November 02, 2006

About the photographs

Just over a month ago, Priyanka, Roshan, Sudhir and their mother Surekha Bhotmange were lynched by a mob in a village called Kherlanji, not far from Nagpur.

I cannot begin to match the thoroughness of various others who have written about this atrocity. So for information about this let me direct you to Jaideep Hardikar and Sabrina Buckwalter at the Times; Shivam Vij has a post that links to several other places to find out more.

The brutality in Kherlanji took my breath away, as I imagine it did to many of you as well. What had this family done to deserve this ghastly end? What could possibly invite such cruelty? Nothing and nothing. Yet they were beaten, raped, mutilated and slaughtered by their neighbours in Kherlanji.

Yet I don't write this merely to tell you how appalled I was by this lynching. I write this because it dismays me that a substantial part of the outrage generated in the wake of Kherlanji is over ... whether a photograph of Priyanka, dead, should have been published. (For that matter, the rest of her family too).

Hold that thought while I tell you about Lige Daniels.

Put yourself in the town of Center, Texas on August 3 1920. I imagine you would have seen Lige. A small place, Center, then and now. That August day, if you were searching for Lige, you only needed to find the crowd. A large crowd, gathered to look up at Lige.

That's right, up. In a white shirt, torn pants and no shoes, his head tilted back sightlessly, this black teenager hung from the limb of a tree in Center.

Yes, Lige was lynched. Charged with killing an elderly white woman, he was in jail. About a thousand of Center's citizens smashed the door of the jail and took Lige to the tree where they lynched him. Then they strung him up.

Then they posed for photographs with his hanging body, and that photograph became a postcard that was sold and sent around the country as a souvenir of the gruesome event, and I offer you this description of that picture:
    Beneath him are a mass of white men, many looking at the camera and smiling. The camera catches one boy, possibly twelve or thirteen years old, looking up at the lynched sixteen year-old. His smile and glee at the scene are clear. It's probably the best fun he has had all that long, hot summer vacation from school.
Between 1882 and 1968, about 5000 such lynchings were recorded across the USA, and there are estimates that at least that many more went unrecorded. Lige Daniels was one of those thousands.

You may ask, how do I know about Lige, and this picture of him? Because of Without Sanctuary. (Warning: Extremely disturbing photographs). This is, as James Allen writes, "a photo document of proof, an unearthing of crimes, of collective mass murder, of mass memory graves excavated from the American conscience."

Indeed, very disturbing photographs. Yet it is with their publication that we are reminded of, and comprehend, the true horror of this slice of American history; of this very human history. Of the horrible things we do to each other. Indeed, of how some of us even celebrate the horror by sending postcard souvenirs of it.

Whether in the US or in Kherlanji, looking at the photographs may be the only way we will understand the reality of these lynchings. (Indeed, I look forward to such a book about Indian lynchings).

We owe it to Priyanka, Roshan, Sudhir and Surekha -- for that matter, Lige Daniels too -- to understand.


(Last year, I wrote twice about one of those 5000 recorded lynchings in the US: The conspiracy angle and A tolerable load, really).


On a related note:

Right after this went up, someone (you know who you are) sent me email saying this comment about Kherlanji has appeared somewhere:
    The best way to assure action is for the 48 Dalit MLAs (out of a house of 288) and 8 Dalit MPs (out of 48) to take up this case. Isn't this why we have reserved constituencies? How about stalling parliament proceedings until the administration assures action? Isn't this the reason why Dr Ambedkar wanted reserved political representation for Dalits? If they keep quiet, then his other fear, that only a separate electorate will do for Dalits, will come true.
I am befuddled by this, so befuddled that I have no intention of ferreting where in cyberspace it is from (so if you want to do so, please go ahead).

Where does one start, to answer this?

I mean, are these murders only to do with Dalits? Did Ambedkar agitate for "reserved political representation for Dalits" only so that those particular representatives must focus only on particular issues which need not concern the rest of us? If my neighbour is murdered, should I discern his caste, and then assume that the MLAs of that particular caste -- and only those MLAs -- should "take up" the case? Is that the "best way to assure action" against the murderers?


Anonymous said...

About the role of Dalit MLAs and MPs, the fact is that the case began to be taken seriously by the Maharshtra govt and police only after dalit politicians such as Prakash Ambedkar and Ramdas Athavale raised their voices, visited Kherlanji etc. An upper caste BJP MLA is indeed being accused of trying to save some of the accused.

anantha said...

Your post carefully steps around the muddy pothole to ask a VERY relevant question, but from an uninformed (in certain ways) bystanders view, I think this whole issue has come up into focus only because of the Dalit angle. I am not trying to bring down the cause, but the truth of the matter seems to be that.
I base my opinion on the evidence provided by the first line of the blog posting in question.
So that opinion asking those legislators to take it up sounds valid to me, because the cause celebre, or the way it started, seems to call for it.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Shivam, the point was not whether Dalit politicians have taken up the issue or not, the point is whether this is an issue that only Dalit politicians (and Dalits in general) should be interested in -- as that comment implies.

For argument's sake, let's say Jyotiraditya Scindia took an interest in the case and visited Kherlanji etc. Would there not have been some action taken if he made a fuss as Prakash Ambedkar and Athavale have done?

Apart from that, should such an act of terror not concern the rest of us? That's the point.

Anantha, I'm missing something. You're saying that because this one post on this matter mentions the word "dalit" in the first line, it therefore calls for only Dalit politicians to take up the case?

Anonymous said...

Dilip, I see that point of yours, of course

Anonymous said...


I agree with your point on importance of photographs in exposing cruelty.

But, I think you are being unfairly critical of the said blogger. What he meant was that Dalit MLA/MPS should play a more proactive role in securing justice for the victims.

Ideal will be if the politicians of all hues and color raise this issue. But then most (if not all) upper caste MLAs/MPs won't do it. As Shivam mentioned, some of them are busy trying to save the skin of the perpetrators.

I don't think it is wrong if dalit politicians are expected to be more sensitive towards dalit issues.

anantha said...

Dilip: No. I did not say that. My quote was "I think this whole issue has come up into focus only because of the Dalit angle". Otherwise it would go down as just another multiple murder. I just used that post as an example. What I am saying is that if it was not for activists, this would have ended up as just another multiple murder case. But since the activists have taken it up now, its good if the legislators did their bit. Never mind that it had to be done with every case. Let them do it with at least this one....

Dilip D'Souza said...

No. I did not say that.

Anantha, forgive me for trying to pin this down for just a sec. You said: "I base my opinion on the evidence provided by the first line of the blog posting in question. So that opinion asking those legislators to take it up sounds valid to me, because the cause celebre, or the way it started, seems to call for it."

i.e. "The first line of the post brings in the dalit angle (because of the mention of the word "dalit"), and because that was the way the post started, the post seems to call for those (dalit) legislators to take it up."

This seems to me a fair rewording of what you said. If so, I am unable to understand the connection.

In other respects, yes, the legislators should take this case up. But I don't believe this is a case for only Dalit legislators to take up, which is what that comment implies.

Anoop, I hope this answers part of what you're saying. I don't see why we should not expect upper caste MLAs/MPs to take this up, and indeed we should demand it. That comment implies that we should only demand that dalit politicians take it up. Not all upper caste MLAs/MPs are interested only in saving the perpetrators.

anantha said...

Dilip: That was fair. Would you agree that this case was much more deserving than a lot other caste based issues that legislators take up? My argument is that this is similar to the one eyed man being the king of the land of the blind people. But that brings us to a whole different story and a whole different argument and I have grown to understand/agree that this is not the time for tangential arguments. I shall wait to hear something positive done about the whole thing.

Anonymous said...

That comment you criticise, Dilip, does sound like saying, "What the hell are the Dalit MPs doing?" Coming from a Dalit, there would be nothing wrong with that comment. Dalits regularly put pressure on Dalit legislators for various things: it was due to such pressure from a marvelloys guy in Andhra Pradesh, Bezwada Wilson, that manual scavenging got banned in, I think, 1993. Read about it in Gita Ramaswamy's book India Stinking.

But coming from a non-Dalit, the same comment appears problematic, even to me.

Sidhusaaheb said...

I can see your point about publishing a photograph helping to make people realise the gravity of the tragedy and the public opinion thus mobilised leading to more effective action by the executive branch of government and perhaps even the legislature.

However, I wonder if the contention that the tinder box of a society that we live in could be provoked into more caste-based violence, perhaps even rioting, on account of "inflamed passions" caused by such visual stimuli, has any merit and hence whether the need for "exercising restraint" while reporting such incidents has any either.

Anonymous said...


Why are you befuddled by that comment ? It is the surest and fastest way to ensure justice for the Dalits, is it not ?. I am as shocked as anyone else by what happened in that massacre. Nothing works like political pressure in India. I have read most of Ambedkars works, and many of his critics' too - this scenario was anticipated by him. He was such a genius that he even anticipated that if Dalit legislators represented non-Dalits, they would not be effective in handling Dalit specific issues. That is why he advocated a separate electorate for them.

I will not respond to your other commenter where he implies that it is not the "message that matters but the messenger". It is a dangerous statement that strikes at the foundations of civilized society. It is only a short step away from, "it is not the judgement that matters but who delivers it". Sorry, I dont play ball in that park.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Should have known, after visiting a certain page ...

It is the surest and fastest way to ensure justice for the Dalits, is it not ?

If the surest and fastest way to ensure justice for Dalits is to get Dalit MPs/MLAs to "take up" the matter, something is seriously amiss with the way we see justice in the first place. And if this is the road we are going to travel, I don't believe we will ever get justice.

When Sikhs were massacred in 1984, is it only Sikh MPs/MLAs who should have "taken up" the case? Would they have ensured justice faster than the 22 years that have passed without any justice?

What happened to the Bhotmange family, to the Sikhs, etc, is an assault on all of us. It's up to all of us to demand justice. It's because we see it as a "Dalit" or a "Sikh" issue that justice fails. This is why I mentioned Scindia somewhere up above.

Anonymous said...

Should have known, after visiting a certain page

What does that mean ?

I never claimed, not will ever claim, that others should not fight for Dalits. I agree everyone of us should fight for them. So, there is no disagreement here. No strawmen please.

Sikhs are not Dalits. Neither are Yadavs, Gouds, Brahmins, or Christians. Dalits are uniquely protected by our constitution due to their vulnerable position in society. This is why there must be a minimum of 119 MPs must be Dalits in any Lok Sabha. No other community has this requirement (not sikhs, not christians, not hindus).

There are many ways to go about getting justice to the Bhotmange family. (1) You can trust the law to take its own course - but that is not desirable in hate crimes like these due to the time lapse and hostile witnesses. (2) You can apply political pressure via the lobby that is created mainly for this purpose and fast track this case. The MPs can appeal for a specific course of action such as setting up a special court for this crime and or compensation and protection for the survivor.

Which one do you prefer ?

Dilip D'Souza said...

No strawmen. Original quote was: "The best way to assure action is for the 48 Dalit MLAs and 8 Dalit MPs to take up this case."

To repeat: to me, the way to assure inaction is to wait for Dalit reps to take action only because this is apparently a "Dalit" issue.

Action will happen when all of us see such atrocities as an assault on our own society, regardless of the caste of the dead; and then demand action.

That's the course of action I prefer. Mainly because it's the only course that makes any sense to me.

Anonymous said...

This is not apparently a Dalit issue. This is most definitely a Dalit issue, if there ever was one.

I agree that all of us have to get involved. However, that is too idealistic to address the specific case on the ground practically. We all should work towards that, but we aint there yet for Kherlanji.

Long term plans and short term action can co-exist. I just raised the importance of a short term plan of action. There is something called a constituency and there are people who are accountable.

Everyone does not react to every incident equally. Humans are by nature selfish and are attached to interests in their own vicinity (be it their industry or religion or community). No one in the south gave a hoot about Priyanka Matoo or Jessica Lal. It is a credit to their family and friends who used the media to get attention. They are lucky in the sense that they had leverage in the media to do what they did.

The Dalits too should use their awesome power in the legislature to ensure punishment to the perpetrators of this crime.

I am amazed folks disagree with this line of action. Perhaps it is the messenger... oh well!

Dilip D'Souza said...

There is something called a constituency and there are people who are accountable.

The people who are accountable are the police concerned, the elected reps of the area, etc. In the larger sense that the rest of us who find this abhorrent can ask questions, other elected reps are accountable too.

Whether these police/reps are Dalit or not is immaterial.

Everyone does not react to every incident equally.

No doubt. Applying the same reasoning, I don't see why a Dalit rep should react to this incident as much or as little as I have just because he is Dalit. You mention people in the south didn't give a hoot about Mattoo/Lall: in exactly the same way, why should you expect a Dalit rep from the south, let's say, to give a hoot about this?

Perhaps it is the messenger.

Why would it be? I don't even know who you are, apart from the fact that I don't even know if you're the same guy as the previous "rc" because this one has used a blogger id but that one didn't.

One last time: if I'm exercised about this Bhotmange atrocity, I will raise a fuss in every way I can. Choosing to locate and then appeal only to Dalit reps is, I believe, a sure way to ensure no action.

Finally, it's Priyadarshini Mattoo and Priyanka Bhotmange.