Anand Teltumbde is a noted Bombay-based Dalit intellectual who also wears the hat of a business executive. He has written this book about the lynching of a Dalit family in a Maharashtra village in 2006 to ensure that the incident is not easily erased from memory. He quotes Milan Kundera: “The struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” In other words, he sees this book as being a seminal work on the Khairlanji atrocity.
The book begins with Abel Meeropol’s song Strange Fruit, written in 1936 (and not 1939, as the book incorrectly states) about the lynching of two black youth. It is from this song that the book derives its sub-title, “A Strange and Bitter Crop,” which once again reinforces the book’s ambition. Billie Holiday’s rendition of Strange Fruit (in 1939) soon became an anthem for the anti-lynching movement in the US, but does Teltumbde’s book achieve its ambitious goal?
The book’s first chapter is a narration of the events of 29 September 2006, when Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange’s family was lynched to death. The atrocity is reduced in this narrative to a dry report, as if it were from the file of a district magistrate. Sample this:
Farming is the predominant occupation of the village with 373 hectares of agricultural land, of which 262 hectares—over 70 percent—are under irrigation from the Pench canal. In Khairlanji, 178 families own agricultural land. Though they are mostly marginal landholders, owing to assured irrigation the villagers harvest multiple crops such as rice, wheat and pulses… [pp. 29-30]
Instead of a crisply written reconstruction of the bone-chilling lynchings, one is burdened with too many irrelevant details, stitched together so wryly that they are unlikely to hold the interest of the general reader. Books on caste that have withstood the test of memory, such as Baby Kamble’s The Prisons We Broke or Om Prakash Valmiki’s Joothan, have invested in the craft of storytelling. To move the indifferent about the everyday caste violence, that is what we need the most: good storytelling.
The dry telling is made worse by self-righteous rhetoric. Teltumbde writes, for instance: “Khairlanjis are not confined to villages… They are manifest even in our towns and cities, sections of which have clad themselves in metal and glass in recent years… Every day millions are crushed and killed in spirit…” (pp. 13-14). Our cities do have caste, but do we see public lynchings? Such liberal (and repeated) use of “Khairlanjis” takes something away from the tragedy of Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange.
In the absence of original research and fieldwork, the telling of the Khairlanji incident gives us nothing new. Teltumbde mentions that when Bhaiyyalal’s daughter Priyanka had stood first in class ten, the Khairlanji villagers had felicitated her. But then how did the same villagers rape and murder her because of her caste? There’s something here that is amiss. Teltumbde seems to have not even interviewed Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange— 200 pages later that seems to have dawned upon him and an appendix titled “Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange Speaks” has been added. This is a transcript of Bhotmange’s press conference on 6 November 2006. He is asked whether he saw the incident with his own eyes. “He takes a deep breath and sits quietly. He does not speak.” How much of the lynching did Bhaiyyalal see, if at all? There’s a version of Bhaiyyalal’s eyewitness account in the book. Bhaiyyalal had initially claimed to have seen everything, and then, in court, retracted, thus becoming a ‘hostile witness’ in his own case. These are the ambiguities that a book published two years later should address and resolve.
That is not all: it is not just the CBI that gave a clean chit to many of the accused. It is also Bhaiyyalal himself, who first named and then stopped naming a local Nationalist Congress Party leader; in fact, he now lives with another NCP leader. So much so that he is estranged from his wife’s cousin Siddharth Gajbhiye, the prime witness in the case. What happened in the intervening months? Did Bhaiyyalal become the victim of a larger politics? Sadly, the book sheds no light on any of this. Teltumbde seems not to have attended any court hearing or interviewed any witnesses.
The protests over Khairlanji were led by the people; Dalit leaders were shamed into following. A book that claims to be analytical could have benefited from contextualising Khairlanji within Maharashtra’s Dalit movement and Dalit electoral politics. Instead, Teltumbde is content with telling you the obvious: that Khairlanji broke the myth of a progressive Maharashtra of Phule and Ambedkar.
The book’s only value is in the chapter “Post-Khairlanji”, which tells you of the repression of the anti-Khairlanji protestors, of the humiliating harassment by the police of people such as Dr Milind Mane and Ashu Saxena that the mainstream press had mostly ignored.
The media’s prejudice is explained at length in another chapter. Teltumbde does point out that it is not only the caste-composition of newsrooms but also commercial considerations that come in the way of the media while covering Dalit issues. But that does not explain why the media ‘ignored’ the Khairlanji incident for nearly a month. He dismisses the idea that the remoteness of the village had something to do with this. But really, how many national dailies have reporters in villages? For such coverage the media depends on the language press, which took the side of the perpetrators in this case and thus prevented news from coming out. The single most instrumental role in the media finally covering Khairlanji was played by Kishore Tiwari of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti who emailed its fact-finding report to journalists. The VJAS’ role is underplayed. Teltumbde does not mention even once that the incident got wide attention after Sabrina Buckwalter’s story appeared in The Times of India. Where local Dalit activists have come together as a network and duly informed the press, several reports of Dalit atrocities from far and wide have appeared.
Chapters Five to Eight, which make up half the book, are not about Khairlanji at all. You are left wondering what thoughts like these are doing in a book on the lynching of a Dalit family:
It is an interesting paradox that while globalisation is euphorically spoken about as rendering nation-states increasingly irrelevant, compressing the world into a global village, security considerations about the same nation-states have created the paranoia of war against terror…
Teltumbde writes about whatever crosses his mind: neoliberalism, Naxalism, socio-economic zones and land-grab, Hindutva and Gujarat, Nandigram and police high-handedness, Salwa Judum. The book begins to read like an anthology of activist pamphlets. That is not to devalue activism, for activist literature in our times makes for a more authentic first draft of history than our newspapers. But one expects much more from a book.
The next chapter is an analysis of anti-caste laws and their implement-ation. This is not the first time such an exercise has been undertaken, and it seems like a space-filler in the absence of greater material on Khairlanji. The chapter, “The Political Economy of Atrocities,” tells you less about atrocities and more about the rise and consolidation of OBC politics, without co-relating those developments with the increase in Dalit atrocities. Teltumbde mentions how the post-1991 rural crisis hit Dalits, but not why most of the farmers committing suicide are OBCs. Another chapterclaims to be about “Exploding Myths”, but the sketchy arguments again leave you with more questions than answers. For instance, Teltumbde says that atrocities as public spectacles have increased, yet the tables he produces say that the incidence of arson, which is presumably both a kind of atrocity and a public spectacle, has declined. He does not even seek to explain the anomaly. Then, he disagrees with those who see caste atrocities as nothing but land disputes, thus ignoring the role of caste consciousness. He attributes this school of thought to those in the business of “marxist economic determinism” and yet, a few pages later, argues that future “Khairlanjis” can be prevented by “building of true class consciousness”! The argument is not elaborated. Teltumbde complains of increasing caste violence in Maharashtra by quoting a statistic that says that Maharashtra’s position amongst other states in cases of caste violence actually came down from number three in 1998-1999 to number ten in 2005. He complains about Mayawati diluting the Pevention of Atrocities Act in Uttar Pradesh (in 2007, she gave orders to her officers not to register too many cases under the Act), without acknowledging that if Dalit assertion under Mayawati had meant increasing numbers of FIRs, then scholars like Teltumbde would be quoting those to show how Dalit violence had actually increased under her rule. Heads you win, tails you lose.
The books leaves several other issues unresolved. Such as the question of who put up that banner across Vidarbha, with photographs of the almost naked dead bodies of the female victims, and a call to Dalit men to rise in protest?And what happened to Khairlanji after? What is Bhaiyyalal doing now? What about the court judgement in the case? The OBCs have been demonised through-out the book to the extent of giving the impression that the twice-born upper castes don’t commit atrocities. But Teltumbde fails to tell us anything about the Kunbi and Kalar castes of Khairlanji village, who lynched Bhaiyyalal’s family, beyond the fact of their being peasant castes? What, for example, is the history of their relations with Dalits? What are their political affiliations as a community? These are details that would significantly impact our understanding of the Khairlanji incident. Finally, the postscript mentions many atrocities that took place in Maharashtra after Khairlanji. Perhaps they could have been done justice by being written about in some detail. One wonders if the great post-Khairlanji Dalit uprising against caste violence had an impact on caste violence in the region thereafter? Did the possibility of another Dalit outburst affect the state’s response to later incidents?
All Teltumbde wants to talk about is Shudra oppressors, neoliberalism, Naxalism and the State—Khairlanji being a mere symbolic peg on which to hang all these ‘larger’ issues. Which is why you are surprised to read, on the second-last page:
Khairlanji soon got transformed into a symbol — a symbol of atrocity —shorn of reality. Dalits ceased to see any other caste crime beyond Khairlanji. This tendency to create symbols out of reality, and to discard reality thereafter, can be easily seen among dalits.
There’s another problematic symbol used here. The book is part of a series on atrocities called ‘HoloCaste’. This is not just a bad pun; it devalues both the Holocaust and violence against Dalits. It is time to use our own idioms, to tell our own stories, because the Dalit movement is still waiting for its own Abel Meeropol and Billie Holiday.