In the early 2000s, a dark and horrifying chapter in India's history unfolded, revealing the deep-rooted casteism that still plagued the nation. On September 29, 2006 an upper caste mob, paraded a Dalit woman and her 17-year-old daughter naked, gang raped and killed them. Two other members of the family, sons aged 19 and 21 too were murdered. Their bodies were dumped in a canal. The brutal event known as the Khairlanji massacre, took place in the small village of Khairlanji, situated in the Bhandara district of Maharashtra.
Unlike today, when news and information spread like wildfire through the vast reaches of social media, this unsettling tale emerged in a time when only a fraction of the population had access to mobile phones, and even fewer enjoyed the luxury of mobile internet.
On this 17th anniversary, The Mooknayak takes you back in time to revisit the tragic Khairlanji massacre. Join us as we delve into the past and uncover the chilling truths of casteism.
In the quiet village of Khairlanji, lived Surekha Bhotmange, a member of the 'Mahar' caste—an often-marginalized group in the intricate web of India's caste system. However, Surekha defied the odds; her circumstances were notably different from those of many Dalit women. She possessed education and managed her household with self-sustained financial resources. Through sheer determination and relentless hard work, she had elevated her humble hut into a permanent residence, symbolizing progress amidst adversity.
Surekha, the 45 years old, was the matriarch of a family that included her husband, 51-year-old Bhaiyalal, their two sons, 21-year-old Sudhir and 19-year-old Roshan, and their 17-year-old daughter, Priyanka.
Their ascent towards prosperity and social mobility was met with resistance. The Kunbi Marathas, categorized as 'OBC' (Other Backward Classes), dwelling in Khairlanji, found it inconceivable that Surekha, despite her Dalit identity, had carved a niche of affluence. She owned agricultural land, ensured her children received an education, with Priyanka remarkably securing the top position in her 12th-grade class. Undeterred by efforts to stifle their progress, Surekha remained resolute, refusing to succumb to intimidation that sought to deprive her family of electricity and access to the local well.
The turning point came when a dispute over land erupted. The Kunbi Marathas sought to construct a road through Surekha's fields, and she vehemently opposed this encroachment. In a shocking act of retaliation, they unleashed bullock carts upon her fields, destroying her crops and livelihood. Not one to be cowed, Surekha immediately filed a complaint with the local police.
The situation escalated further when, on September 3, 2006, Siddharth Gajbhiye, a local police constable and a friend of the Bhotmange family, fell victim to a physical attack. Siddharth had consistently supported Surekha in her struggle against the Kunbis and had even threatened to use the 'SC/ST' law against them.
The culmination of this ongoing strife took place on September 29, 2006, a day etched in infamy. Around 70 individuals, including women, descended upon the Bhotmange residence in a tractor, surrounding the house in an aura of impending doom. On that ill-fated evening, only Surekha and her children were at home, as Bhaiyalal was toiling away in the fields.
What transpired next was a nightmare beyond comprehension. Surekha and Priyanka were subjected to unspeakable horrors, stripped, tied to a bullock cart, and paraded naked through the village. Sudhir and Roshan, in a ghastly turn of events, were forced to make an impossible choice - to rape their own mother and sister. When they refused, their genitals were severed, and they were brutally beaten to death. Before succumbing to their injuries, Surekha and Priyanka endured the excruciating torment of gang rape. Bhaiyalal, by sheer luck, survived the massacre. Hearing the nightmarish screams, he rushed to the scene, only to bear witness to the unimaginable brutality.
According to some reports, the naked bodies of Priyanka and Surekha were paraded through the village before being thrown into a nearby canal. The perpetrators of this heinous crime were members of the Kunbi caste, which is classified as an Other Backward Class. The attack was apparently carried out as a result of the Bhotmange family's opposition to the requisitioning of their field for the construction of a road. During the massacre, most of the villagers remained passive spectators, while those who tried to intervene were overpowered.
Initial reports suggested that the women were gang-raped before being murdered. However, investigations by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) concluded that the women were not raped. There were allegations of bribery of doctors who performed the post-mortem and corruption, which cast doubt on the findings of the investigation.
The Kherlanji village killings sparked widespread outrage, leading to protests across different regions of Maharashtra. On the 19th of November 2006, an impressive gathering of over 4,000 Scheduled Caste citizens converged at Azad Maidan in Mumbai. Their purpose was to vehemently voice their condemnation of the tragic Khairlanji incident.
In a show of solidarity, on the 23rd of November 2006, members of the Scheduled Caste community from the nearby district of Chandrapur organized their own protest in response to the Khairlanji killings. Unfortunately, tensions escalated, and some protesters were accused of resorting to violence by hurling stones. In response, the police resorted to baton-charging the protesters in an attempt to regain control of the situation. Nevertheless, Scheduled Caste leaders firmly refuted allegations of violence, asserting that their protests had been conducted peacefully.
When the media initially covered the Khairlanji incident, it conspicuously omitted any mention of caste, attributing the murders to what they called 'moral reasons.' Reports suggested that Surekha, was having an affair with Siddharth Gajbhiye, who was from a different caste, which allegedly stirred the ire of the villagers. The narrative painted a picture of a crime born out of personal conflicts rather than caste-based violence. This skewed portrayal not only obscured the grim reality but also cast aspersions on the character of the victims.
The court's initial verdict, influenced by this narrative, did not invoke the SC/ST Act, as it believed the Khairlanji murders to be unrelated to caste-based violence but rather driven by personal disputes. The verdict in the 2006 Khairlanji court case was announced on 15 September 2008. Bhandara Sessions court held eight people guilty of murder and acquitted three. Six were sentenced to death, while two received life imprisonment.
However, when the case reached the Nagpur division of the Bombay High Court, the sentences were reduced. Instead of the death penalty, the culprits were given 25 years of imprisonment. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, and although a hearing was scheduled for 2015, it never materialized.
Allegations of police shielding the alleged perpetrators during the investigation cast a dark shadow over the Kherlanji massacre case. A comprehensive government report, jointly prepared by the social justice department and YASHADA, the state academy of developmental administration, pointed fingers at high-ranking police officers, doctors, and even a member of the BJP Legislative Assembly, Madhukar Kukade. They were implicated in an alleged cover-up and accused of obstructing the investigation. Kukade vehemently denied these charges, insisting that he had not set foot in Kherlanji for months. The state's Home Minister, R. R. Patil, conceded to initial lapses in the police investigation and announced the dismissal of five policemen who had been suspended in connection with the killings.
In December 2006, a significant turning point arrived as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) filed a chargesheet against 11 individuals, leveling accusations of murder, criminal conspiracy, unlawful assembly with deadly weapons, and outraging the modesty of women. The CBI also pledged to delve deeper into the involvement of the 36 people currently under detention.
Initially, media coverage of the Kherlanji incident had been feeble, but a watershed moment came when investigative journalist Sabrina Buckwalter, in collaboration with social activist Deelip Mhaske, penned a compelling feature article that was published in The Times of India. This article marked a critical turning point, offering the first comprehensive and in-depth coverage of the massacre that had been lacking in the mainstream media. Mhaske, an US based activist presently, gained recognition for his work on the Khairlanji massacre case. He even did a three-day hunger strike in front of the United Nations building and was later allowed to testify in front of the Human Rights Council about the case.
In January 2017, Bhaiyalal Bhotmange, the head of the devastated family, tragically passed away from a heart attack at the age of 62, never having seen justice served for his slain wife and children. It is often said that 'getting justice late or not getting it is the same thing,' a sentiment that rings true in this case. The scourge of casteism claimed an entire family, and, apart from a handful of perpetrators facing punishment, many involved in the incident continue to roam free, including politicians.
"Khairlanjichya Mathyawar" is an Indian Marathi language film directed by Raju Meshram and produced by Padmashree Kalpana Saroj. The movie features notable actors such as Kishori Shahane Vij, Anant Jog, and Milind Shinde, with music composed by Anand Modak. It was released on 7 February 2014.
The film's storyline is deeply rooted in the tragic events of the Khairlanji massacre. Upon its release, the film received mixed reviews from critics. A reviewer from The Indian Express noted that while the story and screenplay were tightly woven, director Raju Meshram's attempt to present the incidents in a straightforward manner made the film feel akin to a documentary. Another reviewer, from Divya Marathi, pointed out that despite the film's compelling story, its cinematography suffered due to subpar editing.
The film also stirred controversy as a petition seeking its ban was filed by Bhayyalal Bhotmange himself and Ravi Shende, convener of Akhil Bharatiya Dhammasena. They claimed that the film wrongly portrayed Bhotmange's personality, and some scenes tarnished the image of his daughter. While not objecting to the entire film, they expressed regret for not having the opportunity to view it before its exhibition. As a result of this petition, the court cancelled the certificate issued by the Censor Board and banned the film. The Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court subsequently upheld the ban on the film.