In grappling with the horrors of Hathras, the absence of Anand Teltumbde’s voice resounds. In the writings of Teltumbde, who is currently incarcerated in Taloja prison in the Bhima Koregaon case, the horrific singularity of caste atrocities are distilled as a precipitate of a long-enduring history and deep-rooted societal structures. Few public intellectuals in independent India have shown as much insight and courage in chronicling the cunning and cruelty of state and society.

A few weeks after the woman in Hathras died after being brutalised allegedly by four Thakur men, the Allahabad High Court has raised damning questions about the manner in which the district administration handled the case, cremating the woman in the middle of the night without allowing her family a last glimpse of her body.

Already, there were stories in the media claiming that the death was actually the result of a love affair gone awry. Teltumbde’s work painfully shows that none of this is new – not the brutality, the destruction of evidence or the wild sordid manipulations in the press.

“It is impossible to draw a line separating the atrocity from the state’s response,” he had written in his book Republic of Caste in 2018.

Police lapses

The flogging of four Dalit men in Una in 2016 might still tug at our conscience. But for many, Khairlanji has fallen into the cracks of oblivion. It is a tragedy that Teltumbde describes in Khairlanji: A Strange and Bitter Crop. In September 2006, a mother and daughter in Maharashtra’s Bhandara district named Surekha Bhotmange and Priyanka Bhotmange, mother and daughter, were “stripped, battered, paraded naked and raped several times by a Hindu mob goaded by the entire village”, as Teltumde wrote. Surekha’s sons, Sudhir and Roshan Bhotmange, were tortured and killed. All four bodies were then thrown into a canal.

Even in the face of such unspeakable crime, articles appeared in the press at the time attempting to explain the atrocity as a reaction to a rumour that Surekha Bhotmange was having an extra-marital affair. As Teltumbde describes the initial lapses in the Khairlanji investigation process, the parallels with Hathras jump out. He writes that this was part of a general pattern in the state response to such atrocities, where lapses in the investigation weaken the prosecution’s case. And though the lower courts awarded the perpetrators harsh sentences, the higher courts ultimately overturn these sentences in the light of the initial police lapses.

In Republic of Caste, Teltumbde describes the case of the Dalit activist Sanjay Khobragade who was set ablaze in May 2014 in Maharashtra’s Kavalewada village. He received 94% burns and died six days later. Video recordings of his testimony naming his assailants were ignored by the investigating agencies, a situation that seems to be repeating itself in Hathras, where the victim’s dying testimony seemed to be ignored in the initial response from the investigative agencies.

In the Khobragade case, his wife was arrested, accused of having an extra-marital affair.

A video grab of four Dalit men in Una being flogged in 2016.

These are a miniscule proportion of the caste atrocities that are commonplace in India, the few that “have managed to climb the mound of statistics” as Teltumbde writes. Using records from the National Crime Records Bureau, Teltumbde notes that between 2014 and 2016 there was an 88.4% increase in (reported) rape cases involving Scheduled Caste women nationally. Caste crimes against Dalits went up by 74% across India between 2014 and 2016, averaging 111 caste crimes a day. Whatsoever the problems with statistics, these silence any doubt about the raging prevalence of caste today.

The brutal events of Hathras and Khairlanji have their ideological origins in the Manusmriti and appear to match the hair-raisingly detailed punishments for the most minor infractions of caste law mandated by that text. For instance, Manusmriti verse 8.272 recommends that the king should pour hot oil in the ears and mouth of the lower orders who dare to teach the brahmanas their duty.

Contemporary atrocities, Teltumbde writes in Khairlanji, seem to be a “re-enactment of a primordial punishment to the subordinated cases”.

It wasn’t only the Manusmriti that prescribed such barbarities. Even texts such as Vishnusmriti, Naradasmriti, and Brihaspatismriti comment on and approve of such caste violence.

The political econony of caste

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s uncritical valorisation of the past, notwithstanding its statements against caste and untouchability, only works to empower entrenched hierarchies. In Republic of Caste, Teltumbde focuses on the trajectories, realities and inequalities of the political economy to explain the persistence of caste into contemporary times.

He points to Ambedkar’s State and Minorities, which recommended that land be nationalised. This could have been a first momentous step on the road to equality, crushing the wealth of the privileged orders. However, this was not to be. The agrarian policies of Independent India only succeeded in further marginalising Dalits and empowering a range of landed castes.

Teltumbde argues that mere ideological hubris cannot translate into brutality without the proprietorship of power and wealth: this is what allows for a sense of absolute impunity. The knowledge that caste atrocities have societal sanction and will not be punished by the state administration or law explains their existence. No longer merely the preserve of the upper castes, caste violence also characterises the Other Backward Classes, as was the case in Khairlanji.

Equally, Teltumbde argues, such violence is a response to the increasing assertiveness and political awareness of Dalits. To speak of the caste nature of some crimes is not to suggest that other kinds of crimes are less horrific. It is to emphasise that caste exists as a psychological and sociological reality in India, and that caste atrocities are enabled and protected by a caste-coded institutional nexus.

Only from such a diagnosis can the specific social, political and institutional will essential to work towards the elimination of caste violence be constituted.

Police stand guard near the home of the woman in Hathras who was allegedly gangraped and killed in September. Credit: Pawan Sharma/AFP

The much-justified public outcry against the Delhi gangrape in 2012 was not repeated two years later when four Dalit schoolgirls in Bhagana, Haryana, were abducted from a field near their homes and raped by five members of the dominant Jat caste.

Teltumbde points to the report of The People’s Union for Democratic Rights report had suggested that the rapes were committed to punish Dalit resistance against the takeover of their lands, water and burial grounds.

It is easier to view the horror of such crimes in isolation rather than to recognise how firmly and deeply embedded they are in society and state. Only that acknowledgement, rather than treating them as mere aberrant instances, will allow us to work towards transforming the social and institutional structures that permit them to be perpetuated.

In the Hathras village in which the woman and her family lived, Dalits form a miniscule minority. We are told that shopkeepers throw purchased commodities at their Dalit customers for fear of being contaminated. Dalit students are expected to clean the school premises. This might well be one of the opening scenes from Om Prakash Valmiki’s Jhootan.

It has been reported that about two decades ago, the Hathras woman’s grandfather had been attacked for daring to ask some Thakurs to vacate his fields. The victim’s brother-in-law echods Teltumbde when he told a reporter that the resentment of the Thakurs in the village is rooted in the fact that Dalits no longer clean their houses as they did in the past.

There was similar sullen anger in Khairlanji. The Bhotmanges were Ambedkerite activists and refused to remain subservient even though they were one of only four Dalit families in a village of 181.

Reports of violence against the perceived assertiveness of Dalits abound. The most infinitesimal of infractions turn out to be acts of indomitable courage, shaking the mighty monuments of caste hubris.

Of course, the brave assertiveness of Dalits is not new. In his detailed history of the Mahad Satyagraha, Mahad: The Making of the First Dalit Revolt, Teltumbde dwells as much on Ambedkar’s devastating journalistic writings and public burning of the Manusmriti as on the courage and determination of ordinary Dalits in their revolt against societal oppression.

Today, journalists trying to report on Hathras have been charged under anti-terror laws, and Teltumbde is confined within prison walls along with many other committed citizens in a case that our finest commentators, teachers and activists, as well as a sitting Supreme Court Justice in his dissenting opinion, find unsustainable.

Innocent until proven guilty

As several have asked: is Anand Teltumbde being punished for his stringent public critique of state and societal structures, of neoliberalism as much as of the ideology of Hindutva? With a long and distinguished career in the corporate and academic world, Teltumbde is in jail at the age of 70 under a draconian legislation. He is innocent – if one believes in and begins with the founding jurisprudential principle of that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

While Teltumbde has an unblemished record as a widely admired scholar and activist, the state prosecution has, on the other hand, in a wide variety of cases, been indicted for imprisoning the innocent for several gruelling years through what has been describe as “malicious prosecution”. This has been well documented here and here.

As I try to come to grips with the horrors of Hathras, I miss Teltumbde’s distinctive voice today – a voice filled with the passion for justice, a voice in which the rigorous distance of scholarship mingles with the caring warmth of social concern.

And it seems that is not merely in the chatter of university hostels or at the cross-roads of some caste-beaten town, but also in the conversations in some of the dark and lonely corners in our jails that we will find the sharpest and most profound discernment of the enduring truth of our blood-stained times.

Rahul Govind teaches in the University of Delhi and writes here as a citizen.