Kherlanji’s Strange and Bitter Crop

-- Satya Sagar

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Abel Meeropol, a member of the American Communist Party wrote this poem on seeing photographs of the lynching of two black youth Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith way back in 1939.
Replace the American South with much of India, black with Dalit and this poem, that went on to become a popular resistance song among African American activists, will hold perfectly true in the contemporary Indian context too.  (The white perpetrators of such atrocities in the United States replaced by the self-styled ‘higher’ castes of India of course.)
The latest incidence of this ‘strange and bitter crop’ was in Kherlanji, a small village in Bhandara distict near Nagpur in Maharashtra and a horrific ‘harvest’ it was too.
On September 29 this year as Surekha Bhotmange (45), a Dalit peasant, prepared her family’s evening meal a drunken mob of ‘higher’ caste villagers broke down the door. They dragged out Surekha, their 17-year-old daughter Priyanka, and two sons, 23-year-old Roshan, who also happened to be blind and 21-year-old Sudhir.
The four victims were dragged away to the village centre, Priyanka strapped to a bullock cart. According to media reports what followed was a gruesome orgy of violence and sexual assault as men from the entire village of about 150 families gathered, raped the women and killed all four, even as their own womenfolk looked on. Later, a village meeting was called and everyone present ordered not to mention the massacre to any outsider.
Unknown to the mob however Bhaiyalal, the head of the Bhotmange family, had witnessed the entire incident and escaped to tell the tale to a typically indifferent police. It was only when the mutilated bodies were found the next day that a formal report of the crime was recorded.
This is the way it has been for centuries in this land of the varnashrama dharma. The penalty for defiance of any kind by the Dalit man across India has always been -- at the minimum -- grievous injury and far too often a public lynching by bloodthirsty mobs. For Dalit women it has been far worse -- humiliation, rape, mutilation and a painful death.
The reasons for the violence against the Bhotmange family were not very complex at all and can be whittled down to just one sentence -- they were Dalits who were economically independent and unwilling to be bullied by the ‘higher’ castes. Worse still in the eyes of their killers- they dared to educate themselves with Sudhir being a university graduate and Priyanka having completed schooling and planning a career in the Army.
The immediate incident that is supposed to have incensed the ‘higher’ castes was one where Surekha had signed on a complaint to the police against some of them who had beaten up her cousin Siddharth Gajbhiye. The latter was helping Surekha protect a portion of her three acres of farm land from being taken by villagers who wanted it for a waterway to their own fields.
The Bhotmanage family originally had five acres on which they grew rice and cotton and two acres had already been taken away in 1996 to build a road so that neighbouring farmers from the ‘higher’ castes could drive their tractors through the land. Gajbhiye and Bhotmange belonged to the Mahar caste, the same as the architect of the Indian Constitution B.R.Ambedkar, and were practising Buddhists.
Adding insult to all the injury heaped on the Bhotmanges there was also an attempt to cover up the true nature of the incident under pressure from the ‘higher’ caste murderers. The first post-mortem report on September 30 claimed that there had been no rape at all.
Under pressure from Dalit and other activists the bodies were later exhumed and the report of a second post-mortem is awaited.
Currently thirty-eight Kherlanji men are in jail as accused, but activists of the Vidarbha Janandolan Samiti (VJAS), a farmers’ organization in the area, say that some of the main perpetrators are still free due to political pressure. The organization claims that there is an attempt to cover up the incident, and has filed a case in the Bombay High Court against the state police.
The Congress Party led Maharashtra government has also been criticized for its tardy response to the atrocity, promising to hand over the enquiry to the Central Bureau of Investigation only after violent demonstrations by Dalit and other activists broke out in several towns in the state. R R Patil, the Maharashtra Home Minister claimed that the protests were the work of ‘Naxalites’ as if putting such a label would in any way damage the credibility of the protestors.
If things have been sordid at the local and provincial levels they have not been any better nationally. The UPA government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, busy attending summits proclaiming India as the ‘next super power’ had little time for the woes of the Bhotmange family or even to publicly condemn the Kherlanji atrocity. The rising incidence of attacks on Dalits in Congress ruled states like Punjab, Haryana and now Maharashtra is an indicator of how cut off the UPA is from the grassroots of the country.
Other sections of the national elite, in particular the media, too have not come off looking pretty in all this. For instance, it was a full month before the national media picked up the story and that too in a marginal ‘yes, this too happened’ kind of way. Already accused of lacking any Dalit representation in its ranks and of promoting ‘higher’ caste interests the media needs to do some soul-searching to live up to its tall claim of reflecting the views of the Indian public in its entirety.
What has been heartening however is the upsurge of militant protests by Dalits and organizations sympathetic to them in many parts of Maharashtra. Though it was a bit slow to take off once it did start the demonstrations of thousands of people in town after town demanding justice for the Bhotmanges has been truly impressive. As an editorial in a Maharashtra-based daily put it “if it would not have been the pressure from the grassroots and the churning among the dalit masses, the issue was largely forgotten. Perhaps it would be more apt to say that Kherlanji also represents the birth of a ‘new’ dalit movement which is once again refusing to play a ‘guest actor’ role in the polity and is equally fed up with the cravenness of the Dalit leaders.” 

It is significant and welcome that it was the Vidarbha Jan Andolan, an organisation that struggles against farmers’ suicides, rather than a traditional Dalit organisation, that initially sent a fact-finding team to Kherlanji and took up the entire issue. The potential for unity between the farmers battling suicides and the dalits battling barbarism is indeed considerable. And it is here there lies the hope for the future, in a resurgence of the Dalit movement and the emergence of a broader democratic struggle.