: he actually promised to make available personal arms to vulnerable dalits if they so desired them! The two statements between them summed up the abdication of the state government. It was only on November 28 that the chief minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, made it known that he was handing the case over to the CBI and appealed to the dalits in his state to get back to normal life. His statement, ironically, came just two days before Thursday’s arson and a full two months after the Khairlanji episode.
If Thursday’s events signify the bankruptcy of government action, they also signify the hollowness of dalit politics in the state. As Maharashtra’s dalit leaders scramble to claim ownership of these protests, they must know that such acts of violence do not constitute a credible politics. They should, instead, have exerted themselves to ensure justice when incidents like Khairlanji occurred. As political commentators have pointed out, the Ambedkarite bigwigs assembled in Nagpur in October to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism, had not thought it necessary to highlight the Khairlanji killings. Ambedkar’s legatees in Maharashtra have a great deal to answer for.
It may be useful to remind them that the Republican Party, in the first election it faced in 1962, could win only three seats in the Maharashtra assembly but it accounted for 11.66 per cent of the total votes — second only to the Congress and twice as much as the nearest opposition party. That opportunity was since squandered. For almost three decades, the Congress ruled the state by creating a resilient patronage network and dalit leaders made a restless peace with the state dispensation. Today, even after the one-party dominance of the Congress broke down, all the major political forces in the state are in a battle for the dominant Maratha-Kunbi vote. It is extremely revealing that no significant opposition party in Maharashtra has sought to exploit the discomfiture of the ruling Congress-NCP alliance over the recent events. But then neither the Shiv Sena nor the BJP would want to claim this issue.
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