Is Maharashtra Caste Blind or Caste Prejudiced?
By Anand Teltumbde
15 June, 2014
If you recall, Khairlanji, as it was first reported in the media (on 30 September 2006) was a crime that happened out of outrage of simpleton villagers at the defiance of a woman having affair with a man from a neighbouring village. There was no question of caste or cruelties. Needless to say it was a police version aimed at burying the incident as a simple law and order issue. After eight years, Khairlanji is getting reproduced in a Kaulewada village in the adjacent Gondia district, which incidentally was a part of the same Bhandara district, in which Khairlanji fell until recent years, where the Maharashtra government has declared a case of a Dalit activist being burnt alive to be just a law and order issue, sans caste or conspiracy.
Even after the state wide flare up over the Khairlanji incident, the case ended up just as a casual crime that happened in the mode of avenging a witness of Surekha and Priyanka Bhotmange, mother and daughter respectively, given against some villagers for which they suffered 'great humiliation' of having to secure bail before going to jail. That is what the fast track court in Bhandara had concluded and the Mumbai High Court also confirmed. It was another matter that the village mob that attacked Bhotmange household shouting, 'Mahar majlet', a self declaration of the intent that the Mahars had to be taught a lesson for defying the caste code. But the court perhaps saw it as mere interpretation and not the evidence that the killers should have submitted as a written statement that they killed the mother, daughter, and her two sons only because they were Mahars and nothing else. Well, the court would depend upon the case of prosecution and here was the super-competent star-prosecutor Ujwal Nikam failing to make the most pertinent point in the case! Now, the police has created a similar story that Sanjay Khobragade was burnt alive not by the people whom he named thrice in his independent statements before the tahasildar and the police but by his own wife and her so called paramour, a simple law and order issue, sans caste or conspiracy.
Fault lines of Caste
Sanjay Khobragade, an Ambedkarite activist of Kaulewada village in Gondia district who died on 22 May of his burn injuries, was set ablaze, dousing him with Kerosene, while he was sleeping in his courtyard on the night of 16-17 May by six people. He named them as Rushipal Tembhare (45), his wife and village sarpanch Madhuri Tembhare (40), Bhaulal Harinkhede (45), Punaji Thakre (58), Hemant Thakre (30) and Shriprakash Rahangdale (50), a doctor, deputy sarpanch and president of the Bahyababa temple trust, all belonging to the dominant (actually an OBC, a hallowed constituent of the weird mixture called bahujan) Powar caste. Following his statement, the police had to arrest them all immediately. However, as in any caste crime, the culprits here also had strong political connections with BJP and police had to move fast to take the incident past them to set them free. They therefore fabricated a story of Khobragade's wife Devakabai (48) and her so called paramour, Raju Gadpayle (42), a poor rickshaw puller and their neighbour committing the crime to get rid of Khobragade. They soon enacted the story by arresting both Devakabai and Gadpayale on 19 May, tortured them to get their confession to the crime, and allowed the six accused to be let out on a conditional bail of Rs 15,000 each, unopposed. The process of discharging them of charge altogether is also on. Everybody is stunned in the village at this astounding behaviour of the police but the latter has so far persistent. As usual the Dalit leaders and the Maharashtra's Human Rights Commission Chairman Ashok Thool who also happens to be Dalit himself marked their attendance at Kaulewada but with no avail to the victims.
In this case even the media also adequately covered the context of the incident, which was consistent with the statement of Khobragade and the observations of the Fact Finding Team organized by the Jatiya Atyachar Anyay Virodhi Andolan, Nagpur. Khobragade had led a struggle of Dalits for securing a patch of land near the Bahyababa temple, which itself was on the government land, from the Bahyababa temple trust controlled by the village politicos belonging to Powar caste to build a Buddha Vihar. Initially, it appeared to went smooth to the extent that on 14 April 2012 the bhoomipujan of the land was performed by Dr. Shiv Prakash Rangdale who was the president of the trust and Rushipal Chaitram Tembhare, sarpanch, attending the programme organized by Dalits for building Buddha Vihar. However, the Powar community did not like it and decided to beat up Rangdale. He was saved by some Dalit activists. Dalits had bought some materials to celebrate Buddha Jayanti, which was kept in the pan shop of Khobragade. The same night, this shop was burnt down. Khobragade filed a complaint with the Gangajhari police station naming Punaji Premlal Thackrey (58) and Hemant Thackrey (30), father and son respectively, as suspects. Police did panchnama but did not pursue the case.
Next year, on 14 April 2013, during the celebrations of the Buddha Purnima, sarpanch Rushipal Tembhare had publicly announced that Buddha Vihar would come at the site. However, when Khobragade learnt that some portion of the demarcated land was allotted for some Bhakt Niwas, behind the proposed Buddha vihar area, the conflict errupted. In January 2014, when the Gram Panchayat began actually putting up columns, Dalits protested and even registered a complaint in the Gangajhari police station. The conflict thus escalated, some Powars threatening Khobragade to keep quiet else they would pick up his daughter and rape her. During the last three years, Khobragade had filed over six police complaints against the accused for some or the other matter relating to the land for the Buddha Vihar. Recently, the trustees seemed to have reconciled. Rushipal Tembhare told Khobragade to come after 16 May 2014 and collect the NOC. There however was palpable unease in the community. Whatever was the plan, on the night of 16-17 May, Khobragade was set ablaze.
As he battled for life over the next five days, he gave three separate statements to the tehsildar and the police, each time naming the same six persons. He claimed that he had seen and heard the culprit before they fled the scene. Since he died thereafter, legally his statements become his "dying declaration". But strangely the police rejected it saying it was only "suspicion". When someone makes a dying declaration, it becomes a bounden duty of the police to take it seriously unless the innocence of accused is established in due process of law. However, Police arrested Gadpayale on May 19 and claimed that he confessed to hatching a conspiracy with Devakabai to kill Khobragade. As in the case of Surekha Bhotmange, the police made out a story that both Devakabai and Gadpayale had an illicit relationship and Khobragade had seen them in a compromising position that night. Therefore, they both decided to kill him. When his son Pradeep (30) told this to Khobragade, he reportedly wept and vehemently denied it.
Sub-Divisional Police Officer, Tirora, Dilip Girhe told the court on May 26 that Devakabai and Gadpayle had known each other since childhood and had an affair for the last 30 years. This police story however was denied by both Gadapayle and Devakabai, when produced in court. They stated that they were tortured by police and made to confess to the crime they had not committed. Pradeep Khobragade dismissed the police claim as false. The police are reluctant in taking the context of past conflicts related to the temple land into consideration. The police are yet to record the family's statement. Dalit activists are unanimous that police were trying to save the real culprits in falsely implicating Devakabai. Opposing Devakabai's bail, the prosecution had told the court that they feared "communal tension". Dalits, however, vouched for the Khobragade family. Everyone knew that Devakabai was firmly with Sanjay in agitating for the Buddha Vihar and did not have an iota of discordance to insinuate an affair.
Maharashtra, Maha in Everything
This kind of framing of the incident has come handy for the Maharashtra government to declare it as a simple law and order issue. It serves two objects. One, at the minimum, it potentially protects the culprits, usually its protégées from the stringent provisions of the Atrocity Act and at the maximum absolves them completely of crime as in this case; and two, it spares the blot of a caste crime being credited to the government, a statistical window dressing. Every state government has this tendency which impels one to read the statistics of crimes against Dalits by National Crime Research Bureau with as large a factor of correction as ten. Maharashtra's case is special: It somehow represents a miniscule India with all its characteristic vices blown over a smaller area so as to appear ten times more intense. It may be axiomatic to say that governments are hypocrites, corrupt, anti-poor, anti-minorities, anti-Dalits, etc.; in the case of Maharashtra one may have to simply scale up these epithets to depict its reality. It is therefore that Maharashtra is one of the few major states that have not set up special courts to try atrocity cases despite figuring as one of the high ranking states in terms of number of caste atrocities and one of the few states that are characterized by infamous atrocities like Khairlanji, sharing the dubious dishonour with Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and of course Bihar.
While the two cases of caste atrocities—the murder of Nitin Aage in Kharda along with this one--have come to prominence during the last month there have been several others, equally gruesome, that went unnoticed. At a Buddhist wedding function in Bodwad village in Jalgaon district on 15 May, while guests were revelling with customary Ambedkar songs, around 100 members of the dominant Maratha and Mali castes broke in and began attacking the revellers. Ten people were badly injured in the attack. While some guests rushed to call the police, Dalits from neighbouring villages had to come to take injured victims to the hospital. The police arrested 14 people reportedly under the Atrocity Act but not without the counter charge on some Dalit boys for having harassed the caste women of the village. Such counter-charge is almost an adjunct of any case under the Atrocity Act which serves the purpose of striking a compromise later to squash the main case. On 25 April, Umesh Agle, a Dalit labourer in his early twenties paid with his life for getting into a fight with youths from the dominant Maratha community in Aurangabad's Devpul village. In the night, four or five Maratha men came to Agle's house and took him out for a talk. His body was found in a well the next day, with broken limbs and knife wounds. While the men identified by Agle's family have been arrested and booked under the Atrocity Act, the alleged masterminds are still at large. In another incident, Manoj Kasab, a Dalit sarpanch of Nanegaon village, was beaten to death on the night of 3 April by a group of men from a dominant caste. While his brother, who was also attacked, suffered a leg injury, Kasab's wounds proved fatal. The police have reportedly made 10 arrests under the Atrocities Act. There could be several such incidents, not to count minor crimes all over the State. In all these cases, surprisingly the Police have registered the cases under the Atrocity Act, ostensibly to pacify Dalits and thwart further flare up in the election year.
From a very different perspective, the Maharashtra government itself has been a major contributor to the atrocities on Dalits. It has earned notoriety of picking up dalit activists protesting against atrocities on and other material injustice to dalits and incarcerating them in jail using the Maoist label as long as possible. They have not spared even the cultural outfits like Kabir Kala Manch, which evoked indignation all over the country and even abroad. People are arrested and incarcerated in jails for years on flimsy made-up charges of association with Maoists or possessing their literature in utter disregard of the Supreme Court judgements that even being Maoist itself does not constitute a crime. The case of Sudhir Dhawale perhaps exemplifies it best. He was widely known as Dalit activist, one of the organizers of the Republican Panthers- Movement for Annihilation of Castes, and the editor of Vidrohi, a bi-monthly Marathi magazine devoted to the issues of Dalits and other oppressed people. The entire who's-who of progressive Maharashtra therefore had come forward in his defence and pleaded with the government for his release. But without any charge whatsoever the haughty government held him in jail for 40 long months. It would be a mistake taking him as a lone case. Recently, he was acquitted along with eight others, mostly Dalits, by the Gondia Court, which trashed the charges as baseless, essentially reiterating the Supreme Court judgement. During these 40 months, Dhawale's family was devastated; his son who was in 12th standard when he was arrested with significant harassment to the family, lost track of his education. All others have also suffered such losses in varying degree. Considering the fact that most of these people and 44 like them who are still in jail are Dalits, are these not atrocities being perpetrated by the caste-prejudiced State? The repercussion of it is indeed far reaching than ordinary caste crime in which a humiliated body or a corpse is the outcome. In this atrocity, not only the lives of people are devastated, the spirit of entire community to resist injustice is killed leaving behind the social corpses strewn all around.
Reviving Feudal Lordship
The recent spate of atrocities appears to have been caused by the state policy. Maharashtra government introduced a scheme to settle the village level disputes under the much eulogized Mahatma Gandhi Tanta Mukti Gaon Mohim (Dispute-free Village Scheme) to bring about harmony in 2007. It has only served to suppress the grievances of Dalits and other poor by the dominant people of the villages. As the Dalit activists all over Maharashtra reveal this scheme has created an alarming situation where every village appears to be potential Khairlanji. The so called resolution of disputes is virtually imposition of dictatorship of the dominant caste in a village setting, a return of the feudal lordship in a legitimized form. A minor departure of a Dalit from the expected norm therefore flares up into ghastly atrocity. The pattern emerging out of the recent cases of atrocities can testify to this fact. It was for this reason that Babasaheb Ambedkar was spiritedly opposed to Gandhi's scheme of Gram Rajya, saying that villages were 'cesspool, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and communalism. The scheme reads good on paper and hence earned recognition from institutions like United Nations. But its local consequences, particularly to the Dalits and poor in villages are devastating. Over the last five years, it takes pride in resolution of over nine lakh disputes and awarded 1223 villages as tantamukt gaon prizes. The veritable joke has been that Khairlanji was given this award in the very year it was instituted.
All this goes to show that Maharashtra is far from being a caste blind progressive and secular state. It is the state, which is as badly prejudiced against Dalits as any other. The self-worn soubriquet of Phule-Ambedkarancha Maharashtra (Maharashtra of Phule and Ambedkar) has only served to fool the people.
Dr Anand Teltumbde is a writer, political analyst, columnist with EPW and civil rights activist with CPDR, Mumbai.