Two Dalits died on January 8 at different places in Bihar. One was murdered, the other succumbed to an illness. Yet, in their own different ways, the two deaths are brutal reminders of the odds stacked against Dalits despite the special law against caste atrocities.

Fifteen-year-old Dika Kumari, was murdered in Hajipur in a government residential school named after Ambedkar. The police’s failure to arrest school authorities triggered protests in rural Bihar.

Just a day before her murder, her mother Kusuma Devi visited her in school following a distress call from her. Kusuma Devi was allegedly prevented by the staff from taking Dika Kumari home even after she had complained of sexual harassment. Though her mutilated body, found in a drain near the school, bore injury marks on her private parts, and despite the widened definition of rape in the general criminal law, the autopsy report was silent on the sexual angle of the assault.

Systematic discrimination

The other reminder of systemic bias that came later on the same day was the natural death in Arrah of Srikrishna Chaudhary, who had lost his wife and two daughters on July 11, 1996 in the infamous Bathani Tola massacre by an upper caste militia called Ranvir Sena. All but one of the 21 killed in Bathani Tola village in Bhojpur district of Bihar were either women or children. It was on the first information report lodged by Chaudhary that a trial court convicted 23 persons in 2010 for this massacre of Dalits and Muslims.

Two years later, the Patna high court, however, acquitted all the 23 who had been convicted by the trial court. This was mainly because the high court found all the nine prosecution witnesses, including Chaudhary, “totally unreliable”. While being overly concerned about deficiencies in the prosecution’s evidence, the high court made little effort to appreciate the honesty of the victims who had either lost family members or been injured. One of the witnesses thus disbelieved was a Dalit woman who had survived with a bullet injury on her chest.

Chaudhary passed away in his 40s, while waiting for the Supreme Court since 2012 to hear the appeal against the wholesale acquittal of convicts. In contrast, the appeal in the 2012 Delhi gang-rape case that led to legal reforms has already been heard by the Supreme Court. The failure to accord due priority to the Bathani Tola case is telling, given that it was in the wake of this massacre that Ranvir Sena had been banned and that it still went on to carry out more massacres targeting Dalits over four years.

Ranvir Sena itself was the last of a series of caste-based militias that had caused havoc in Bihar in the 1980s and ‘90s. The deadliest of those militias, Ranvir Sena was founded in 1994 in the backdrop of a massacre of 35 Bhumihars, a landowning community, perpetrated two years earlier in Bara, a village in the Gaya district of Bihar, by Maoist Communist Centre. But unlike any of the massacres of Dalits, the Bara massacre of Bhumihars was tried under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act. In 2002, the Supreme Court confirmed the death penalty to four of the accused persons in the Bara case. The mercy petitions filed by those four persons, three of whom are Dalits, came to be decided only now, earlier this month, after a lapse of 14 years.

In the decision that took many by surprise, President Pranab Mukherjee saved all four of them from the gallows, disregarding the recommendations of the state and Central governments to reject the mercy petitions. Mukherjee’s decision is in tune with the law laid down by the Supreme Court that the death penalty should be commuted to life sentence if there has been an inordinate delay in disposing of the mercy petition. That the Modi government had no qualms as late as August in recommending the retention of the death penalty in the Bara case signifies caste and class bias in the state structure at the highest level.

Awarding the accused

Another indication of such a systemic bias came in Hyderabad on January 17, the first anniversary of PhD scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide. Much to the outrage of the students gathered at the Hyderabad Central University, the Telangana police barred his mother Radhika Vemula from entering the campus and visiting the spot where Rohith Vemula had spent his last days following his suspension. The hostility displayed by the police is in keeping with their failure to make any arrests or file a charge sheet in the abetment of suicide case lodged by one of Rohith Vemula’s comrades.

Since the FIR has also been booked under the Prevention of Atrocities Act, the Telangana police claim to be awaiting a report from the collector of Guntur in Andhra Pradesh on Rohith Vemula’s caste identity. This is because his political adversaries, including Central ministers, have alleged that Rohith could not be considered Dalit as his father was not one. But this patriarchal argument flies in the face of a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that the children of an inter-caste marriage were entitled to be considered Dalit if the mother belonging to that community had brought them up without any of the advantages that could have accrued from the absentee father.

Though he had already reported to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes in April that Rohith Vemula was Dalit, the Guntur collector has ordered a fresh inquiry into the same matter. All that the invocation of the atrocities Act was actually meant to do was to increase the maximum punishment for abetment of suicide from 10 years to life sentence. Far from enhancing the gravity of the case, the addition of the special law provisions has ended up serving as a diversionary tactic for the police to avoid any investigation into the main offence under the general law. Thanks to the charade being played out by the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh authorities, Modi got an opportunity on January 3 to confer the award of the Millennium Plaque of Honour on Vice Chancellor Appa Rao Podile, the prime accused in this case of “institutional murder”.

Refusal to see

The latest in the succession of brutal reminders for Dalits this month came from from Bhandara in Maharashtra. Bhaiyalal Bhotmange, who had lost his wife and three children in the Khairlanji massacre of 2006, died of a heart attack at 62 on January 20. Like the complainant in the Bathani Tola case, Bhaiyalal had been anxiously waiting for the Supreme Court to hear the appeal related to the massacre of all his family members. Except that this appeal, pending since 2010, is against the commutation of the death sentence to a 25-year term of imprisonment for six persons. But, like in the Rohith Vemula case, the real problem in the Khairlanji case is the refusal of the criminal justice system to acknowledge the caste angle.

The convictions handed out by both the trial court and the Bombay high court are based on the tenuous premise that the four Bhotmanges were killed merely because two of them, Surekha and her teenaged daughter Priyanka, had testified against members of the dominant Kunbi Maratha caste in an assault case. All the evidence about the attempts to grab the land of the Bhotmanges and of the sexual assault suffered by Surekha and Priyanka before their killing was glossed over to uphold the prosecution’s narrative that it was purely personal vendetta rather than a caste atrocity.

Thus, the reluctance displayed by the Bihar police in the Dika Kumari case to take cognisance of her mother’s well-founded allegation of sexual motivation, is reminiscent of the murder-only approach in the Khairlanji case. The signals emanating from various cases of caste atrocities across the country are as disturbing as they are instructive.

Manoj Mitta is the author of The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra and co-author of When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and its Aftermath