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An interview with Dalit activist Dr Anand Teltumbde

Last updated on: July 19, 2010 14:42 IST

Image: Dr Anand Teltumbde at a public hearing in Pen against SEZs. Inset: Cover of his book Khairlanji: A Strange and Bitter Crop
Photographs: Uttam Ghosh
On July 14, the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court commuted the death sentence awarded to six convicts in the Khairlanji murder case to 25 years' rigorous imprisonment.

On September 29, 2006, a mob brutally raped a mother and daughter before killing them along with her two sons. Surekha Bhotmange (then 42), Priyanka Bhotmange (17), Roshan Bhotmange (19) and Sudhir Bhotmange (21) belonged to one of the three Dalit families in Khairlanji, a remote village in Mohada tehsil of Maharashtra's Bhandara district.

Bhayyalal Bhotmange, the head of the family, survived as he was away from home that fateful day.

The perpetrators of the crime belonged to the upper castes.

In a way Khairlanji is a metaphor for all the atrocities committed against Dalits across the country. Despite their numerical strength (Dalits constitute 16.6 per cent of India's population), Dalits in India are routinely at the receiving end of caste conflicts. While some atrocities against Dalits get wide media coverage, a majority of the incidents are ignored.

Khairlanji, too, would have been ignored had it not been for huge protests over the incident across the country by Dalits, believes Dr Anand Teltumbde, a Mumbai-based Dalit intellectual, thinker and human rights activist, who authored Khairlanji: A Strange And Bitter Crop two years after the incident.

In an e-mail interview with's Prasanna D Zore, Dr Teltumbde speaks of how atrocities like Khairlanji can be prevented, why Dalits in India have failed to organise themselves into a powerful political bloc despite Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati's emergence, how the Congress party in Maharashtra treacherously suppressed the Dalit voice, and how and why Dalits have digressed from the essence of Dr Ambedkar's ideals.

Was Khairlanji an aberration? What needs to be done to prevent such atrocities?

No, Khairlanji was in no way an aberration or a unique occurrence. It is just incidental that it came into the limelight.

The reason perhaps lay in the blatant manner in which the police sought to suppress it initially as an incident caused by the outrage of simple village folk over the defiance of a woman who persisted with her illicit relationship with a man despite their sane advice to stop it. The Khap-kind of izzat (honour) syndrome!

There have been similar incidents before and they continue to occur even now; they either go totally unnoticed or get buried in the records of some innocuous police station.

In fact, there was an incident at Jhanjhardi just 40 km from Aurangabad in Marathwada just prior to the release of my book on Khairlanji in October 2008, where a Dalit woman was raped and her husband badly thrashed.

Both were to be set afire but just then the police reached the spot. Potentially it was no different from Khairlanji, but no one took note of it.

There is no easy method to stop the occurrence of such atrocities on Dalits. The legal course is tedious and full of hurdles for the victims. You know, the police records nearly 30,000 atrocity incidents (against Dalits) every year. But they represent just the tip of the iceberg.

It is said that at least nine out of ten atrocities go unreported.

The village dynamics is such that a poor Dalit victim would not firstly dare to go against the powerful upper castes to report the crime. Even if s/he musters enough courage to reach a police station, the police machinery would not pay heed to her/him.

It is only with some activists' backing that the police will record the atrocity. These are well-acknowledged facts. What happens later is also well known.

Even if the atrocity gets recorded, they would not apply appropriate sections of the relevant Act (as happened in the Khairlanji case where many Dalit leaders,activists and scholars are upset that the case was not properly built by the police who recorded the FIR, and then the prosecution which made no efforts to bring the Atrocity Act into play).

The police investigation would be so lackadaisical that it paves the way for the eventual release of victims.

When the case comes up for hearing in courts, the prosecution could be more callous and then come the judges who would not see any caste angle in such crimes.

What would you call it if the lower court as well as the high court does not see any evidence of caste in Khairlanji, which may veritably be a text book case otherwise of a caste atrocity?

This being the legal process, how can one think of a systemic remedy?

The remedy to my mind lies only in people's action.

It is clear that if there had not been a strong spontaneous agitation over Khairlanji, the courts would not possibly have given the punishment they gave.

It is only public pressure that extracts judgments from the courts. I would go so far as to have a viable anti-caste movement against such atrocities.

Atrocities in my analysis constitute the metrics of caste and need to be curbed with force by those who want caste to be annihilated. The deterrent could only be in terms of tit for tat.

Unless the perpetrators of atrocities are hit back with matching brute force, they would not realise that they are doing something wrong.

It may sound like raw revenge by jungle law when I say such a thing, but I have an elaborate theory behind this.

There is a deep-rooted caste prejudice against Dalits, and this (prejudice) would not tolerate them being conducted on equal terms. There is no method to correct such a deep-seated cultural residue than the shock treatment (I have suggested).

Moreover, there is empirical evidence that support my theory. This, however, would be possible when Dalits learn to join hands with other people on the basis of class.

Caste can never bring them this kind of strength.

Persisting with the caste idiom, I am sure Khairlanjis will keep happening and this kind of interviews will keep recurring for centuries to come.

'The odds of the political economy are stacked against Dalits'

Image: Dalits at Chaityabhoomi, Dr Ambedkar's memorial, on Ambedkar Jayanti. Inset: Bhayyalal Bhotmange
Photographs: Arun Patil. Inset: Rediff Archives
Has the Indian State failed in its duty to protect the life and property of the deprived and dispossessed, more so if they happen to be Dalits?

Yes, definitely the Indian State has miserably failed to protect the life and property of Dalits.

Actually, going by the rise in the incidence of such atrocities, one could reasonably infer that it has promoted caste prejudice by its acts of omission or commission.

Let it be understood that today's caste is not the classical caste based upon some rituals.

It is very different, and the forces of modernity induced by the State bring in that difference. The State cannot be absolved of its responsibility in its dynamics.

The State represented by the police for the common Dalit masses could be seen at the core of village dynamics.

When the upper castes perpetrate caste atrocities, the police appear to be on the side of the perpetrators.

In many cases, Dalits feel that they could have avenged the atrocity on them but for the police force backing the criminals. That is the ugly face of the State as far as the common Dalit folk in villages are concerned.

Why have Dalits in Maharashtra failed to form a political bloc, and what explains the dominance of Marathas in the state's politics?

The dominance of Marathas is the outcome of the political economy of the Nehruvian modernist project independent India implemented during the first two decades.

It is not confined to Maharashtra; it has happened all over the country.

This project mainly comprised land reforms followed by green revolution. The land reforms, howsoever half-baked they may be, gave ownership of land to the farming castes and displaced the upper caste landlords from villages.

The latter saw greener pastures in the capitalist economy emerging in towns and cities and gladly relocated themselves. The Green Revolution that followed increased agricultural productivity and enriched these farming castes significantly.

The agricultural surplus accruing through this process began flowing to petty businesses in nearby towns, further enriching a section of these castes.

This project introduced capitalist relations in villages by developing a credit market, input and output markets and the money economy. Socio-culturally, vacating of the village lordship by the upper caste landlords gave the baton of Brahmanism into the hands of these middle band Shudra castes.

Politically, the advanced sections of these castes took advantage of the amorphous caste relationships among the populous Shudra castes to build a formidable constituency for themselves.

The increasing spread of education among Dalits, awareness about their civil rights, and the consequent assertion of those rights also came handy for catalysing the consolidation of the Shudra castes.

Marathas are nothing but the Kunbi farming castes, the advanced section of the Shudra castes.

These castes, calling themselves Backward Castes and Other Backward Castes and taking advantage of the vast masses belonging to their own caste band that have been rendered poor, have actually come to dominate politics right from the village to Delhi, and also arguably command dominance on the economy.

Why Dalits have failed to create a political bloc is to be partly found in the above process. Because eventually, it is the matter of power asymmetry in the village setting, the abode of the majority of Dalits.

The increasing power of the Shudra castes like Marathas made them adopt the age-old ruling class strategy of co-option or decimation.

If you recall the 1964 countrywide satyagraha for land for landless that took place under the leadership of Dadasaheb Gaikwad, which had shaken the Congress citadel, you would find in it the roots of decimation of the Dalit movement.

To plug this erupting Dalit volcano over their deprivation, the Congress had to hurriedly adopt the above strategy. Yeshwantrao Chavan, the Maratha patriarch, had skilfully co-opted none other than the doyen of Dalits -- Dadasaheb Gaikwad -- by offering him a Rajya Sabha seat.

Thereafter, many minor Dalit leaders just looked for an opportunity to desert the Dalit applecart and climb the Congress bandwagon for self-aggrandisement.

Every time the Dalits tried to re-launch their independent movement, this ruling class strategy decimated them.

Around 1970s the Dalit Panthers had made waves and created a scare in the ruling establishment, but it was soon decimated.

What happened then can be seen by anyone. There is a kind of ideological lacuna too that I see as responsible for the state of the Dalit movement.

Dalits have made Ambedkar into their demigod but have conveniently forgotten the essence of his teachings.

There could be many more reasons for the failure of Dalits to consolidate into a powerful bloc, but the major one remains the odds of the political economy stacked against them.

'To take Mayawati's power as Dalit power is a mistake'

Image: Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati with a garland of currency notes
Photographs: Reuters
What explains the failure of the Dalits in seizing political power? Of course, the rise of Mayawati is an exception but otherwise it has failed on a national scale.

As I said before, the splintering of Dalits across the ruling parties and their hopeless fragmentation should explain the failure of Dalits to secure political power.

Mayawati also is not an exception as such but her success lies in her strategy to thwart this phenomenon as much as the unique advantage she had in Uttar Pradesh in the form of demography of Dalits and the political vacuum of sorts that existed after the desertion of RPI (Republican Party of India) leaders like B P Maurya and Sanghapriya Gautam.

But to take Mayawati's as Dalit power will be a mistake. She or her Bahujan Samaj Party never called it a Dalit party; it is the Bahujan party.

It assimilates the BCs, OBCs along with all minorities, conveniently winking at the material contradictions these social groups have among themselves and particularly with Dalits.

It is therefore that the BSP, despite being the most powerful party in the state, could not reduce the incidence of atrocities against Dalits. It (Uttar Pradesh) remains the number one (state) in atrocities on Dalits!

Rather, Mayawati had to issue the most infamous instruction not to register any crime under the Atrocity Act without prior approval of district magistrates.

Howsoever pious the motivation of the (BSP founder) Kanshi Ram-Mayawati duo might have been while launching their movement, there is no doubt that the compulsion of electoral politics has conclusively overtaken them.

When the BSP has proclaimed itself as Sarvajan party, overlooking the social contradictions among the Sarvajan, just to secure political power, it no more remains even the so-called oppressed peoples' party.

The BSP structurally cannot replicate itself anywhere else, leave apart nationwide. Those who dream of it replicating its success nationwide, forget all the unique combinations that helped it catapult to power in UP.

The demographic advantage -- the state's SC population comprises some 21 per cent of the population, and that too over 80 per cent of it belonging to a single caste bloc of Chamars and Jatavs -- is to be found nowhere else.

Even Punjab, which exceeds UP in Dalit population percentage (28 per cent against UP's 21 per cent) does not have the advantage of a single Dalit caste being so dominant. The Dalits there are so fragmented that such a vast majority, and even a wealthy one at that, gets beaten there by the Jats. 

Do you feel the media ignores caste conflicts in india?

Yes, the media grossly ignores Dalit (not caste) issues in general. The media, after all, has been the exclusive citadel of the upper castes, and reflects a monumental ignorance of Dalit affairs. Firstly it suffers from the ubiquitous caste bias, which gets compounded by its ignorance.

Let me explain. As I said, there was a significant caste atrocity at Jhanjhardi near Aurangabad but nobody seems to know about it. As a matter of fact, an atrocity on Dalits takes place every 18 minutes in the country. Mind it, they are all significant because the minor ones will never get to the statistics.

How many of them are really taken up by the media?

Unless there is a public (read Dalit) mobilisation around the incident, the media just ignores it. It had verily ignored Khairlanji also. It is only when there was an outbreak of public rage that the media took note of it.

Ignorance of the media surfaces in numerous ways. But only one example would suffice to illustrate it.

When the media speaks about caste, it invariably mixes up backward castes with Dalits. Even many so-called caste scholars suffer from this confusion. These two caste groups, for the reasons (of political economy) stated before, reflect serious contradictions. Rather, the atrocities on Dalits are exclusively perpetrated by the BCs.

In media, this crucial difference is never evident. It entails a horrible consequence.

When the Mandal reservations were accepted in 1989 by the V P Singh government, the media's ambiguous projection caused riots in which the BCs battered Dalits at many places. The Dalits in their folly had taken up a pro-reservation stance and descended on the roads.

The media often takes up the posture of secular progressiveness as most of its constituents belong to that hallowed group. This group typically behaves like an automaton. Reservations then automatically become a progressive issue; caste census becomes a naturally supportable issue. Such posturing, it does not even realise, is very detrimental to Dalit interests and worse, to the national interests which certainly lie in the annihilation of castes.

'Khairlanji verdict was an anticlimax of Ambedkar's message'

Image: Dr B R Ambedkar's statue in the Maharashtra assembly
Photographs: Government of Maharashtra
Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar had given a clarion call the to Dalits during the Mahad agitation: learn, organise and agitate. Why have the Dalits in Maharashtra and India failed to educate themselves despite reservations after Independence?

It is not correct to say that Dalits have not educated themselves. If you count in just quantitative terms, the Dalits as a social group has achieved the fastest educational spread than any other social group in the country.

Even in higher education, the situation is not very different despite the many odds they face.

Today Dalits are found in every sector. They have reached the highest echelons of bureaucracy, in technology and medical sectors.

This process has created a sizeable Dalit Diaspora out of second and third generation Dalits. Much of it has happened through the reservation process. Paradoxically, this very process has restricted its spread to larger sections of Dalits.

Its benefits are being monopolised by an increasingly smaller section. It was inevitable. The vast majority of Dalits finds itself excluded from these benefits.

In qualitative terms, there appears to be a serious problem. It is mostly attributable to the grossly iniquitous education structure in the country.

Quality education is structurally made available to increasingly rich and elite people. Dalits are grossly excluded from this quality education sector. Globalisation has been aggravating this problem with tremendous speed.

As regards Babasaheb Ambedkar's slogan of 'educate, organise, and agitate' is concerned, he probably had a much broader meaning of all of these terms than normally understood (by Dalits in India).

'Educate' for him was not merely to obtain some degree but to really understand the world around yourself.

How many Dalits, for instance, understand the geopolitics or international economic forces that impinge on their interests? Rather, these terms are alien in the world of even well-educated Dalits.

Ambedkar's 'Organise' did not mean just launching your outfit to claim political tribute from the ruling classes. 'Organise' obviously meant building the wider organisation of all Dalits, nay even beyond Dalits. It is a pity that they did not even understand, while chanting victory to Ambedkar (Jai Bhim), that although he focused on Dalit emancipation as his life objective, his method has always been based on class.

Ambedkar's 'Agitate' also did not mean as Dalits probably reflect the internecine struggles. 'Agitate' means that there should be intrinsic annoyance at any violation of human rights, any form of injustice or exploitation.

He expected Dalits to be in the vanguard in these matters.

Do we see this orientation among Dalits today?

I was amazed that when the Bhandara sessions court pronounced the verdict awarding the death sentence to six and life imprisonment to two, the Dalits including their leaders celebrated it.

They ignored the damning part of the judgment that Khairlanji did not have any caste angle; it was not even a planned or premeditated crime.

The verdict made it to be a crime committed in a fit of rage. That reflects the anticlimax of Babasaheb Ambedkar's 'Educate, Organise and Agitate'!