(This report was first published in People's March in January 2007)
MARX'S famous phrase, "people make history" was witnessed this past one month in Maharashtra when the Dalits rose as one to protest against the gruesome killings of four Dalits in Khairlanjhi village. It is a fact that people develop the tactics and revolutionaries must learn from them. The manner in which the protests in Maharashtra spread, the determination and fury of the masses as the movement built itself up over the period, the focus in the targets of their attacks were not planned, but they point to how the people have devised their own methods to express their protests.. Surekha Bhotmange, her teenaged daughter Priyanka, and sons Roshan and Sudhir were killed on September 29, but the protests began in the first week of November as the realization came that the entire case was being suppressed, by the police and political authorities to protect the perpetrators of the crime. As the casteist nature of the police and Government revealed itself over the days the masses pressed their protests forward sparing none, not their opportunist, compromising leaders, nor the corrupt Dalit officials who were also party to the coverup. It was as if the protests rose from the depths of their beings, their frustrations at the casteist oppression they continue to face in daily life, the lack of economic opportunities in "globalizing India" inspite of their struggle to educate themselves and their children. Young school educated youth and women were in the forefront of the protests. Neither the large forces of the police nor the rapid action force could stop them. They faced arrest only to be back on the streets the next day. The Maharashtra Government was just unable to stop these protests though they tried strong repression and disinformation. The appeals of the established Dalit leaders and the Buddhist clergy to use peaceful means fell on deaf ears. Though only 10 per cent of the population of the State, the Dalit masses proved their strength and capacity to paralyse the entire economic life of the State.
The Maharashtra Government has unleashed repression on the masses. Hundreds have been arrested, the police have resorted to firings and lathi-charges at innumerable places, combing operations have been conducted in various bastis in the different cities in the state, hundreds of youth have been detained. They have even imposed sedition cases on some of them, as if protesting against casteist violence is equal to overthrow of the State. Indeed the brahminical Indian State really is fearful of the militancy of the Dalit masses. They have prevented all morchas planned by the people if there is a whiff of militancy. The Long March from Nagpur to Khairlanjhi was forcibly stopped.
But to prevent the march to the Vidhan Sabha in Nagpur on December 4 the State Government pulled all the forces in its arsenal. Nagpur was converted into a police camp with ten thousand special police including the Rapid Action Force deployed all over the city to ensure that the march would not take place. All the Dalit leaders were detained. Trucks from villages were turned back and people not allowed to leave their villages. The dalit masses in the bastis in Nagpur were imprisoned in their homes and were not allowed out of their houses. Repeatedly the Government has been saying that all the demands of the masses have been met and now there should be no agitation. The Government's crass undemocratic approach is exposed before all. So the Government now decides when the people should agitate and when they should not. They decide whether the demands of the masses have been met or not.
The assertion of the masses was so strong that even Sonia Gandhi cut short her trip and the Maharashtra CM flew back from Singapore and rushed back to do damage control.
Four members of the Bhotmange family – A Mahar Buddhist family residing in the village Khairlanjhi were killed in full view of the entire village on September 29, 2006. Mother Surekha, daughter Priyanka (19yrs), son Sudhir (17 yrs) working in a town nearby and blind son Roshan (18 yrs). The two women were dragged out of their house by some women from the peasant OBC families of the village and taken to the centre of the village near the panchayat office. On the way they were, beaten and their clothes torn in the process. There they were tied to a bullock cart stripped and beaten and their private parts injured with blunt weapons. The two sons rushed to their defence but they too were caught and thrashed and plummeted around like a football. The women were molested and gang-raped and the boys asked to rape their mother and sister in full view of the village. When they refused their private parts were crushed. In this gruesome drama that was enacted for almost two hours all the four died on the spot. Their mutiliated bodies were thrown more than 2 kms outside the village near a canal. The father Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange who was in the fields when this attack began came back to the village and saw the entire horrifying event by hiding himself. He crawled away to the neighbouring village to inform their people about this incident. Two other Dalit families in the village also realized what was happening but hid themselves in their houses out of fear.
What caused this gruesome mass killing ?
The incident is a reflection of the horrifying conditions in rural Maharashtra where semi-feudal relations still prevail, caste prejudices, lack of development, concentration of land and land hunger have led to severe contradictions that simmer under the surface and burst out in this and other ways occasionally. It is a reflection of what dalits face when they assert themselves through acquiring education and a burning desire for equality. The Bhotmange family migrated to this village in 1988 because they got about five acres land to cultivate. They struggled on the land and dreamt of educating their children. Son Sudhir managed to become a graduate, Priyanka was studying in the 12th standard, son Roshan was blind but he was studying. Priyanka had been a merit student in the 10th Std, was an NCC cadet and was studying political science and sociology. Surekha Bhotmange was the driving force in the family. They got into a conflict with another family, neighbours Shivshankar Tilkar's family over access through their land to his land. He wanted to drive his tractor through their land which they refused. This led to a dispute and police complaints in 2002. Through the mediation of Siddarth Gajbhiye, a relative of Surekha and police patil of nearby village Dhusala, they agreed to allow 15 feet of land for a road. Gajbhiye, also a Dalit was a better off farmer who also sometimes employed women from the OBC castes to work in his fields. He was the police patil of the village. The other peasant families, most of them from the OBC Kalar, Powar, Kunbi castes could not stomach the struggle of these two dalit families to come up economically, and their confidence and self assertion. Caste prejudices were manifest openly in many other ways in the village. Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange has said that they faced caste oppression all through their stay in this village. Priyanka was the only girl in the village to study beyond school level. In the village of about 800 with 125 families there were only three Dalit families.
On 3rd September Siddarth was beaten by some villagers in Khairlanjhi over dispute over agricultural wage payment they say. He was openly abused in his caste name. When he went to lodge a complaint in the Andhalgaon police station he was chased away. He admitted himself into a hospital in Kamptee town where the doctors insisted he register a police complaint. The case was registered days later and Surekha gave evidence in this and named several villagers. They were released on bail immediately on 29th September. As soon as they were released they took their tractors etc and headed straight for Siddharth Gajbhiye's house. Not finding him at home they returned to their village, held a meeting in the village square and then the crowd proceeded to the Bhotmange's house to punish them for standing witness. Thus Surekha and her children became the targets of the attack.
All attempts to bring the police initially came to naught. Though they were informed they deliberately delayed coming. Only when the first body was found on 1st October that the police started moving. Even then they claimed that the bodies were unrecognized. Various lower level policemen and police officials have now been suspended. Even the doctors who conducted the post-mortem were suspended after the pressure of the agitation built up. Among those suspended (including the asst police prosecutor Leela Gajbhiye) some are Dalits themselves. Money played a big role in slowing down the police investigations and weakening the charges. But now investigations have brought the whole matter into the open. As revealed in the report filed by the Government institute Yashada, there was a conspiracy from the beginning to suppress the facts, wipe out the evidence and downplay the crime. The local BJP MLA is very much involved in this conspiracy, the IG Police, Pankaj Gupta (he is special IG in charge of anti-Naxalite operations) is also involved in this conspiracy. All of them, with a blatantly casteist approach tried to spread disinformation and fudge the evidence. The Maharashtra Government and Home Minister R.R.Patil (NCP) also tried hard to protect the real culprits and hide this conspiracy. Even the Sarpanch and Up- Sarpanch of the village who were personally present through the entire attack have been arrested only at the end of November.
They spread the rumour that Surekha had an extra-marital affair with Gajbhiye and the village women objected to this and thus attacked them. This rumour is still being kept alive, inspite of all the facts having come to light as is evident in the article in Hindustan Times by their correspondent Sarita Kaushik on November 27, 2006. Then they said that the Bhotmange's sold liquor and this was objected to by the villagers. Thus in true patriarchal fashion they maligned a bold and unbending woman like Surekha. They tried to justify the murders by maligning her character. But in the beginning of November the incident became an issue and protests began. Then as the protests picked up momentum all the disinformation and conspiracies came to be exposed one by one. Only the determined struggle of the Dalit masses could bring out a part of the truth behind the incident and killings. The main culprits, the instigators and manipulators, the BJP and NCP politicians are still at large.
The first major protest was a 1000 strong morcha in Bhandara on the first of November 2006. It was organized by the Dalit women's front the Samrudha Baudha Mahila Sangathana. Many democratic forces including women from other sections also participated in this protest. Then, on November 6, the protests spread to Nagpur where the dalit Buddhists constitute a sizeable section of the poor and even the middle class. Spontaneously the youth and women came out into the streets, attacking police stations, police vehicles, burning tyres, and the house of Congress MLA Nitin Raut. They attacked all symbols of the Government and the police. The protests began in the Indora area and then spread to all other areas where Dalit Buddhists are concentrated. For several days Nagpur was aflame. The police started picking up activists indiscriminately. Youth went around holding corner meetings, staging plays, putting up posters, distributing handbills. The mood of the masses was to reject the established dalit leadership and press their protests forward. There was no organized force behind this protest but the masses revealed their creativity, fearlessness and capacity to struggle. Then the call for the Long March to Khairlanjhi starting on November 12 was given. People rallied around this call but the State's repressive administration swung into action to prevent the march. Women in large numbers courted arrest when they were not allowed to start the march.
All efforts by the people to reach Khairlanjhi have been forcibly stopped by the police. The village itself is under siege. Now there are three police barricades to pass in order to reach the village.
As news of these protests spread the agitation picked up other towns and cities. The entire month of November Maharashtra resounded with the sound of protest. On 8th November the morcha to the Mantralaya gave a rude shock to the Chief Minister and the Home Minister sending their precious security into a frenzy. As the Chief Minister was addressing a Cabinet meeting a group of about 50 women belonging to Dalit women's organizations including Urmila Pawar (a dalit woman intellectual) managed to sneak into the Mantralaya and stormed into the office of the Chief Minister shouting slogans. Bandhs were observed in various towns and big villages in Bhandara and Gondia districts. Pandharakwada, Yavatmal were also rocked by protests. Over 15, 000 people participated in a protest march in Chandrapur on November 13. Then the protest spread to Amravati. On 14th November a morcha spontaneously planned turned into a mammoth march of 20,000 as the Dalits responded to the call in large numbers. It was the first major protest in the town and became the means to release their pent up anger. The police resorted to lathi-charge and firing and one dalit youth Dinesh Wankhede was martyred by the police bullets, while several others were seriously injured. The people targeted police vehicles and some private cars to register their anger and several police were injured in this agitation. The police firing and death of one youth in Amravati sparked off further protests and led to an intensification of the agitation in other districts. People have been demanding the resignation of the Home Minister and the Chief Minister. The Home Minister had the gall to state in a function of the police in Pune that the agitation was being conducted in "Hitlerite fashion". As reports of this speech spread the Home Minister became a target of the people's protest. Sholapur exploded with protests and the police clamped curfew to stop the agitations. For over four days the curfew was on. Aurangabad went aflame and there too lathi charges, firing in the air could not control the people. Aurangabad was under curfew for several days. So also Pune.
After the firing in Amravati the capital city Mumbai came under the wave of protests. It started with a huge protest morcha in Chembur. The protests spread to the outlying suburbs like Ambarnath, Ulhasnagar, Karjat, Kalyan, Bhiwandi, Badlapur, Navi Mumbai. These towns have witnesses repeated protest demonstrations and bandhs on this issue. The bandh call was being given in atleast one suburb or the other every day for over a fortnight. In every locality and suburb in major cities like Pune, Mumbai and Navi Mumbai local organizations have got together and protested in whatever form they could. Those with less strength organized dharnas while others organized morchas and still others bandhs. It was a good lesson in how sprawling metropolises can be made to feel the impact of the people's voice. Protests engulfed cities like Nanded, Parbhani and other towns in the interior of the State.
Sensing the mood of the people, and their leadership slipping away the ever squabbling dalit leaders of the Republican party of India's various factions came together to salvage their leadership. Mahamorchas were organized in Kolhapur, Satara and Sangli. They started plans for a morcha to the Vidhan sabha on December 4th, the first day of the assembly.
This being the fiftieth anniversary of Dr Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism big functions have been organized in Dalit localities. Ambedkar's rejection of Hinduism and his conversion to Buddhism led to a wave to conversions in the State and all the Buddhists in the State are dalits. The deep sentiment and faith the people have in this symbolic rejection of the caste based Hindu religion makes them mark this event widely. The Buddhist clergy and leadership of Buddhist organizations (some funded from Japan and Thailand) too have been active this year to commemorate this occasion. This leadership tried their very best but could not make the masses stay within the bounds of the law and restrict their protests to peaceful marches and dharnas.
In some areas this Buddhist clergy itself came under repression. In Nanded they were brutally lathi-charged.
The efforts of the police top brass to malign the movement by claiming that it is a result of naxalite conspiracy and to justify their repression came to nought. They attempted to frighten the people into silence in this way. But masses gave them a good slap. From November 8th itself after violent protests began in Nagpur the Home Minister and IG Pankaj Gupta had begun this disinformation campaign.
The incident of the desecration of the Ambedkar statue in Kanpur on November 30 again proved to be a spark that led to a fresh round of protests. The suburbs of Pune exploded. Pimpri, Chinchwad, Dapodi, Khadki erupted and the fury of the masses had no bounds. All vehicular traffic came to a halt, train traffic came to a halt. The nerve centre of industry and IT – the Pune-Mumbai belt was affected. Mumbai and Thane came to a halt. More than 200 buses of the public transport were damaged and the prestigious Deccan Queen train from Pune to Mumbai was halted near Ulhasnagar and set on fire. The protesters, though, took the trouble to empty the entire train and escort the engine driver to safety before setting fire to the train. Stone pelting and rasta/rail rokos were reported from every nook and corner of the city and about 90 busses were damaged. Police firing also took place in Bandra. Curfew was imposed in parts of Nanded, Osmanabad and Pune. In Aurangabad clashes took place between the dalit crowd and police resulting in police firing in the air (a sub-inspector was injured). In Nasik 100 buses were damaged and one dalit was killed by casteist uppercaste mobs for stone-pelting. In Pune the dalit fury was intense and here too 100 buses were damaged. Intense agitations also took place in most towns of Maharashtra including far-away Sholapur.
The struggle was anti-state and every symbol of the State has come under attack whether public transport or police vehicles. The agitation spread to districts that had been relatively silent. Osmanabad, Latur also witnessed widespread agitations.
Response of the Parties
The BJP/Shiv Sena and Congress combine together with the entire state machinery was entirely against the dalits and outright casteist in their approach. The state was so corrupted with its casteist bias that though many of the police and doctors involved in the case were themselves dalits they sided with the powerful and acted at their behest. Ironically many of whom action (suspension) has now been taken are dalits themselves. All the other ruling class parties only lent lip-support to the dalits. The dalit leaders have long been discredited amongst the dalits and the agitations were totally spontaneous with no leaders to be seen. In fact the rulers were wailing that there were no leaders around to pacify the situation. In a bid to rebuild their credibility on the eve of the Nagpur assembly some of them were arrested.
In fact it was only the Maoists who lent full and open support to the dalits and called a Vidarbha bandh on this and farmer's suicide issue on December 8th. The press reported that the bandh was particularly successful in Nagpur and Yavatmal districts as also in Gadchiroli, Chandrapur and Bhandara.
In a press release on Nov.10th itself the Maharashtra State Committee of the CPI(Maoist) issued a statement saying:
The CPI (Maoist) Maharashtra State Committee strongly condemns the casteist attack on and massacre of the members of the Bhotmange family in Khairlanjhi village of Bhandara district on September 29, 2006. We also condemn the stand of the State Government which has done its best to shield the perpetrators of this massacre for the past one month and is instead launching a campaign of repression against the dalit masses who have protested strongly against this massacre and the inaction of the Government.
The Khairlanjhi carnage throws up to what extent of casteism exists still amongst all the major political parties and also the entire State machinery. This too in a state that boasts of a powerful dalit movement against caste oppression and untouchability. But the fierceness of the dalit response is also an indication of the enormous revolutionary potential of the dalit masses. They are not willing to take attacks on them meekly and are prepared to fight back. At least in Maharashtra they have long since thrown off the yoke of their corrupt leaders and are searching for an alternative. This alternative lies with the Maoist who alone are able to fight not only all the manifestations of casteism and its horrifying form in untouchability but also eradicate it from its roots by destroying the very basis from which it emerges — the semi-feudal base and the feudal culture. It is they who are in the forefront fighting both class and caste exploitation and oppression and it is only a matter of time before the dalits realize where their true emancipation lies.
[Courtesy: People's March, January 2007]