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Ten years ago, on September 29, 2006, four members of a Dalit family were murdered in Khairlanji, a village in the Bhandara district of Maharashtra, not far from Nagpur. Surekha Bhotmange (40) and her daughter Priyanka (17) were stripped, battered, paraded naked, raped several times and killed by a Hindu mob, led by men of the Kunabi-Maratha caste, goaded by the entire village. Surekha’s sons Roshan (21) and Sudhir (19) were also tortured and murdered for trying to save their mother and sister.

Only Bhaiyalal Bhotmange, Surekha’s husband, survived, watching the lynching and rape hiding behind a bush. This morbid display of caste-Hindu violence ended with the dumping of the corpses in a canal. Unlike in Una, no camera phones captured this frenzy, and it took over a month for the media to report the story after Dalit-led fact-finding reports came out.

In 2008, scholar and civil rights activist Anand Teltumbde documented the massacre and its aftermath in his book The Persistence of Caste: The Khairlanji Murders and India’s Hidden Apartheid. His publisher S Anand of Navayana engaged Teltumbde in a wide-ranging conversation over email about the continued violence against Dalits, the aftermath of Una, the persistent lack of diversity and inclusion in India’s public sphere, the limitations of reservation, and the future of Dalits under both neoliberalism and Hindutva. Excerpts from the conversation:

Anand Teltumbde

The Khairlanji massacre happened 10 years ago to this day. You then wrote a book. But atrocities and massacres have gone on unabated and justice is a fugitive in every court. Why?

Khairlanji was a shocking incident by any standards, but in the context of atrocities on Dalits, as I argued in the book, there was nothing unique about it. Just to remind us of a few infamous incidents before Khairlanji – from Kilvenmeni in 1968 down to Karamchedu in 1985, from Tsunduru in 1991 to Jhajhar in 2006 – there have been thousands of gory atrocities, each with a unique mix of sadism and bestiality.

Contrary to the commonplace understanding, atrocities – particularly of the above kind, committed by a collective of caste Hindus on a few Dalits as a mode of teaching a lesson to the entire Dalit community – are a post-independence phenomenon. They are a product of a particular path of political economy charted out by the ruling classes. Most people who speak against caste do not view atrocities in the light of these factors. They prefer to wax eloquent by invoking stereotypes about Manu and Manu dharma, a safe object to kick because it is an ancient abstraction…

Though it took nearly a month for news of the Khairlanji to spread, it led to spontaneous statewide protests by the Dalits on an unprecedented scale. It brought the government and civil society their well-deserved heap of ignominy. It would however be naïve to expect an unrepentant government and casteist civil society to mend their ways. Rather, the empirical evidence shows that the incidence of atrocities has gone up manifold after Khairlanji, both in Maharashtra and the rest of India, as the statistics of the National Crime Research Bureau reveal.

Atrocities have risen by 74% from 27,070 in 2006 to 47,064 in 2014 at the all-India level – and these are only the registered cases. For Maharashtra, the increase has been still higher at 86%. The rise in major categories of atrocities such as murder and rape is even higher at 105%. These numbers, of course, are a gross understatement, for anyone knows what it takes for an atrocity-affected Dalit to reach the police station and then get them to register his FIR…

How do you explain this?

First, the neoliberal paradigm has changed the dynamics in rural India to the detriment of the Dalits. This change could be seen in terms of mounting agrarian crisis, general deprivation of the people from the lower strata, jobless growth, and the gradual withdrawal of the state from its obligation to provide public welfare services. However, the impact of these changes over the past 25 years has not been uniform across social strata; the poorer lot, who tend to be largely Dalits, are hit more severely. The crisis that ensues impels people to take refuge in the occult, and this happens all over the world.

Empirically, it is observed that with the advent and spread of neoliberalism, there has been a resurgence of religious fundamentalism and regressive ideas that had almost died during the post-War decades. While this is quite applicable to India, there have been other factors that complicate our case. India’s rising in the esteem of the Americans by the year 2000 in the field of IT provided the requisite confidence to say there is nothing shameful about India’s past. People began speaking in favour of caste and caste-based practices in public spaces. The building and revival of Hindu temples and all kinds of festivals, in the West and in India, saw a tremendous rise. In the same context, the cultural and political assertion of the new generation of Dalits provided the spark to precipitate an atrocity…

These days events like Una are being filmed on phone cameras and shared in a celebratory manner by the perpetrators. What does this do to the psyche of the caste-Hindus, whom Ambedkar called the sick men (and women) of Hindustan?

The Hindutva bigots are indeed displaying their sickness. The Una incident, which made news because the video shot by the gau-rakshak goons had gone viral, revealed their confidence and impunity. They knew that they would never be brought to book… It is rare for atrocities to achieve the event status of a Khairlanji or Una. Most go unreported, unnoticed.

For instance, there were 47,064 atrocities in 2014, out of which 794 were murders and 2,388 were rapes. How many of them really made it to even the inside pages of newspapers, or to the scroll of a television channel, not to speak of panel discussions? If one considers that every day on an average two Dalits are murdered and more than five Dalit women are raped in India, one can realise the degree of sickness.

Yet there’s a difference. Earlier, atrocities and massacres rarely made news. Now, with the proliferation of media, especially social media where Dalits have been active, it is hard to ignore. Sometimes it’s as if such violence can also become a commodity fuelled by new technologies.

Yes, technology does impact the lives of all people, and by that logic the world of castes too. It is true that earlier the media hardly took note of Dalits. Today they do, not out of any moral compunction but for sheer commercial logic. Over the years changes have taken place among both – the media as well as the Dalits. While the media has discarded its pretentions of being a watchdog on behalf of the people and become an unabashedly commercial enterprise, a sizeable section of Dalits has emerged as consumers in the increasingly competitive market… Technology – not just in social media applications but the availability of cheap and abundant computing power, data capture and storage that in turn has created a new paradigm of analytics – cannot ignore Dalits as consumers of goods and services. Therefore, the media cannot afford to ignore Dalits any longer, although still being largely Dalit-free, it displays prejudice as well as ignorance in writing about them…

In 2006, when Khairlanji happened, the spread of smart phones had not reached the Dalits. But today there is formalised media like Dalit Camera and scores of websites, not to speak of Whatsapp groups, that make use of social media and net technologies. While it marks a great advance in spreading the message far and wide, the excess and shallowness of social media content has already become worrisome.

There is the emergence of a class of social media activists for whom social media has become the be-all and end-all of the Dalit movement. All their anger and activism remains confined to a 3×4 inch phone screen, never to spill out on to the streets. It has become an easy vent. Another negative with the social media-based Dalit movement is that, given its closeted space, individuals easily take to identitarian expression to reify their politics.

We still find that Dalits are almost totally absent from spaces other than where reservation is mandatory. They are hardly there in private industry, media, publishing or cinema. Do you think these are also crimes, in the sense that absence of social democratisation eventually leads to the horror of atrocities and massacres? 

Yes, certainly any discrimination should be read as lack of social democratisation which is no less criminal than horrific massacres. Discrimination against Dalits is pervasive in all the fields. While such statements may sound axiomatic, there is a need to exercise caution. Caste dynamics operate in very complex ways. Even discrimination is not a linear affair.

For instance, both the Congress and BJP governments will uphold the DICCI-wallahs but crush a million Rohith Vemulas. Dalit politicians will be wooed, but an FIR by an ordinary Dalit will not be easily registered. A mediocre Dalit employee will be promoted out of the way as a showpiece, but a capable Dalit will be condemned and finished. People hardly have a nuanced understanding of how caste plays out. Therefore, to speak about discrimination in a simplistic manner may be counterproductive…

[The] question is not whether we find Dalits in sectors where there’s no formal reservation, but whether his or her caste follows him in these new arenas or not. A vast percentage of Dalits passing out of our elite institutions go for private sector jobs, but as a survey done by IIM, Ahmedabad showed, they were summarily discounted to the extent of 16 percent in their placement packages.

This is the story in the job market, but in other fields like media, cinema, etc., Dalits are entering in significant numbers against the odds of social capital. Since this is a recent development, their numbers may not be commensurate with their population, but it is certainly growing. If the media realised the importance of having Dalits as consumers of products and services, including those of the media, it follows that they would recruit Dalit journalists to benefit from their insights and perspective.

In cinema, as the phenomenal success of Sairat proves, realisation is dawning that diversity does sell well. And so we witness the rise of Dalit directors and actors. All said and done, so long as castes survive, discrimination in some form or the other will go on, for the very foundational logic of caste is inequality. Therein lies the importance of the goal of annihilation of caste.

Recently, Human Rights Watch has said that Section 3.I.(x) of the Prevention of Atrocities Act – which says intentionally insulting or intimidating with an intent to humiliate a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe in any place within public view – could be dropped, saying this curbs freedom of expression. They cite the case of Ashis Nandy’s “persecution” for his utterances at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2013 to argue for this. Your response?

How many Ashis Nandys have been punished under the section? This is a commonplace caste crime and the section you cite aims at curbing it. How does it impinge upon the freedom of expression of the non-Dalit communities unless they wantonly wish to abuse Dalits? Calling someone “saala chamar”, “bhangi” or “dhed” is commonplace and part of the everyday vocabulary of caste Hindus, mostly in private. If section 3.I.(x) is removed from the Act it will embolden people to publicly and routinely abuse Dalits.

One has to look at it from the perspective of Dalits: how would a Dalit feel when being abused by his caste name? Such humiliation often kills a self-respecting Dalit alive – it can be worse than a physical assault. In the past, they were not aware of their human rights and had internalised their inferiority under the Brahminic social order. Now, when they are abused by their caste names after they have become conscious of their rights, the consequences are terrible.

[T]he corporate media and the elite of India speak of caste only through three tropes: reservation, atrocity, and electoral politics. They never turn the gaze inward and see how caste permeates almost every aspect of their own lives. Such being the reality, how and when then do we move towards the Ambedkar ideal of annihilation of caste?

Reservation and electoral politics have truly been the props of the caste system and atrocities are their concentrated expression – the strange and bitter fruit. If the media and elite speak only in these terms, I do not fault them. What I fault them for is that they do not speak of these terms integrally, so as to see the causal linkage between them. They do it in discrete terms.

When they discuss reservation, they reduce it to an idiotic debate about merit. When they speak about electoral politics, it invariably highlights the opportunism of the political class and necessarily degenerates into being for or against this or that party. Caste atrocities, first, are hardly discussed; but when they are discussed, they become an “unfortunate incident”, and if they provoke protests, they are looked at as an overreaction of the Dalits.

Post-Una, when the Dalit-led protests erupted, all that the media did was discuss the possible impact of the Dalit vote on elections. Justice and the inhuman violence are forgotten. If atrocities and reservation are truthfully and meaningfully discussed, all the intrigues of the ruling classes could easily stand exposed.

Indeed, if castes were not consecrated in the Constitution, they would have been on the deathbed long ago and perhaps dead by now, emptied of their strength. The ruling classes skillfully preserved them with the excuse of providing social justice to the Dalits. How is this done? Reservation.

The policy of reservation was not instituted by them but by the colonial rulers way back in 1935 (for political reservation), and in 1943 this took the present form of a quota system. It was granted as an exceptional policy for an exceptional people as it ought to be, but after independence this noble principle was converted into a veritable tool by the rulers. They extended reservations to the Scheduled Tribes along exactly the same lines as for the Scheduled Castes.

It could have been better achieved by including them into the already existing schedule, which could have led to diluting the stigma associated with the schedule because the tribals were not stigmatised as untouchables. But the state created a separate schedule and instituted exactly the same provisions for the tribes, merely replacing the term caste (SC) with tribe (ST). They did not stop there; they included a vague article in the Constitution envisaging that the state would identify other such classes and adopt measures for their development.

Thus, they actually constructed a can of caste worms, the lid of which could be opened at any opportune time. This lid was opened, as we know, by VP Singh unleashing casteisation of the society.

The full interview can be read here. Originally published on Scroll.in and excerpted with permission.

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Anand Teltumbde’s The Khairlanji Murders: 29 September 2006 & The Persistence of Caste: The Khairlanji Murders and India’s Hidden Apartheid are now available on the Juggernaut app. 

 

 

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