This Thursday, ten years will have passed since the Khairlanji massacre where Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange, a Dalit, lost his family in a village in Maharashtra. On 29 September 2006, Bhotmange, 61, went to work on his farm near the village, and when he came back, he found his wife Surekha, 45, daughter Priyanka, 17, sons Sudhir and Roshan, 21 and 19, murdered by a mob. The massacre enraged Dalits, who took to the streets for a wide-spread silent protest, which soon got aggressive.
The 10-year anniversary of the incident coincides with the Maratha-Kunbi movement for abrogation of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act which was triggered by the rape of a girl by Dalits in Kopardi in July. Rallies held by lakhs of people in absolute silence have been going on across Maharashtra for more than a month.
This Thursday, the Maratha movement reminds us of that fateful evening of 29 September.
The Khairlanji massacre
On 28 September 2006, Surekha, Bhaiyyalal's wife had lodged a complaint against the participants in an assault on the village policeman, another Dalit, Siddharth Gajbhiye. The accused were members of the politically dominant Kunbi caste who had received the OBC status by the Maharashtra government in 2001.
The day after the complaint was lodged, the accused were arrested but soon let off on bail after which they returned to the village and lynched the Bhotmange family.
For three hours that evening, as Bhaiyyalal was on his farm, a group of villagers surrounded the hut where the family lived, then abused, assaulted, and killed the four people. There were allegations that the women in the family were raped, however the CBI investigations concluded that they weren't.
That evening when Bhaiyyalal came home, he saw his dead family.
The incident wasn't picked up by the media immediately. However as the Dalits of the state started a widespread movement seeking justice, the details of the incident came to light. This incident triggered one of the most prominent Dalit movement.
In September 2008, six people, who were charged with wiping out the Dalit family, were given death sentence for the crime by the specially appointed Fast Track trial court.
However in July 2010, the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court in the case disappointing large sections of the Dalit community as they, on appeal, commuted the death sentence on the grounds that it was "not the rarest of the rare cases" warranting the death penalty. The court modified the life terms of the accused and gave them 25-year imprisonment.
The judges presiding on the case ruled that the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 was not applicable to the Khairlanji case. In their view there was no caste angle to the case. The panel who heard the appeal held that the murders of Surekha, Priyanka, Sudhir and the visually challenged Roshan was not motivated by caste prejudice; it was a case of "revenge killing."
According to an editorial by The Hindu, the caste profile of the Khairlanji village in Bhandara district was relevant to the case as the Other Backward caste (OBC) people formed a majority of the village. The village was known for its prejudice against Dalits.
The case is currently being presided over by the Supreme court and Bhaiyyalal hopes that he gets justice. Each year the Dalit-Buddhist organisations light candles on the spot where the family once lived. Today the hut is gone but Bhaiyyalal keeps the iron cot as a reminder of the events that occurred.
The Maratha agitation
In the past two months, the Maratha community has taken out various silent marches in Maharashtra in cities like Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, Amravati, etc. demanding justice in the rape and murder of a girl at Kopardi in Ahmednagar district two months ago.
On 13 July, a 15-year-old Maratha girl was allegedly gang raped and murdered by four Dalit youths who inflicted injuries all over her body. They allegedly broke her limbs too before throttling her at Kopardi village in Ahmednagar.
The incident had sparked public outrage as well as a political slug-fest, with the Congress demanding Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis' resignation on "moral grounds".
After the gang-rape, Maratha Kranti silent morchas were held in Akola, Nanded, Beed, Osmanabad, Aurangabad, Jalgaon and Jalna districts.
Apart from demanding death penalty for the accused, the Maratha community leaders pressed for scrapping of the SC, ST (Prevention of Atrocities Act), saying it is grossly misused, and also raised other demands like quota in education and jobs.
As pointed out in a previous Firstpost report, the entire Dalit community of Kopardi village wanted death penalty for the accused an yet they weren't allowed to be part of the protest. This has raised questions over the legitimacy of the intentions of the protests.
The situation today
The two incidents of murder have triggered responses from the two communities — Dalit and Maratha. After brutal incidents such as Kopardi incident, the Dadri lynching (where a family was massacred for allegedly consuming beef), the Una incident (where four youth were canned for carrying cow carcasses), and the Rohit Vemula case (where a Dalit scholar of the Hyderabad University committed suicide after being suspended), tempers are fraying and it remains to be seen which, if any community recieves justice.