January 13, 2007

Surekha Bhotmange, a Dalit (or so-called "untouchable") member of the Hindu caste system in Maharashtra, was cooking the family evening meal on 29 September 2006 when a group of upper-caste men surrounded her home. Surekha, her 17-year-old daughter Priyanka, and two sons, 23-year-old Roshan and 21-year-old Sudhir, were dragged out of the hut. The two women were stripped, beaten and paraded through the village. The young men were beaten up so badly their faces were disfigured. All four died. Almost all of Khairlanji village witnessed this spectacle of caste vengeance. No one did much to stop it.

The attack was a retribution for previous activism. The upper-caste farmers from the area were using the Bhotmanges' land as a throughway for their tractors. The family resisted, with the help of a Dalit rights activist. Siddharth Gajbhiye. Gajbhiye himself was beaten up. Surekha Bhotmange was a witness, identifying twelve perpetrators who were then arrested. On the day that the Bhotmange family was attacked, all twelve had been released on bail. They took their ghastly revenge.

Surekha's husband, Bhaiyyalal Bhotmagne, was visiting a neighbour at the time of his family's murder. He saw his family being dragged out and remained helplessly hidden, watching what happened. He was the only witness to come forward. At his village, there are only a handful of families from his Dalit caste. The rest, perpetrators or spectators, who consider themselves higher caste, did not say a word. Police arrived a few hours after the incident, but no report was filed. When a terrified Bhotmange filed a police complaint the following morning, he was initially ignored. Only when the bodies were discovered was a case registered and some arrests made. The main perpetrators, however, were not taken into custody.

For a month, photographs of the brutality circulated among Dalit rights activists. The incident, however, barely registered in the national press. In November, a protest was organised by some Dalit activists and erupted into violence. Police teams were stoned, cars set ablaze. Eventually riot police were called in, some politicians rushed to the area to promise justice, while others blamed the Naxalites (Maoist groups leading a violent insurgency in the region) for instigating the violence. Several policemen were suspended for dereliction of duty, as were the doctors who failed to file proper autopsy reports. In December, the Central Bureau of Investigation finally filed charges against eleven of those accused.

The cost of violation

The Indian government, faced with difficult internal conflicts in vast swathes of the country, has routinely called upon people to reject the gun and enter into dialogue. Yet the Khairlanji incident showed once again that it is often only when marginalised people turn to violence that there is any hope of getting the attention of politicians and the authorities. In late November, Maharashtra state had again erupted into violent Dalit protest; three people died, a train was burned down, and several areas had to be placed under curfew. While the trigger was an attack on the statue of Dalit leader BR Ambedkar, it was apparent that the rage had been building up since Khairlanji.

Violence is unjustified, but for many it appears to be the only way to get attention. This is because - despite all the anti-caste legislation and all the policies to end caste-based discrimination - justice for Dalits remains elusive.

More than a sixth of India's population - approximately 160 million people - live at the bottom of the caste structure: denied access to land, clean water, and education, left out by the recent modernisation process and surging economic growth, forced to work in degrading conditions, and routinely abused at the hands of police and higher caste groups.

For example, a Dalit bridegroom and his wedding procession were pelted with stones on 2 November 2006 by members of upper castes in Bihajar village of Rajasthan state. He was punished for riding a horse to the wedding, a privilege these upper-caste groups claim only for themselves. The following month, an upper-caste landowner chopped off all five fingers of a 10-year-old Dalit girl's hand with a sickle after catching her stealing a few spinach leaves from his property in Bihar state. She had been foraging for edible leaves for the family meal.

Such incidents of prejudice are routine, with Dalits punished for wearing watches or riding bicycles, all symbols of affluence and reserved traditionally only for the higher caste groups. While "unotuchability" was abolished decades ago, the practice continues. Its pervasive persistence emerged during the December 2004 tsunami, when many higher-caste survivors refused to share emergency shelter and food rations with Dalits.

Since the police tend to ignore Dalits' complaints, only a small proportion of incidents of violence against Dalits is registered. Yet the National Crimes Bureau still registered 26,127 cases in 2005. Even when complaints are filed, despite special laws to protect Dalits, justice is usually delayed and the rate of conviction remains abysmal.

Efforts by Dalits such as Surekha Bhotmange, to demand their rights have provoked a brutal backlash from higher caste groups. In fact, incidents such as these, where witnesses, or those that seek judicial remedy, are brutally savaged, have become depressingly common. A Dalit rights activist from Punjab, Bant Singh, campaigning for the rights of landless or marginal farmers, has come under vicious attack a number of times. Members of the upper-caste, landowning community gang-raped his daughter. He pursued the case and secured the conviction of those responsible, who were sentenced to life imprisonment. Supporters of the rapists then organized further retribution: on 5 January 2006, Bant Singh was so badly beaten that both his arms and a leg had to be amputated.

Though their rights are inadequately defended, Dalits are courted by all political parties as a significant vote-bank. Since before India's independence, when Mohandas Gandhi first condemned "untouchability", numerous political leaders have claimed that they would work towards ending the medieval practice. In 2006, the Indian government called upon the private sector to voluntarily adopt affirmative action policies that ensure jobs for Dalits. There has been a strong backlash from upper-caste members, who make arguments similar to those who oppose affirmative action in the United States.

The real challenge is that, for all of the laws, policies and positive political rhetoric in favour of caste-abolition and the rights of Dalits and other low-caste members, words have hardly translated into change. Dalits rightly see mostly empty promises, with little law-enforcement or active campaigning designed to create public outrage.

While the Indian constitution outlaws caste, oddly the Indian government has refused to acknowledge its failure to end caste-based discrimination. For instance, at the United Nations, India has claimed that caste bias cannot be equated with racial discrimination. The government insists that altering an age-old tradition takes time, and cites its numerous laws and schemes as a measure of its commitment to protect victims of caste-related atrocities. Instead of seeing UN commentary and criticism as a tool to address the problem, the goverment goes into denial in international forums.

However, in December 2006 prime minister Manmohan Singh agreed that the "only parallel to the practice of untouchability was apartheid", a statement that was immediately criticised by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - which had rejected the UN recommendations when it held power in New Delhi.

The promise of reform

Yet the Khairlanji incident and the violent protests that followed demonstrate once again that India is failing in its obligations. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has called upon the government to take special measures to "prevent acts of discrimination towards persons belonging to the scheduled castes and tribes, and in the case where such acts have been committed, to conduct thorough investigations, to punish those found responsible."

India's claims that caste and racial discrimination could not be equated were dismissed in 2002, when a general recommendation on descent-based discrimination specified for the first time that descent-based discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of caste, is a human-rights violation.

Although India does have laws to protect vulnerable communities such as the Dalits, it is obvious that with widespread prejudice within the bureaucracy there is very little will to actually implement and enforce these laws. That will only change if those that fail to implement policy receive administrative punishment or are prosecuted.

Manmohan Singh has promised reform. It is crucial that his government act swiftly so that no others ever suffer the fate of the Bhotmange family.

Meenakshi Ganguly is South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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