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February 04, 2016

From Khairlanji To Hyderabad: What after the Outrage?

[Published in the Shillong Times]
Rohith Vemula’s suicide will not be just another suicide in the statistical records of the National Crime Records Bureau. It will not be so in the same way the 2006 massacre in Khairlanji was not. These two cases separated by almost a decade, are far more than a statistic of ordinary crime, such as that committed in a fit of rage or planned in cold blood; they are a comment on the very body politic of the republic.

They expose the lies that the Republic has repeated so many times that it has started believing in them. They expose the myth that India has a functioning – even if inadequate – justice system, capable of delivering what it promises. They betray the fact that all Indians are not equal in front of the law, definitely not the ones condemned to live at the bottom rungs of the social hierarchy created by the caste system. They expose the celebrated justice system for needing public outrage to serve justice, even in cases that catch the public eye, and leave no doubt about the fates of those cases that do not.

In Khairlanji, a mob of fellow villagers bludgeoned an entire family to death, while also allegedly raping women and mutilating their bodies. These acts were committed due to the victims doing well despite being Dalits. The massacre led to outrage, albeit one contained largely in Maharashtra, where such protests had not been seen in decades. It forced the State to stand up, get its act together, and get the perpetrators convicted in 2010.

Anyone little more aware of the same would, however, see the travesty of justice even in the welcome but grossly inadequate Khairlanji case verdict, wherein the judge had refused to invoke the provisions of Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

The prosecution's poor arguments and the shoddy investigation helped the judge treat the case as one involving mere “revenge killing” and not caste-based atrocity. The judge did not bother to ask the question: for what did the killers seek revenge? The decision of not invoking the provision of the SC/ST Act was not oversight. It shows the systematic and institutionalised nature of casteism that keeps denying the linkage between caste and crime.

Rohith Vemula’s case is similar. He had excelled in life and reached one of the premier educational institutions of the country, despite “the fatal accident of his birth” in the Dalit community. That was reason enough for casteist forces in the system to harass him to death.

The only thing different in his case is the nationwide outrage it caused. Arriving a decade after Khairlanji, the sense of anger was palpable; it took no time to mobilize people to take to the streets. The system would not have expected it; in fact, many in the social justice movement themselves might have been surprised by the ferocity of the protests, the only thing heartening in this sordid saga.
In the midst of all the genuine and required outrage, however, basic questions remains un-asked forget about being answered.

Why should a rule of law based justice system need outrage to deliver justice? What about most of those on the margins who will not be able to garner an outrage for their predicament?

Vemula’s suicide was not the first of a Dalit student in a university. Many before Vemula have been harassed enough for being Dalits to take the same extreme step; documentaries and media reports have counted 18 such suicides between 2007 and 2011.

Yes, they counted. There was a hint of outrage back then too. And then the trail goes cold. Not many know what happened in those cases. Not many know if any of the perpetrators got punished, say, for instance, in the case of Jaspreet Singh.
The uproar over his suicide, after getting repeatedly failed by his head of department in Chandigarh Medical College,followed by his sister’s suicide, because of denial of justice to her brother, had made the National Commission of Scheduled Castes (NCSC) intervene.

The Commission later found that Singh had, in fact, passed his examination. The Commission then got the police to file an FIR under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The police had refused to file one despite Jaspreet naming the Professor in his suicide note.

However, try finding what happened afterwards and you may just hit another wall of the labyrinth that is India’s justice system.

Rohith’s suicide-murder was preceded by many such suicide-murders; and the Khairlanji massacre was followed by many such massacres.

For instance, in the same state of Maharashtra, three Dalit girls were raped and murdered in Bhandara District in February 2014. And, three members of a Dalit family in Ahmednagar were brutally murdered later in that year. In the case of the minor girls, the police even got the rape case – established by the autopsy – changed to “accidental drowning”, with a claim that the autopsy was carried out hurriedly.

One must note here that Maharashtra is not an exceptionally bad place for being a Dalit. In fact, the curse of caste-based atrocities leaves no Indian state unaffected; one can keep counting cases after cases in every single of them.

So what happens to justice in these cases, the ones that get no outrage? Do they get justice too?

No, as is exemplified by recent suicide of a 21-year-old gang-rape victim from the Bhilai Town of Chhattisgarh. The girl, who was repeatedly raped by two constables and a doctor, killed herself on January 28 this year.

Her suicide note, while naming her perpetrators, indicts the justice system too; she blamed her lawyer and the judge of “harassment”. She noted how the judge would not turn up on the dates her case was to be heard, and shift it to another date, and force her to come to the court again and again in acts of futility. She described how the lawyer took her signature on blank stamp papers on the pretext that the judge is sold out. “I have lost my faith in justice now and that is why I am committing suicide” is what she wrote.

Isn’t the ordeal she faced inside the labyrinths of the justice system typical? Do powerful people not use the tactics of getting hearings cancelled, all the time? Are not Indian courts a place, which end up harassing the rape victims, with repeated hearings amidst probing eyes and dirty taunts that shame the victims and not the perpetrators? Do poor people stand a chance of getting justice without starving to death with cases dragging on endlessly?

The outrage way to justice can help in one case, or in a few cases, at best. India has over 3 crore cases pending. What India needs is a radical restructuring of its justice institutions to operate within the framework of the rule of law in practice and deliver justice and not occasional solace.

A question faces us. What after the fatigue in the Rohith Vemula protests sets in or after some other case worthy of popular outrage takes centre stage?

Should we not be fighting for building structures right from within universities to take on such caste based discriminations and punish the perpetrators?

Put another way, we must ask ourselves if justice to Rohith Vemula would ensure an end to caste-based atrocities on campuses. If it will not, then we need to fight on another front too: the front of re-engineering the delinquent criminal justice system in India.
[This is an AHRC Article, also published in Counter Currents.]

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