AIDWA DEMANDS CBI PROBE INTO A TAINTED AND PREJUDICED INVESTIGATION
A team consisting of CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP Brinda Karat along with Manohar Mulay, State Secretariat member of the Maharashtra CPI(M), and Kalindi Deshpande, AIDWA Vice President visited Bhandara district in Maharashtra on 9th November 2006. They met the lone survivor of the Dalit massacre, Bhaiyalal Bhotmange, and his brother in-law Sidharth Gajabhiye to express grief and solidarity and promised to give all possible help to get justice. Bhotmange’s wife Surekha (45), daughter Priyanka (17) and two sons Roshan (21) as well as Sudhir (23) were brutally killed by a group of powerful upper caste landlords in Khairlanji village on 27th September 2006. The most horrendous aspect of the incident is that before committing the barbaric act of killing, the women were gangraped and the victims were tortured and paraded naked in the village.
The delegation also met Dalit activist Milind Pakhale, Convenor of the Khairlanji Action Committee who is helping them in every respect. Although under severe trauma, Bhotmange and Gajabhiye spoke with the delegation for 2-3 hours and gave detailed information about the entire episode of killing as well as the history of their harassment for the last 18 years. They asked the delegation to press for a CBI enquiry into the killings. The delegation came to the conclusion that the entire incident could have been prevented had the police authorities been committed to upholding the Constitutional guarantee of safeguarding Dalits and Adivasis. On the contrary, all officials responsible for investigating the crime as well earlier related incidents have acted with a huge caste bias against dalits. This is clearly reflected in the manner in which the case against the upper caste perpetrators of the massacre has been deliberately weakened in order that they eventually go unpunished for their gory crime.
There are several gaps left by the police that will hamper proper investigation procedures, including destruction of crucial evidence, giving misleading information to the family members of the victims, not registering the case under the SC-ST Atrocity Act, a faulty post-mortem report, and character assassination of the women victims, etc. The medical officer who conducted the post mortem appears to be equally hand in glove with the perpetrators. The mandatory procedure of taking vaginal swab of women victims has not been followed in this case, as a result of which it will be difficult to prove charges of rape. No videographic record has been maintained. It is most shocking that while the photographs of Priyanka’s body show that not an inch on her body is without marks of physical torture, they are not reflected in the post-mortem report!
The political angle to this episode is of equal concern. Both the local MLA as well as the MP from Bhandara district belong to BJP. Khairlanji has only three Dalit families including the Bhotmanges and a few Adivasis, while the rest are all upper caste supporters of the BJP. The Dalit families are therefore completely isolated and vulnerable to any kind of violence. It is no wonder that the BJP elected representativeshave not met the victims’ family till date, nor have they intervened at any point before the massacre took place to peacefully settle the conflict.
The role of the State Government is equally condemnable. The Chief Minister of Maharashtra Vilasrao Deshhmukh has woken up to the fact only after the street agitations have begun and the media is now giving the incident wide publicity. It is indeed unpardonable that such incidents continue to happen in a state that prides itself for the legacy of Mahatma Phuley and Dr. Ambedkar. It is quite clear that the police suppressed the details of the case in view of the fact that the bodies of the victims were found on the 1st of October, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Dhamma Deeksha led Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar at Nagpur. It would have been highly embarrassing to the government had the incident come to light on the 2nd of October. It is only when the details spread through word of mouth and picked up by the media, and when public condemnation started pouring in that the government reacted. However, instead of ensuring that there is a proper investigation and assuring the victims’ family that there will be speedy and fair justice, the state government is busy issuing statements against the agitators, dubbing them ‘Naxalites’, thereby rubbing salt into the wounds of the Dalit community, already angry due to the neglect of the state machinery. As we write this report, we received a phone call from Nagpur informing us that while Bhaiyalal and others were proceeding to Khairlanji to meet the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, three vehicles full of people belonging to the NCP stopped them on the way and tried to attack them. The reason was that during the press conference organized by the CPI(M) at Nagpur on the 10th of November after visiting Khairlanji, one of the dalit activists had criticized the deputy Chief Minister R.R. Patil for branding the agitators as ‘naxalites’.
As for the history of the case, it dates back to nearly 18 years of harassment of the Bhotmange family. The upper caste dominated village panchayat has consistently refused to enter Bhaiyalal’s name in the revenue records, thereby preventing him from building a pucca house. On the two occasions when he tried to build it, the construction was forcibly demolished and he was threatened with dire consequences if he ever attempted to build his house again. As a result he still lives in a thatched hut. When we visited him we saw stacks of bricks still lying around his hut.
Bhaiyalal owns five and half acres of irrigated land that is surrounded by that of upper caste households from all sides. In 2002 yet another excuse was found to harass him. The families surrounding his land wanted an approach road through his land (‘short cut’ is how they termed it). His brother in-law, Sidharth Gajbhiye, a police patil for many years of the nearby village intervened and helped Bhaiyalal to negotiate in the matter so as to avoid any tension. As a result, Bhaiyalal sacrificed nearly half an acre land and allowed a 10 ft. wide road to be built.
But as expected the harassment did not stop at that. The Bhotmange family was not allowed to draw water from the irrigation canal during day time. On one occasion, an upper caste woman was instigated to attack Surekha on the head with a sickle. When Surekha went to register a complaint, the beat constable paid no heed. The harassment was not restricted only to the Bhotmange family members but extended to Sidharth Gajbhiye, since he was seen as the protector of the family and one who helped them in crisis situations. The most annoying aspect for the upper castes was the self reliance of these two dalit families and the assertion of their dignity. They refused to live like supplicants of the upper caste landlords. Bhotmange’s daughter Priyanka was a bright student, had stood first in her class 10 examination and had ambitions to join the Army. The son Roshan had completed his graduation, had training in computer skills and was looking forward to a better future. The third son was unfortunately partially visually impaired and thus could not continue his education.
Given this background, there was repeated friction between the upper castes on one side and Bhotmanges and Gajbhiyes on the other. As a result, on September 3, Gajbhiye was attacked by a group of people from Khairlanji while he was returning home on his motorcycle. Surekha and Priyanka were witness to this incident. After Gajbhiye reported the matter to the police a beat constable came for enquiry. Surekha bravely revealed the names of those involved in the attack, as she hoped that the action would be taken against the attackers. But instead of taking any action, the beat constable leaked the information to the very people named by her, who then kept waiting to take revenge at an appropriate time. Between September 3 and the day of the massacre, there were a number of incidents of threatening and assaulting Gajabhiye family members. In one such instance, a case was filed against some of the harassers who were summoned to court on September 29. They got themselves bailed out and as though with a sense of victory, came straight to Surekha’s hut and attacked and stripped her and her three children. Bhotmange was working on his field. On hearing their cries he ran towards his hut where he saw his family being paraded naked. He ran to Siddharth’s house for help and reported the matter within 15 minutes to the police station on phone. However the police constable came only at night, several hours after the incident took place and reported that despite the fact that Surekha and the children were missing, there was no cause to worry! The irony of the situation is that Gajabhiye handed over Rs. 500 to the same constable to look for Surekha and the children. When they were not found after an extensive search by the family, the matter was reported to the Dy SP. Yet the police did not move. It was only on September 30 that the police informed Bhotmange about a body of a girl being found near the canal. He was then called to identify the body which was actually shown to him after a long wait of 8-9 hours and that too after the completion of the post mortem. Indeed it was Priyanka’s body, naked and tortured! The other bodies were found only the next day.
Clearly such an unpardonable delay has allowed the perpetrators to destroy crucial evidence and helped to weaken the case. The story, however, does not end here. From the day of the crime, police officials of all ranks right upto the DySP behaved in a manner as though the Gajabhiyes and Bhaiyalal are the real criminals. They have been insulted, pulled by their hair, abused and threatened. Although 44 persons were arrested and charged with S302 of the IPC, even after repeated requests the case was not registered under the SC-ST Atrocity Act. It is only when the State Human Rights Commission intervened in the matter that the relevant section was evoked and Bhaiyalal’s statement was recorded under section 164.
Comrade Brinda immediately contacted Delhi and arranged for Bhotmange and Gajbhiye to meet the Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil. On returning to Nagpur, the delegation met the Divisional Commissioner of Nagpur to apprise him of the situation. Brinda Karat also addressed a well attended press conference and demanded that in view of the shoddy and biased investigation by the state police, the case should be immediately handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation without any further delay. She condemned the character assassination of the women victims and also demanded that the beat constable and the DySP be charged with dereliction of duty and removed from service. Bhaiyalal and members of the Gajbhiye family should be given adequate protection to ensure that they are not targeted in the future.
Bhaiyalal is a completely heartbroken man today. He wants no compensation, no house, no property, but wants to live only to witness punishment for those who not only butchered his family but the dignity of the entire Dalit community.
12 November 2006