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Tsundur Massacre: Journey for justice seems to go longer

 

Picture Source: Dalit Adivasi Bahujan Minority Students Association (DABMSA)

 

Last updated Wednesday July 06, 2016

  Tsundur, Dalit Massacre, Caste Prejudice, India, Justice  
 
While tracking the verdicts in cases of dalit atrocities in India Subhash Gatade comes across several cases where justice obtained at one court is denied at a higher court. Latest verdict in case of the Tsundur Massacre of 1991 in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh is another evidence of such denial.  
Subhash Gatade  
 

Tsundur, Guntur, Andhra Pradesh (AP), which had made headlines way back in 1991 after eight dalit members were lynched by a 400 strong armed Reddy (a community) mob, is again in the news. The recent judgment of the AP High Court has acquitted all the accused involved in the case, overturning the judgments of the Special Courts, for ‘want of evidence’.

As rightly noted by Human Rights Forum (HRF) the judgment is ‘brazen injustice’ and is ‘reflective of upper caste anti-dalit bias’ and ‘portrays insensitivity in the judiciary to an inhuman caste atrocity.’

It is expected that the state does not waste time in moving the Supreme Court to get this retrograde judgment overturned and render justice to the families of dalits.

 

What is more disturbing and shocking is the fact that when the Special Court formed to deliberate on the case had finally given its verdict seven years back, it was considered ‘historic’ in very many ways.

The conviction of the perpetrators – twenty one of the accused were life imprisonment and 35 of the accused asked to serve one year rigorous imprisonment – was considered a milestone in the ongoing movement for dalit emancipation.

The judgment by the special court had demonstrated the immense possibilities inherent in the SC and ST Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989), which remain on paper only. As rightly noted, it was the first time in the nearly twenty year old trajectory of this act that special courts had to be set up at the scene of offence.

It is noteworthy that Dalits in Tsundur were so united that they neither accepted any summons from the courts nor they ever went to court which was situated at a distant place from the village. They demanded in unison that the courts should come to them and the government had to concede to their demand and set up special courts in a school premises.

They had also demanded that they be provided with a Public Prosecutor and a judge who has a positive track record while dealing with cases of dalit atrocities. After lot of dilly-dallying the government had complied with this demand also.

It has been normal in all such cases of dalit atrocities that, as time passes, people including victims and their families loose interest in continuing their fight for justice. They come under pressure or are coerced to change their statement in the courts etc. The significance of the Tsundur struggle was that the persons leading the campaign were successful in keeping the people mobilised all the years. Tsundur became a rallying point for different left and democratic forces in the state and was harbinger of a new turn in the left politics by pressurising to come to a resolution to take up the issues of caste oppression.

D Dhanraj was a crucial witness to the whole case. He did not falter for a moment despite tremendous pressure by the powerful Reddys. One could see that Tsundur, the small village in Guntur, had created many such ‘unsung heroes’ – ordinary looking people who faced heavy odds to get justice.

Merukonda Subbarao, a fifty six year old daily wage-worker, who had served as the first president of the ‘Tsundur Victims Association’ was another such ‘hero’ who identified and named forty of the accused, of the one hundred and eighty three listed, standing in the court room. It was clear that the whole incident was etched in his memory so strongly that he did not falter while accepting the judges requests to repeat the identification.

And one can never forget the role of Martyr Anil Kumar, a young man in his twenties who was in the forefront of the struggle, to make sure that the perpetrators of the massacre are punished without delay. Anil was killed in a police firing during one of those struggles.

As is clear in every other atrocity against the dalits, the Reddys, who have dominated the state politics since independence, tried with all their might to be allowed to go scot free. Using their contacts in the bureaucracy, police administration and even judiciary, they tried to delay the process of justice as long as they could do it.

Attempts were made to buy or coerce the dalits in very many ways and the state also tried to play second fiddle to the Reddys. They felt they could calm down the yearning for justice by extending largesse to the dalits, giving jobs to a few of them and awarding compensation to the victims’ families. But dalits in Tsundur wanted nothing less than justice by pronouncing severe punishment for the perpetrators. Unitedly they raised a slogan ‘Justice not Welfare’. It was worth emphasising that with their continued resistance they could make Tsundur a key issue in the state politics.

A brief recap of the events in this ‘historic case’ tells us that, to attack the dalits, the upper caste (namely the Reddy) used the pretext of alleged harassment of a Reddy girl by a dalit youth in a cinema hall. The planned nature of the attack was evident also from the fact that within no time a mob of few hundred Reddys wielding traditional weapons (and few of them carrying modern firearms) descended on the dalit hamlet and unleashed their fury against the innocents. Sensing an imminent attack, most of the men folk had already left the village. Once the marauders came to know of this they literally chased the dalits on the road adjoining the Tungabhadra canal and lynched them one by one.

Looking back it is clear that the planned attack against the dalits was another futile attempt by the Reddys to reassert their age-old authority which had seen fissures with the growing influence of dalits. The changed atmosphere in the village was for everyone to see. Not only many of the dalit boys and girls had benefitted from the affirmative action programmes in education, a few among them had even surpassed the Reddys in many aspects. Several dalits of the village were working with Indian Railways. Overall situation was such that the Dalits had refused to follow the medieval dictates reserved for them under the prejudice of Varna system.

All that is past now. The judgment of the high court which has overturned the verdict of the Special Courts reminds us that the journey to achieve justice is going to be a long one.

Any cursory glance at the cases of mass crimes against dalits tells us that the high court judgement is no exception rather it is the norm.

It was only last year, July 2013, that Patna High Court acquitted nine out of 10 accused in the Miyapur massacre for ‘lack of evidence,’ overturning a lower court order. The Aurangabad Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC and ST) special court judge, Krishna Kant Tripathi, had awarded life imprisonment to 10 persons on September 20, 2007. The Miyapur massacre was a major carnage in which the Ranvir Sena killed 32 people, mostly Dalits, supposedly to avenge an earlier Naxal attack in Senari village of Jehanabad. A mob of 400-500 Sena people had entered the village and began firing at the villagers, on 16th June 2000.

The same year one witnessed Patna High Court overturning another judgment by the lower court where 11 accused involved in the killing of ten CPI (ML) activists, in November 1998, had been convicted. One had witnessed similar reversals in the Bathani Tola massacre where 23 were accused, and Laxmanpur Bathe massacre that saw 58 deaths. In all the above cases Ranveer Sena was said to be involved but was allowed to go ‘scot free’.

No doubt that the lower courts had convicted the accused – which the high court later reversed – but a close reading of the cases would make it clear that loopholes were deliberately left which could facilitate the accused. E.g., the police had pronounced Ranvir Sena supremo Brahmeshwar Singh “Mukhiya,” the prime accused, an “absconder”. It is a different matter that this dangerous criminal was languishing in Ara jail since 2002. It may be added here that when Nitish Kumar assumed reins of power in 2004, one of the first thing he did was to disband Justice Amir Das Commission when it was nearly ready with its report. This commission was appointed in the immediate aftermath of the Bathe massacre and had gone into great details about the political patronage, which Ranvir Sena received, from different mainstream political establishments.

It is possible that all these details where the state and its different organs come out in rather unflattering terms could be brushed aside as a story repeated ad nauseam.

All the talk of dalit atrocities could be presented as another extension of the way in which ‘state in the third world’ unfolds itself. But the key point worth emphasising is that caste atrocities, much like gender oppression or racial atrocities, have a specificity which transcends the binary of ‘state as perpetrator’ and ‘people as victims’. In fact they implicate the partisan role played by the people themselves.

The ‘Report on Prevention of Atrocities against SCs,’ prepared by NHRC (2004), presents details of the way in which the civil society presents itself. Here civil society itself becomes a distinct beneficiary of caste based order and helps perpetuate the existing unequal social reactions and frustrates attempts to democratize the society because through the customary arrangements the dominant classes are assured of social control over people who can continue to abide by their commands without any protest.

Of course the uncivil nature of the civil society presents before us a unique challenge where the need then becomes to rise above a mere discourse on civil and constitutional rights and address the failure of the largest democracy of the world to go beyond mere form. We have to appreciate that it concerns the greater hiatus that exists between constitutional principles and practice and corresponding ethical ones based on a diametrically opposed ideal.

Everyone has to see that under the purity and pollution based paradigm, which is the cornerstone of our caste system, inequality receives not only legitimisation but sanctification as well. As inequality is accepted both in theory and practice, a legal constitution has no bearing on the ethical foundation of caste-based societies. In fact Dr Ambedkar, the legendary leader of the oppressed, had this very reality in his mind when he emphasised the difference between what he called ‘political democracy’ and ’social democracy’, and the difference between ‘one person having one vote’ and ‘one person having one value’.

To conclude, one can go on enumerating cases of dalit oppression and explain the manner in which perpetrators of atrocities against dalits are ‘saved’ judicially.

One can perhaps make a beginning with the first massacre of dalits, in 1969, in independent India when 42 dalits – mostly children and women – were burnt alive by a gang of marauders belonging to the local upper castes in Kizzhevanamani of Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. Dalits and other exploited people in that area of Thanjavur had launched an agitation under the leadership of Communist Party on the issue of wages which had infuriated the dominant caste people.

Here also the judgment by the Court was disturbing. The courts had acquitted all the accused with the specious argument that ‘it appears unbelievable that all these members of the upper caste’ would have gone walking to the dalit hamlet/basti.’

It is said that shadows of Kizzhevanamani have continuously hovered around atrocities against dalits and adivasis in post independent India. Question arises how long it is going to continue?

[Subhash Gatade is a New Socialist Initiative (NSI) activist. He is also the author of "Godse's Children: Hindutva Terror in India," and "The Saffron Condition: The Politics of Repression and Exclusion in Neoliberal India."]

 
 
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