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Tsundur Massacre: Normalising Injustice the Judicial Way

Subhash Gatade

Tsundur, Guntur, A.P. which had made headlines way back in 1991 when eight dalits were lynched by a 400 strong armed mob of Reddys is again in the news. The recent judgment of the A.P high court has overturned the judgment of the Special courts and has acquitted all the accused involved in the case 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 ‘betrays 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 a ‘historic’ in very many ways. The conviction of the perpetrators – twenty one of the accused were life imprisonment and 35 of the accused were asked to serve one year rigorous imprisonment – was considered a significant milestone in the ongoing dalit emancipation movement.

II

The judgment by the special court had demonstrated the immense possibilities inherent in the SC and ST Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989) which till date remain on paper. 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 some 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 into changing their statement in the courts etc. The significance of the Tsundur struggle was that the people leading the campaign were successful in keeping the people mobilised all these years. Tsundur became a rallying point for different left and democratic forces in the state and it was harbinger of a new turn in the left politics also which resolved to take up the issue of caste oppression.

III

D Dhanraj was a crucial witness to the whole case. He did not falter for a moment despite tremendous pressure brought upon him 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 so that they 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 standing in the court room, from among the one hundred and eighty three accused. It was clear that the whole incident was etched in his memory so strongly that he did not falter despite the judges requests to repeat the identification. And who can forget Martyr Anil Kumar, a young man in his twenties who was in the forefront of the struggle so 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 so that they are allowed to go scot free. Utilising their contacts in the Judiciary, bureaucracy or police administration 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 Reddy’s. It felt that by distributing largesse to the dalits, giving jobs to few of them, awarding compensation to the victims’ families they could calm down their yearning for justice. But dalits in Tsundur wanted nothing less than severe punishment for the perpetrators.Unitedly they raised a slogan ‘Justice not Welfare’. It was worth emphasising that with their continued resistance they were able to make Tsundur a key issue in state politics.

IV

A brief recap of the events in this ‘historic case’ tells us that the upper caste (namely the Reddys’ ) used the pretext of of alleged harassment of a Reddy girl by a dalit youth in a cinema hall to attack the dalits. The planned nature of the attack was evident also from the fact that within no time a few hundred strong mob of Reddys wielding traditional weapons (and few of them carrying modern firearms) descended on the dalit hamlet and unleashed their fury against the innocents. In fact, sensing an imminent attack, most of the menfolk 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 preplanned attack against the dalits was another futile attempt by the Reddys to reassert their age-old authority which had seen fissures with the growing assertion of dalits. The changed atmosphere in the village was for everyone to see. Not only many of the dalits boys and girls had benefitted from the affirmative action programmes in education, a few among them had even surpassed the Reddys in many respects. Many of the dalits from the village were working with Indian Railways. Overall the situation was such that the Dalits had refused to follow the medieval dictats reserved for them under the Varna system.

V

All that is passe 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 that Patna highcourt acquitted nine out of 10 accused in the Miyapur massacre for ‘lack of evidence,’ overturning a lower court’s order. (July 2013) The Aurangabad Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC and ST) special court judge, Krishna Kant Tripathi, had earlier 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 400-500 people had entered the village and began firing at the villagers. (16 th June 2000).

The same year one witnessed Patna high-court overturning another judgment by the lower court where 11 accused involved in the killings of ten activists of CPI (ML) in November 1998 had been convicted. One had witnessed similar reversals in the Bathani Tola massacre – which involved 23 accused – and Laxmanpur Bathe massacre – which saw 58 deaths. In all the above cases Ranveer Sena was said to be involved but it 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 formations.

VI

It is possible that all this details where the state and its different organs comes 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 rigths 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 as well as sanctification. 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 minds, when he emphasised the difference between what he called ‘political democracy’ and ’social democracy’, the difference between ‘one person having one vote’ and ‘one person having one value’.

VII

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.

Protest against the judgement by Dalit Adivasi Bahujan Minority Students Association
Perhaps one can make a beginning with the first massacre of dalits in independent India when 42 dalits – mainly children and women – were burnt alive by a gang of marauders belonging to the local upper castes (1969) in Kizzhevanamani, 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 question of wages which had infuriated the dominant caste people.

Here also the judgment by the Courts was disturbing to say the least. 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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