A strange and bitter crop
By Anand Teltumbde
On 29 September 2006, in a modest town in eastern Maharashtra called Khairlanji, a tragedy occurred. A gang of Other Backward Castes (OBCs), led by the local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) potentate, raided the home of a Buddhist agricultural family, the Bhotmanges. With impunity, the gang raped and killed Surekha Bhotmange and her daughter Priyanka, and killed her two sons, Sudhir and Roshan. The three children had done well in school, with Roshan on the road to becoming a computer professional and Priyanka a topper in class 10. Apart from the animosities inherent in the caste system, there was no motivation for the attack. The Bhotmanges are Dalits and their neighbours are OBCs, many of whom resented the dignified and successful lives being led by the victim family. The violence against the Bhotmanges was so extreme (the local BJP leader, Bhaskar Kadav, is accused of raping Surekha Bhotmange post-mortem) that it is impossible to discount the rage that comes from ideas of caste superiority. Those who perpetrate such atrocities visit the courthouse casually, with the full knowledge that their political friends will protect them until the case is forgotten – as so many others are.
Anand Teltumbde has now written a book that will never allow this massacre to be forgotten. Nor will it allow us to think of Khairlanji as an aberration. Since the 1970s, as Dalit communities in India organised themselves to gain political power, and since the modest benefits of affirmative action have allowed some within the community to rise in government service, attacks on Dalits have become routine. The National Crime Records Bureau shows that in 2007 alone there were more than 30,000 crimes recorded against Dalits or Scheduled Castes, of which almost 10,000 were recorded by the police under the Prevention of Atrocities Act. Human-rights groups tabulate the enormous number of rapes of Dalit women, many of whom never lodge reports due to the social sanction for such violence in general, and also because of fear of humiliation and further aggression at the police station. The violence at Khairlanji, like the violence at Melavalavu in 1999, is stunning in its detail, but also ordinary in its regularity. Such incidents have become banal – so much so, Teltumbde tells us, that the Indian media no longer pays attention. “Caste atrocities,” writes Teltumbde, “are a part of the ecology of India.” And yet, because mention of them induces guilt, the advertising-captured media ignores them.
Teltumbde may be too modest to mention that he is B R Ambedkar’s grandson, but he has the analytical acidity of his ancestor’s pen. Four years ago, he made an important intervention on the role of anti-caste struggles as part of the anti-imperialist movement. He has developed the argument that, in the postcolonial era, Brahmins and other ‘elevated’ castes moved from the rural areas to the cities, where they benefited from the openings afforded them by the new state. In the rural areas, it was the intermediate castes and OBCs, the Shudras, who benefited from the modest land reforms, and it was they who became the immediate oppressor of the Dalits (bear in mind that 70 percent of Dalits in India are landless cultivators). In this way, Teltumbde writes, the Shudras became the “virtual baton holders for Brahmanism”. The Shudra-dominant castes have also become the “main prop of the Hindutva movement”, as was documented in detail in Teltumbde’s edited collection Hindutva and Dalits (Samya, 2005). These analytical moves allow Teltumbde to identify the problem at hand in Khairlanji, one of India’s many rural ghettos. The contradiction between the Shudra landholders (who are aligned with the BJP and Shiv Sena) and this Dalit Buddhist family is writ large in the tragedy that visited the Bhotmange family.
Between the 1970s and the 1990s, certain region-specific Shudra castes took advantage of agricultural inputs from the government and land reforms to consolidate their economic position in the countryside. Money and land in hand, they turned to the political domain, and became the backbone of many of the regional parties – including the Telugu Desam, Shiv Sena and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam – that were able to exert themselves after the Congress lost its hegemony in Maharashtra and in South India by the 1980s. Dalits, meanwhile, did not have access to land, and they therefore could not position themselves to claim political power. To complicate matters further, in Maharashtra the Dalit vote was split after 1958 into a series of discordant parties, all of which claim Ambedkar as their own. When liberalisation soured the rural economy from 1991 onward, the Shudras turned on the Dalits, who had no effective political shield to protect them.
After the Khairlanji massacre, a local women’s organisation in the neighbouring town of Bhandara, the Rashtriya Sambuddha Mahila Sanghatana, conducted the first protest. This was followed by the formation of the Khairlanji Dalit Hatyakhand Kruti Samiti, through the initiative of the Mahila Jan Andolan Samiti – whose leader, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-aligned Ashu Saxena, was unduly harassed by the government, which spent far more energy moving against the activists than against the perpetrators. Dalit political parties were wary of taking the lead, with R S Gawai of the Republican Party of India (RPI) allegedly telling the local government to suppress the news of the massacre. (Teltumbde believes that this was for lack of commitment, although it might also have been for lack of nerve – many leaders, such as Gawai, feared that the huge numbers of Dalits present at the Diksha Divas celebrations might have run riot from Nagpur to Khairlanji.) In November, 25,000 people flocked to the Amravati rally organised by the Khairlanji Nished Kruti Samiti, and many more followed. The national media picked up the story grudgingly, and even then only when pushed by the fact-finding visits of various human-rights groups, and the visits of the CPI (M)’s Brinda Karat and the RPI’s Prakash Ambedkar.
In the end, it is the lack of political representation that rightly irks Teltumbde. He does not pay much heed to the bahujan portmanteau (referring to OBCs, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other minorities). He even worries that such parties are keener to strengthen caste than to annihilate it – as he wrote in his 2004 book, “Caste is intrinsically divisive.” Against caste, for its annihilation, Teltumbde has created a solid corpus of work that bears witness to the degradation of Indian democracy, and to the capacity of Indian socialism. India’s revolution, to paraphrase Bhagat Singh, is sharpened on the anvil of Teltumbde’s thoughts.