– RISHI MAJUMDER
Photographer (for three photographs – Bhotmange family relatives + Gajbhiye + police patrol): Rana Chakraborty
Policemen and journalists witness the culmination of a case that has wound up on the front page of New York’s Wall Street Journal, from an unheard of hamlet in Bhandara District. Shutterbugs click on with machine gun safetys at the Bhandara Court gate as those supporting the warring factions reconcile… voices… to murmur “Bhotmare!” (the victim) or “Nikam!” (the public prosecutor). The court room bans the shutterbugs, seating only activists, press, lawyers, victim, accused, witnesses who carry police passes reading ‘pravesh patra’. There is reason for such caution. The Naxalites have stepped in to declare that they will punish any accused the court relieves. But the Naxalites are a different story.
Khairlanji, since its massacre, has been quoted as a shining example of un-shining India, where the law of the land is actually only just the law of the land. Today, Khairlanji is not that India. The three routes into the village have been blockaded by police forces (more machine guns) that ensure Section 144. For the villagers, this means they can have no guests over. For us it means an hour long wait, before the officer in charge drives us to the scene of crime… past the canal where it was first discovered… and just as ‘justice’ for it is being dealt.
In one of the first houses we approach, Anju, aged five, swings around a sparrow whose feet are tied to a long thread. She swings it, to the tune of sweet innocent giggles emanating from her, and her playmates. Anju’s face would have radiated no less innocence and joy had she been playing with an new rattle. She can’t comprehend why she shouldn’t choose a sparrow instead. And this analogy dictates the Khairlanjian dilemma. Khairlanji’s 125 families – 3 Mahar, 4 adivasi, and the rest Kunbi or Kalar (Other Backward Castes or OBC) – don’t get why rural tales they’ve been brought up on (the Chundur and Neerukonda massacres are near carbon copies that come to mind) have gotten to their doorsteps a State Reserve Police Force (SRPF) wirelessing army commandoes and world media asking questions like, “Why are you silent?” When even the police patil – appointed after the massacre, when his predecessor was sacked – answers basic questions about the village with fear: “I haven’t been here before my appointment” and “I don’t understand your language”, we can only assume that the language he refers to is not Marathi.
Bisauji Titirmare breaks this silence. His son Purshottam Titirmare is one of the three just acquitted, and he can’t stop saying, “I always said he was innocent.” On the way to his terracotta roofed pakka house, is a wall that reads “Mumbai Dilli Aaplam Sarkaar. Aamchya Gawaat Aamhich Sarkaar” (Mumbai and Delhi has our government. But in our village we are the government). His wall carries framed pictures of Bose and Gandhi alongside other gods. There is no picture of either Ambedkar or Shivaji. “I don’t know what happened that day, because I wasn’t here,” he replies on further questioning. “But I knew my son was innocent.” A short walk away leads to what policemen call ‘ground zero’. Two monsoons have transformed Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange’s house into a rubble of bricks and hay. Another reason for this, however, is that he was never granted permission by the Gram Panchayat (required in most Indian villages) to build it properly.
“They want to use this issue to divide people,” says V K Sarode, Thanedaar of nearby Seora, in charge of guarding one of the roads into the village. “I’ve dealt with naxals in my earlier posting. I’m aware of their means.” While Naxal interest in dalit issues is not a novelty, their getting a foothold in Bhandara District would be. Sources that choose to remain unnamed for obvious reasons point out that Bhandara would be a significant tactical gain, giving naxals a connect in between Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh.
After meeting countless dalit activists back in Bhandara – angered at the court’s acquitting three accused out of 11, when the original number of people charged for the massacre was 36 – we meet Bhotmange’s closest relatives at Warati.
“Titarmare (Purshottam) was the main culprit,” says Kailash Narnavare, Bhotmange’s nephew, at his chicken shop. “The only reason he got away was because his father-in-law Shri Krishna Padode is the NCP president for Mohadi Taluka”. Sudhan Raut, Surekha Bhotmange’s sister, and Narnavare’s younger brothers explain further. Titirmare was responsible for spreading venom against the family, besides being involved in the main incident, they say. And Bhaiyyalal, who had stayed with the family after the incident, was suddenly wrapped up – and they insist, brainwashed – in the care of Dilip Uke, an NCP man himself. Their final point is that Surekha had written a letter alleging harassment from specific names around a year before the incident. This letter, despite being with Bhaiyyalal, wasn’t presented in court. All this while, even as the eyes of each family member water, one can’t help but notice a flag bearing BSP’s elephant flutter right next to Narnavare’s shop.
Milind Pakhale, chief convener of Khairlanji Action Committee who lost his class 1 government job after holding the first press conference on Khairlanji in 2006, refuses to say anything more than “We are not satisfied with the judgment… “, before introducing us to Siddharth Gajbhiye.
“There was no cause other than caste. The villagers wanted them out!” says Gajbhiye, the neighbouring village’s Police Patil who is looked upon as having unwittingly caused it all. Gajbhiye, accused by the accused of having an illicit affair with Surekha, repeats for the umpteenth time that she was his cousin. He also says that he didn’t have the alleged altercation with a labourer called Sakru over his wife’s due wages, leading to an assault on him: “Why would a villager from Khairlanji come so far to work for me – a dalit! The reason the accused attacked me was because I was helping the Bhotmanges resist their harassment.” The criminal case for the assault on him is pending in Bhandara Court too. But that’s a different story.
For the article that appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/u3k3