WOMEN SPEAK OUT AGAINST KHAIRLANJI AND THE REPRESSION
WOMEN SPEAK OUT AGAINST KHAIRLANJI AND THE REPRESSION THAT HAS FOLLOWED
Newsletter Jan-Apr 2007
Report of a Meeting in Delhi
On 29 September 2006, a mob of about 40 Kunbis from Khairlanji, Maharashtra, entered the hut of the Bhotmange family and dragged out Surekha, her daughter, Priyanka and two sons, Rakesh and Sudhir. They were stripped naked and paraded through the village, and then taken to the square where the women were raped. One of the sons was asked to rape his sister in front of all the onlookers, and when he refused, his genitals were cut off. Later, all of them were killed in cold blood. After being totally reluctant to act, even file an FIR, the local police finally took 44 people into custody but now a majority of them have been released. Meanwhile, the protestors and activists who have since then been raising their voice against these heinous crimes, fighting for justice, and supporting the struggle of Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange, the only survivor of the family, have been facing severe reprisal from the state.
Why did the Bhotmange family become the target of such rage and atrocity? The Bhotmanges, one of a handful of Dalit families in Khairlanji, happened to be an educated and upwardly mobile family known to be dynamic and outspoken. They had recently acquired some farm land, regarding which there were some ongoing disputes and court cases on the right of way of the villagers. Surekha had also testified against some upper caste villagers in another case of Dalit atrocity involving her cousin’s fight over her land. Thus, it is clear the upper castes were looking for an opportunity for revenge.
On 31 March 2007, groups in Delhi got the opportunity to discuss and deliberate on the issue, when activists of the National Forum for Dalit Women, National Federation of Dalit Women, Rashtriya Sambudh Mahila Sanghatana, All India Progressive Women Association, Apeksha, National Conference of Dalit Organisations (NACDOR), Dalit Mukti Morcha and Dalit Atyachar Virodhi Manch got together in the capital, to share the aftermath of Khairlanji and give an update on the current status of the struggle. The meeting, organised by Saheli and the monthly Dalit magazine, Abhimooknayak*, also included many Dalit women activists from Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi... in all, about 70 of us.
The activists from Maharashtra shared that since the incident, several memorandums have been presented to various institutions including Maharashtra Human Rights Commission and State Commission for Women, but no action has been taken. Several protests and rallies have also been organised.
The first rally which took place on 14 October in Bhandara deserves a special mention. Dalit women, incensed by what they called the failure of the Dalit (male) leadership to respond to the situation, took the lead and soon around 15,000 people, mostly women, were on the streets in protest – a sight Bhandara has never seen before! Yet the rally received hardly any publicity. However subsequent incidents of more aggressive Dalit uprising at various places in Maharashtra including the burning of a train compartment in Ulhasnagar were covered extensively in the media. The violence in many places, often in response to the severe police action, provided the necessary sensationalism for mainstream reportage! Even the nationwide expression of anger and frustration in the aftermath of such demonstrations has not been able to pressurise the state government to bring the culprits of such ghastly violence to book.
If the incident of Khairlanji is a telling sign of how deep rooted caste prejudice still remains, in the events that have followed, the class and caste character of the state machinery has become even more evident. Activists who have been active in demanding justice have been facing severe repression from the police, which has been cracking down on all kinds of protest in a very systematic way. There are several cases of police atrocities and of people being arbitrarily arrested and booked under various sections of the IPC. In Mumbai, 17 women activists went to the Home Ministry to submit a memorandum, which was immediately torn. When they started sloganeering, they were lathi-charged, viciously manhandled and then arrested and jailed by an all-male police force. In jail, they were abused and made to go without food and water for hours. There have been protests in other places as well. In Amravati, around 90 to 100 people were arrested during a protest, and in Yavatmal, a woman activist was jailed for 15 days and beaten up by male police. In Akola, the situation became so bad that an activist called Dinesh Wankhede was shot dead by the police. And yet the Home Minister of Maharashtra, R.R. Patil, has continued to raise issues against the actions of the Dalits and the Chief Minister has ordered the suspension of many Dalit officials who have been involved in processing of the case, including the prosecution lawyer (who was also present at the meeting), doctors and civil servants. Clearly the intent has been to diminish the democratic space for the voices of people to emerge. (See memorandum against shrinking of democratic spaces during the Sangharsh 2007 protest in Delhi in this newsletter)
As for the Bhotmange case itself, in response to pressure by women’s groups, the investigations have been handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Given that the CBI came into the picture two months after the incident, it is well known that they are relying primarily on evidence gathered by the local police.
At the meeting, women’s organisations in Maharashtra expressed the need to keep up the pressure to ensure that these investigations are carried out as fairly as possible. But that is also an uphill task since none of the eyewitnesses are coming forward. The assaulters are either upper castes or tribals, who have political support, and the Dalits, a minority in Khairlanji, are very vulnerable and not in a position to speak up. The activists also expressed dissatisfaction at the role of the Dalit political leadership, especially male Dalit leaders, during the entire struggle. They were also disappointed by the fact that, apart from a few individual women, their struggle had had no support from other women’s groups.
Against all these odds, women activists of Maharashtra have shown amazing courage and tremendous resilience. The need of the hour is for movements all over the country to come together and extend solidarity with their struggle and demand action and accountability from state agencies that claim to be keepers of democracy. Equally important is the need for women’s groups to come out in full support of this struggle and engage with the range of issues that confront Dalit women today. For as we all know, caste hierarchy and patriarchy are inextricably linked, as so should our struggles against them both be.
NOT JUST DALIT WOMEN, ALL WOMEN NEED TO JOIN IN AND FIGHT. IT HAS TO BE A STRUGGLE FOR JUSTICE IN A BROADER SENSE.
We have asserted ourselves and claimed our identity and no-one can take that away.
~ Kumud Pavde
We need to see the links of this with issues of land and ownership.
~ Anjali Deshpande
The marginalised voice that rose through this case has been suppressed.
~ Rajni Tilak
We have overturned traditional leadership and come on to the streets.
~ Hira Pawar
Till 15 days ago, people were being arbitrarily picked and arrested and booked under several charges.
~ Chhaya Khobragade
Priyanka had 16 to 18 injuries on just the front part of her body. The post-mortem report is dubious and does not prove rape.