Massacre in Maharashtra

Kherlanji massacre: September 2006

​Dalit killings in Kherlanji

The murder of four members of a Dalit family in the village of Kherlanji, population 780, in Bhandara district, 120 kilometres from Maharashtra’s winter capital of Nagpur on September 29, was not merely ghastly. The killings, which followed the mutilation (in public), multiple rapes (of the mother and daughter) and parading naked of the entire family for over three hours, are an indicator of the impunity that the perpetrators believe they enjoy. Incidents such as these are not uncommon in states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh but have sent shock waves through the Dalit community in Maharashtra.

The victims were Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange’s wife, Surekha, 44, his daughter, Priyanka, 18, and sons, Roshan, 23, and Sudhir, 21. Ever since this shameful incident took place, the local police administration appears to be doing its best to suppress evidence, lending strength to local activists’ demands for a CBI investigation. In what has now become a sorry feature of almost every incident of brutality in the country, the FIR is itself faulty and is being challenged by the lone survivor. The first post-mortem report prepared by government doctors does not even accurately record the injuries visible on the naked and mutilated bodies of the victims. While the Prevention of Atrocities Act has been applied to this case, Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code, the section related to the offence of rape, has, significantly, been omitted.

Meanwhile, statewide protests against the massacre have gained ground in Nagpur, Mumbai and surrounding villages and districts, finding a national echo the day the Nagpur bandh was called on November 10. Yet the state of Maharashtra appears determined to smother public outrage. From October 29 to November 6, the Youth for Social Justice, under an umbrella organisation, held a peaceful dharna near the Babasaheb Ambedkar statue at RBI Chowk, Nagpur. Day after day, as news of the dharna spread, Dalits and others began visiting the protest site in significant numbers, leading the local police to inexplicably and suddenly withdraw permission for the peaceful protest. Thereafter, when another protest turned somewhat violent, the state’s home minister, RR Patil rather dubiously stated that Naxalites appeared to be responsible for the protests. Locally, under the guidance of the commissionerate in Nagpur, policemen hauled up women protesters and beat them brutally. Even as we go to press, activists are possibly facing arrest.

Three days after the incident (which first drew local media attention on October 2), 16-20 lakh Dalits converged at Nagpur to celebrate the golden jubilee of the mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism in 1956 (see accompanying story). Sensing the potentially explosive situation if news of the massacre leaked out, initially the administration did all it could to suppress events.

Surekha Bhotmange and her daughter Priyanka were humiliated, bitten, beaten black and blue and then gang-raped in full public view for an hour before their remains were thrown into a nullah. A local policeman told the first fact-finding team to visit Kherlanji (of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti which visited the village on October 6) that the marauders had pushed sticks into the women’s private parts while Bhotmange’s two sons were kicked and stabbed repeatedly. The assaulters had mutilated the men’s private parts too, disfigured their faces and tossed them in the air before the duo were flung to the ground.

As dusk settled on the small hamlet, the four bodies of this Dalit family lay strewn in the village chaupal (square) with the killers pumping fists in the air and still kicking at the bodies. But their rage was far from spent. In an even more macabre dance of death, some angry men went on to rape the badly mutilated corpses of the two women.

Only one woman from the village tried to intervene. Bhaiyyalal, cowering close by, was an eyewitness to events, as was Rajan, a relative of the Bhotmanges. A single policeman now offers protection to these witnesses who cannot return to their villages following the incident of mass terror. Rajan, who lives in a neighbouring village three km away, had his face slapped by a policeman when he went to record his statement as witness to the incident. Fortunately, sound advice by an active team of Nagpur-based lawyers led four witnesses and survivors of the carnage to record their statements under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code, CrPC, before a local magistrate in early November.

The fact that the Bhotmanges owned land in Kherlanji where they had settled 18 years ago – land which they had reclaimed from landlords and which they tilled to live a life of dignity – coupled with the fact that Surekha refused to live a life cowering in fear, appear to be the main motives for the ghastly crimes. For months prior to the incident, open threats had been levelled against the family and an FIR in this connection had also been lodged. That the local police refused to take cognisance of the very real threat faced by this Dalit family living in a hopeless minority speaks volumes about the attitude of the local administration.

The first battle that the Bhotmanges fought was with the local landlord who had usurped their land and as a result of which the other castes had sworn revenge, claiming that the extermination of a Dalit family would cost them nothing. For over a decade police complaints lodged by the family had met with little response. Days prior to the massacre, on September 3 Surekha Bhotmange’s cousin, Siddhartha Gajbhiye, the police-patil of neighbouring Dhusala village, was badly beaten by Kherlanji villagers. It was then that Siddhartha’s brother, Rajendra, shifted him to Kamptee in Nagpur district, 100 km away. The offence related to the incident was lodged at Kamptee and the case was thereafter referred back to the Bhandara police for investigation. That is when offences were registered against 14 persons and when an identification parade was conducted by the police.

Both Surekha and Bhaiyyalal identified the culprits notwithstanding the reigning threat. Ironically, on the morning of September 29 itself, these 14 persons were arrested and produced before a Mohadi court and then released on bail. As soon as they been set free, these persons first drove down to Kandri, a village 10 km from Kherlanji, in search of Rajendra and Siddhartha. But when they were unable to find them, they rushed to their village, baying for the Bhotmanges’ blood. They reached the Dalit family’s hut to find Surekha and her children preparing the evening meal. And that is when they took their revenge.


Can the Kherlanji massacre become a test case for the struggle for justice?

While the local media began its coverage of this incident from the first week of October itself, apart from the DNA newspaper published from Mumbai, the rest of the ‘national’ media awoke to the event only after a peaceful dharna was held by activists in November. As we go to press today, the real challenge is whether this incident of brutal mass murder in a relatively remote area can generate national outrage the way the Jessica Lal case or the Priyadarshini Mattoo case has. 
Meanwhile, CC asks its readers to participate in a campaign to demand justice for the victims in Kherlanji. The campaign demands:

  • A CBI probe into the Kherlanji massacre.
  • A special court with a time-bound schedule to conduct a day-to-day trial to prosecute the guilty.
  • Serious witness protection to be provided by central forces.
  • Criminal prosecution of the policemen and doctors responsible for suppression of the incident.
  • A campaign against the suppression of protests against the incident by the Maharashtra government. 

When I visited Kherlanji, the village wore a ghostly shroud of silence despite heavy police presence. Bhaiyyalal had packed up and removed his belongings from the family home – a cramped hut with nothing in it, really – to move in with his in-laws at Deulgaon village, 20 km away.

Kherlanji lies in Mohadi tehsil and the Bhotmanges were one of the two Mahar families that lived in a village dominated by OBCs, the landlord clans here. Bhaiyyalal moved to the village to farm his mother’s five-acre plot of land about 18 years ago but it was Surekha who tilled the fields and fought to regain the family’s hold over a portion of land grabbed by the OBCs, castes which are a decisive political force in these parts. The Bhotmanges’ cramped hut is proof of their abject poverty. Despite this, Surekha toiled hard to send her children to school and college. Priyanka was a National Cadet Corps, NCC cadet who dreamt of joining the armed forces.

The vicious massacre was clearly pre-planned. Village heads first attempted to tarnish Surekha’s reputation by spreading rumours that she was involved in an illicit relationship with Siddhartha Gajbhiye, the police-patil of neighbouring Dhusala village. Siddhartha Gajbhiye is actually Surekha’s cousin and a Dalit himself. The district superintendent of police, Suresha Sagar admits that the Andhalgaon police did not attend to the Bhotmanges’ calls, nor did they investigate the crime immediately after the incident. Siddhartha had in fact made a desperate call to the police station when he learnt that the Bhotmanges had first been attacked, at around 6.15 p.m. on that fateful day. While about 32 persons have been arrested so far, the victim survivors have stated that the main accused roam scot-free. 

Archived from Communalism Combat, November 2006. Year 13, No.120, Cover Story 3



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