The recent verdict of the Bombay High Court in the Khairlanji massacre case convicting all the accused to life imprisonment could have been a welcome one and gone a long way in restoring ordinary people's faith in the country's justice system and its rule of law framework. It could have marked a historic juncture in the life of the nation announcing that the rule of law has firmly established itself despite all the inadequacies the country's justice system demonstrates both in crime investigation and in trial. It could have ensured that Dalits and the other underprivileged groups will face no discrimination at least within the judicial system.
For these reasons, the verdict was long awaited. And in its final coming, it proved highly inadequate and farcical, rightfully outraging the civil society. The outrage, though, is highly misplaced. The failure of justice is not rooted in the commuting of the death sentence of six convicts into life terms for 25 years, as capital punishment is unacceptable in any civilized society. It is indeed painful to see some of the most genuine civil society members decrying the commuting and demanding death sentence for the accused.
Retributive justice is no justice and no studies have confirmed any 'deterrence effect' of capital punishment. Rather any statics bears out the fact that it is used mostly against the poorest and the weakest sections of the society. In that it emerges as an official version of mob-lynching with the poorest of the Indian society often being the worst victims.
For the same reason, the death sentence announced by the session's court in this case was no victory for social justice. The judge has held the case as 'revenge murder' and citing the same, had refused to invoke the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The judge, seemingly, was convinced by the prosecution's poor case augmented by shoddy investigation with arguments to pass off the case as one of mere revenge killing.
The travesty of justice lies here. The 2006 massacre was not just another among 32481 reported cases of murder tucked in the pages of the statistical records of the National Crime Records Bureau. Nor was it just one of 19348 reported cases of rape (though the charges of rape were not invoked by the court). The gravity of the case did not lie in its being a gory instance of a mob bludgeoning a full family to death while also raping women and mutilating their bodies.
It was a massacre to uphold the feudal values in a modern, democratic India. The perpetrators had not massacred the family in a fit of rage. Their anger was not momentary. It did not emanate from any personal enmity. The family had not done anything to provoke or to tick them off. The only 'crime' the Bhotmanges had committed was making efforts to escape the low social status ascribed to their earlier untouchable caste. The fact that they were trying to come out of the dehumanised existence Dalits have been condemned to for centuries was a provocation enough for the killers belonging to the dominant castes.
That the prosecution tried its best to destroy the evidences concerning caste based atrocities and did not press the PoA Act shows the systematic and institutionalised nature of casteism. Further, the fact that the massacre took place in full public view and yet there was no opposition to the killings shows how deeply ingrained the ideology of caste is.
Further not bringing these spectators, complicit in the crime by acts of omission at least if not commission, to books show how state institutions tolerate caste-based atrocities or actually are conduit with them. The case proves that it is in fact the pre-modern, barbaric and regressive social structure of caste that rules under the democratic facade of the Indian nation and that the idea of modernity is a mere superimposition upon this primitive mode of social organisation. It reminds us that Indians are decades, if not centuries, away from achieving the goals we had set for ourselves on the night we made a tryst with destiny, the goal of becoming a sovereign, secular, socialist and democratic republic.
In this sense, Khairlanji is a negation of the very idea of India and its democracy. It is an assault on the basic principles the country is based upon. It shows what kind of a decayed and deficient democracy we have evolved into.
Unfortunately, Khairlanji is no isolated case of some rogue elements in Indian society going insane. Rather it is just one among many like Jhajjar, Haryana where five Dalits were lynched on the suspicion of trading in cows to Patan, Gujrat where a Dalit girl was gang raped and put into submission in the teacher's training school.
But then, till now the response of the Indian state and its civil society too has remained the same. Of getting outraged, making lot of noises and then forgetting the issue till another such gory incident occurs. And precisely because of that, Khairlanji should shake us out of the deep slumber and make us introspect, and act, to put an immediate end to caste based atrocities. By dealing not only with the perpetrators, but also silent spectators approving the incident, cracking down on illegal institutions like Khap panchayats legitimising caste. That would serve as a bigger deterrence than death sentence, as the caste communities will get to know that all of them would be punished and not only the 'heroes' carrying out their dictats!
Killing the demon of caste was the primary wish and clarion call of Dr BabaSaheb Ambedkar, the father of our Constitution, lest we forget.
Avinash Pandey alias Samar is a research scholar from India, currently stationed in Hong Kong at the Asian Human Rights Commission. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article has been distributed by the Asian Human Rights Commission.