The verdict of the Sessions Court in Bhandara in Maharashtra on September 15, 2008 followed by the judgment on September 24, 2008 sentencing six men to death and two others to life term imprisonment evoked mixed reaction. The Sessions court baffled many when it dropped the charges under sections of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. In other words, the court decided to treat the brutal acts perpetrated against the family members of Bhaiyalal Bhotmange as a mere act of murder!
This aspect of the case – that the Atrocities Act must have been invoked by the Sessions Judge S.S.Das – will be evident if one looks into the following facts. Bhotmange is the lone survivor of the ghastly murderous assault in Khairlanji on September 29, 2006; his wife, daughter and two sons were killed in broad daylight and their mutilated bodies were thrown into a canal by members who belonged to the Other Backward Classes.
They did all that because Bhotmange refused to part with a piece of agricultural land that belonged to him to those who wanted it. The story, until now, would appear to be one of a civil dispute over a piece of land culminating in a criminal act in the process. But then, the most crucial aspect of the story is that Bhotmange refused to part with a piece of land, for which he had the title, and hence belonged to him in all the legal senses when he that was demanded of him.
Now, what was the basis behind the demand for that land made? The basis was the ubiquitous and the oppressive caste order that made them believe that Bhotmange, being a Dalit, must obey whatever they ordered and more so when it came to owning a piece of land! And Bhotmange happened to be a Dalit and also among those Dalits who asserted his right as a citizen of the Republic. That infuriated the OBCs in Khairlanji and they decided to impose their own justice on Bhotmange.
On September 29, 2006, his family members were attacked, beaten up and finally killed. Bhotmange, however, survived. And his quest for justice began soon after. He was initially frustrated by the officers in the local police station when they refused to register his complaint. Bhotmange did not give up. He set out on a long course and with assistance from those who believed in the constitutional scheme of things, kept the embers burning.
Thereafter and in a few months after that, coaches of the Deccan Queen Express train were set on fire. And with that, it was brought to the attention of the polity, through the media that one of the factors that led to the violent attack on the train (incidentally, all the passengers were detrained before the fire was lit and thus there was no loss of lives in that incident) was the Khairlanji attack and the fact that the investigation into the case was not reaching anywhere. The media, indeed, brought to the fore the bestial murder on September 29, 2006 and its implication for the future of the democratic polity. And thereafter, the case handed over to the CBI.
The verdict by the ad-hoc sessions judge S.S.Das on September 15, 2008 holding 8 of the 11 accused in the case guilty and the pronouncement, on September 24, 2008, sentencing six out of the eight for death and the remaining two for imprisonment for life is indeed the culmination of a long and determined battle that Bhotmange launched almost two years ago.
Khairlanji, however, is no longer a private concern of Bhotmange. It is, instead a mirror of the caste-based discrimination that continues to stalk the villages across the country and a reminder that Article 17 of the Constitution abolishing untouchability and caste based discrimination is a far cry even after almost six decades after India became a Republic. The Bhotmange family, certainly, were victims of the caste prejudices and met with the fate on September 29, 2006 only because they asserted their rights despite being Dalits.
And hence the Atrocities Act too must have been applied in this case and that way the other accused too were guilty of crime. There is, hence, scope for appeal against the sessions court verdict and it is imperative for the CBI to go on appeal for the sake of justice.
While recalling all this about Khairlanji, one more act of judicial intervention grabs my attention now. The Supreme Court has stayed the trial in the Sohrabuddin-Kauserbi murder case. The case, we may recall, is about the fact that Sohrabuddin and his wife Kauserbi were shot dead by a team of the Gujarat Police led by DIG D.G.Vanzara and thereafter described this act of cold-blooded murder as one of an encounter. The Supreme Court had stayed the trial now on the basis of a report by Gopal Subramaniam, amicus curae, that the investigation into the case by the Gujarat Police was shoddy and hence is likely to ensure the acquittal of the accused police officers!
The case, according to the amicus curae, is fit to be left to the CBI. In other words, Vanzara's proximity with Narendra Modi made him what he is and there is no scope for a fair investigation into the case of cold-blooded murder that was turned into an encounter death by the Gujarat Police officers. It may be recalled that even some of the truth was brought out only when Geetha Johri, a Gujarat Police officer, appointed by the apex court had conducted the investigation.
Image Courtesy: Sabrang