DALITS, LIKE FLIES TO FEUDAL LORDS
A Maharashtra village serves up ‘moral justice’ by gang raping and lynching a dalit family. That didn’t merit front page news in 21st-century-10-percent-growth-rate India. Shivam Vij reports
On September 3, Siddharth Gajbhiye finally paid the price for helping dalits in a clutch of villages in Bhandara district near Nagpur in Maharashtra. A dalit himself, Gajbhiye is a police patil, an associate of the police hired on an honorarium, and has political connections in the Congress. This gave him some leverage to be of help to the sprinkling of dalit households who lived in constant fear of the upper castes. One such family was that of Surekha Bhotmange, 45, who tilled her five-acre plot in Kherlanji village, along with her husband Bhaiyyalal, growing cotton and rice. In 1996, two acres had been taken away as ‘easement area’ to build a road, so that neighbouring farmers, who belong to the Powar and Kalar upper castes, could take their tractors across to other villages. Now they wanted more of their land for a water pathway, and Gajbhiye was helping Surekha resist that, despite allegations that he was doing so because he had sexual relations with her. Gajbhiye and Bhotmange were in fact cousins, belonging to the Mahar caste, the same as Ambedkar’s, and were practising Buddhists in the Ambedkerite tradition.
On September 3, a mob beat up Gajbhiye, the ostensible reason being his alleged illicit relationship with Surekha Bhotmange. Gajbhiye filed a police complaint against 15 men from Kherlanji village, 12 of whom were arrested. Surekha signed on the FIR as one of the witnesses and identified the 12 in a police parade.
The Price of Do Bigha Zameen
Surekha Bhotmange, 45: raped, murdered
Priyanka Bhotmange, 17: raped, murdered
Roshan Bhotmange, 23: murdered
Sudhir Bhotmange, 21: murdered
Surekha and Priyanka were stripped, paraded naked, beaten with bicycle chains, axes and bullock-cart pokers. They were gang-raped until they died. Some raped them even after that
Twenty-six days later, on September 29, as soon as the 12 men were released on bail, they were taken away in a tractor by their relatives. They got drunk and went to the Bhotmanges’ hut threatening to finish off the entire family. Then they went looking for Gajbhiye and his brother Rajan, an engineering student. On not being able to find them, the drunken group returned to the Bhotmanges’ hut and broke down the door. It was 5.40pm, Surekha was preparing the evening meal and the head of the family, Bhaiyyalal, was not at home. They dragged out Surekha, their 17-year-old daughter Priyanka, and two sons, 23-year-old Roshan and 21-year-old Sudhir. Although Roshan was blind and Sudhir a graduate, they not only helped with the farming but also brought home extra money by working as labourers. Priyanka was more ambitious — a Class xii topper and an ncc cadet, she wanted to join the Army. Her mother had recently bought her a bicycle. But all dreams came to an end in a few harrowing hours.
The mob didn’t realise that Bhaiyyalal Bhotmagne and Siddharth’s brother Rajan were just a stone’s throw from their hut and had seen the four victims being dragged away to the village chaupal, Priyanka strapped to a bullock cart. By now, men allegedly from the entire village of about 150 Powar and Kalar families had collected. Some shouted to the sarpanch to allow them to sexually assault the women. They raped the women and killed all four, even as their womenfolk looked on, mute spectators to a form of justice reserved for castes lower than theirs. One woman, Sudha Dhenge, reportedly did protest but was slapped into silence. She now says she was never there.
Surekha and Priyanka were stripped, paraded naked, beaten black and blue with bicycle chains, axes and bullock cart pokers. They were publicly gang raped until they died. Some raped them even after that, and finally, sticks and rods were shoved into their genitals. In the meantime, Sudhir managed to contact the police from his mobile phone, but his phone had been smashed. Its pieces are now circumstantial evidence. Roshan and Sudhir were beaten up, their genitals mutilated, faces disfigured and their bodies tossed in the air, before they lay dead on the ground. Hiding behind a hut, Bhaiyyalal helplessly watched his family’s gruesome end. There was no one to call for help. Kherlanji had only two Mahar families; the rest were either perpetrators or spectators. An hour later, a village meeting was called and a diktat issued: no one was to say a word about the massacre.
Siddharth Gajbhiye called the Andhalgaon police station, some six kms away, at 6.15pm, asking for help. As a frightened Bhaiyyalal escaped to another village to save his life, the four bodies were thrown at different places in the periphery of the village. Head Constable Baban Mesharam reached Kherlanji at 8:30pm and got wind of the incident, but did not follow official police protocol to register the report. The next day, when Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange went to the police station and filed an FIR, SHO Siddheshwar Bharne did not believe him. It was only when the police patrol started flashing reports of the discovery of mutilated dead bodies on the wireless the next day that he filed an FIR. Constable Meshram and SHO Bharne both stand suspended.
Photographs of the bodies of Surekha and Priyanka taken by the police showed sticks and rods in their genitals. By the time they reached the post-mortem table, the sticks had disappeared. A gruesome photograph of Priyanka Bhotmange’s body, with just a piece of cloth covering her genitals, is not being printed by Tehelka.
The post-mortem report by Dr AJ Shende on September 30 said that there had been no rape. “Doctors were managed and the police bribed,” Rashtrapal Narnaware, Surekha’s nephew, alleged in a statement to the fact-finding committee of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS), a regional farmers’ organisation. The bodies were later exhumed and the report of a second post-mortem is awaited. Bhandara’s police superintendent Suresh Sagar says that only if the post-mortem establishes rape can he include the charge in his investigation. The VJAS is pushing for a third post-mortem as the due procedure specified by the NHRC has not been followed, and medical evidence of rape may never be established.
Thirty-eight Kherlanji men are in jail as accused, but Kishore Tiwari, president of the VJAS, says that some of the main perpetrators are still free due to political pressure. Apart from various sections of the IPC, the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989, has also been applied by the police. “In cases where a mob is involved, the Atrocities Act has it that the entire village could be fined to the tune of Rs 10-20 lakh,” says civil rights lawyer Colin Gonsalves. The VJAS claims that there is an attempt to cover up the incident, and has filed a case in the Bombay High Court against the state police. “For years, Surekha had been trying to file a case against the grabbing of the two acres of land,” says VJAS lawyer Vinod Tiwari, “but the police never filed the FIR.”
VJAS president Kishore Tiwari first read about the incident in the rural Vidarbha supplements of the Marathi press, which blamed it on Surekha’s ‘illicit relationship’ with Siddharth. Tiwari e-mailed journalists all over India and managed to get some Mumbai newspapers to report the massacre, but his e-mails to Delhi-based journalists were ignored.
On October 2, when lakhs of Buddhists from all over the world had converged in Nagpur to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Dhammakranti — Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism — the organisers kept quiet about the massacre lest the issue go out of hand in such a large gathering. The Maharashtra government has paid Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange a compensation of Rs 4.5 lakhs, although according to the Atrocities Act the compensation should be Rs 2 lakh for every member of the family killed. All Bhaiyyalal wants is for the perpetrators to be hanged.
Nov 04 , 2006