The Politics of Punishment: Media Framing and the Death Penalty in Crimes Against Dalits

The Politics of Punishment | Media Framing and the Death Penalty in Crimes Against Dalits| | Sabrina Buckwalter| | | When Ramdas Athavale, Republican Party of India (Athavale), announced that the death penalty verdict in the Khairlanji ruling (an infamous case of the rape and murder of a dalit family in 2006) was the first time such a sentence had been given in a caste crime, it was echoed by other activists, repeated by journalists and hailed as the coming of a new era in which the courts were finally acknowledging these crimes with serious punishment.

The lone survivor of the massacre, Bhaiyallal Bhotmange, was pictured in newspapers with perhaps the first sign of a half smile anyone had seen from him in years, making peace signs with both his hands, surrounded by his group of supporters, all dressed in white. The significance of the ruling was the subject of editorials and became the anchor in communication about the case. The special public prosecutor in the case, Ujjwal Nikam had touted the sentencing as historic and remarked that, “This is a key judgment because it sends a very strong message that brutality, especially to low castes, will be dealt with very strictly.

A supreme court judge was even overheard observing the seeming trend in capital punishment for caste atrocities. It turns out though that Khairlanji was the third case in which a crime committed against dalits was met with death penalty sentencing. No one who commented publicly on the ruling though had yet to hear of those cases perhaps because when the massacres happened over 15 years prior, they didn’t receive the kind of media coverage the Khairlanji massacre garnered.

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Less than two years later after the Khairlanji ruling, two more cases of death penalty sentencing in caste crimes were handed down, bringing the total of capital punishment cases to five. That meant that 80 percent of the death penalty sentencing in caste crimes was handed out within 17 months of each other. Most noteworthy is that those last two sentences were delivered even closer together, within just over a month of each other. Come

June 15, the Indian Supreme Court’s decision on whether or not to stay the death sentence conviction in the Khairlanji case will be announced which could carry even more significance in the trend of capital punishment in caste crimes. With the historical absence of justice and punishment for crimes against dalits in India, how is it that the death penalty was a punishment never handed out in such cases just seven years ago, but today is a sentence that’s been awarded in five separate cases of caste atrocities?

Through looking at another scholarly theory that argues the media framing of a particular issue shifts public opinion which in turn influences public policy and legal decisions, I make a connection to the Indian media’s recent portrayal of caste crimes and growing coverage of death sentencing to suggest an increasing support and subsequent rise in death penalty sentencing for crimes against dalits.

In this paper, I will highlight the media coverage of the Khairlanji massacre and the Ranvir Sena dalit attacks in Bihar, illustrating a connection between the increased attention to caste crimes that preceded the rise of death penalty sentences. In the work done by three scholars at the University of Pennsylvania, the decreasing support for the death penalty in the U. S. is explained by media framing, specifically an “innocence frame” that has highlighted the wrongful conviction of people sentenced to death who were later found to be innocent.

When various innocence projects at universities began discovering innocent people on death row, after DNA technology was proving innocence and when movies like “The Green Mile” depicted stories of innocent people sentenced to death, the media coverage of capital punishment began shifting from being portrayed as retribution for heinous crimes to it being the cause of wrongful death for innocent people. Capital punishment was ceasing to be a subject found in the context of justice-seeking and instead became an issue that appeared in the context of wrongful death.

The scholars took over 50 years worth of New York Times indexed articles that mentioned capital punishment and coded each one for the level of positive or negative tone associated with the death penalty. They found a relationship between not only the frequency in coverage and public opinion but also the in the negative coded tone and public opinion. Through tracking public sentiment about capital punishment in polls, they were able to connect the declining support of the death penalty to the negative coded tones in media coverage.

As the frequency increased with which the media began covering stories about death-row inmates who were falsely accused and other such stories, the public, over time, began to re-evaluate how they thought about capital punishment. “The result of this shift in framing has been a marked shift in aggregate public opinion and, even more strikingly, a dramatic decline in the willingness of juries to impose death sentences across the country.

Framing drives policy making through a number of different channels, and key among these is public opinion. ” For example, in stories that registered on their scale as pro-death penalty, certain key phrases would repeatedly show up, for example, “Retribution is warranted, family wants ‘justice’, certain crimes warrant this punishment. ” Also, in articles where the victim was mentioned, 68 percent of them were pro-death penalty. When the defendant was mentioned, 79 percent of them were anti-death penalty.

While this research highlights the causal relationship between media framing of the death penalty and its decline in public support, I believe it can also be used to highlight a similar connection between media framing of the death penalty in India and the rise in capital punishment sentencing. However, what’s important to point out is that a death penalty is rarely exercised in India. The last person to be executed was Dhananjoy Chatterjee in August of 2004 for the rape and murder of a young girl in 1990 and before that, Auto Shankar in 1995 for the death of six girls over the course of two years.

Despite that incongruency, a death sentence award still carries an important message for death penalty supporters in India. The Khairlanji massacre and the role of the media In looking at one of the most notorious cases of caste atrocity in recent history, Khairlanji serves as the touchstone of dalit political uprising. If it weren’t for the media’s near month-long silence in telling the awful story of the Bhotmange family, it is fair to say that this news would have never received the sensational coverage it got.

That such a massacre went undetected in the major media for month gave the story part of the shock-inducing value that drove the media interest in it after the story broke in the mainstream press on October 29, 2006. The massacre took place on September 29, 2006, in the village of Khairlanji outside of Nagpur. The Bhotmange family was one of the three lowest caste families in the village and the target of threats and intimidation by upper-caste villagers because of their land-owning status.

One night, the tensions exploded and violence broke out. That evening at 6:00pm a mob had set out to the Bhotmange house in Khairlanji—they were carrying danda sticks, bicycle chains, axes and other blunt objects they could find. It is debatable whether or not the Bhotmange family would have even died that night though. The mob was looking for Surekha Bhotmange’s cousin, Siddharth Gajbhiye, a police patil, who employed a few of them at his store in town.

Several weeks back before the attack on September 3, the men who worked for Siddharth, had already violently attacked him after he had failed to pay them for a month. The beating was cut short though when Surekha and her daughter Priyanka had witnessed the attack and reported it to the police. The men didn’t go to jail for several weeks, but once they did, they were released the same day—September 29—the day of the family’s attack. When they got out of jail that night, they assembled the mob ready to take revenge.

They’d also heard a rumor from local MLA Bhaskar Kawad that Siddharth’s brother had planned an attack on them, so they marched towards Siddharth’s store and when he wasn’t there, they decided to go after the Bhotmange family instead. The tension between the family and the villagers had been brewing for years by this point, even driving the family out to the edges of Khairlanji to escape the abuse. Their house stood out for its haphazardly constructed brick walls that sat stacked on top of one another without mortar to hold them together.

The rest of the upper-caste homes were all made of solid, painted cement. Despite the outward appearance of such marked inequality, the Bhotmange family owned over seven acres of farm land, had a 19-year-old son who was in college working towards a degree in computer systems and a 17-year-old daughter who was one of few girls her age in school, 3rd in her class and working her way towards joining the army or police force. Such accomplishments did not go unnoticed and were repeatedly punished by other upper-caste villagers who took particular offense to Bhaiyallal’s land-owning status.

In 2004, the villagers tried to claim two acres, claiming the land did not belong to him, in order to create a road. He relented, but when they demanded more land later, he refused. When Siddharth supported the family in conflicts like this it only added to the intensity of hatred the village had for this family. He would visit with them, look out for them, and it wasn’t long until rumors about an illicit affair between Surekha and Siddharth spread. Back on the night of the attack, on September 29, the mob reached the Bhotmange home where Priyanka was supposedly the first one the mob dragged out.

She was stripped and raped repeatedly in the cattle shed located just 6 feet from their front door. The mob ordered her brothers to rape her and when they refused they mutilated their genitals. Surekha was stripped of her sari, left in just her petticoat and blouse. Their house was ransacked and red underwear, chili peppers and chili powder were all found scattered on the dirt floor of their house, suggesting chili peppers were used in the sexual assault of the women. Their beaten, stripped bodies were tied to bullock carts and paraded around the village till they reached the theatre in the village square.

The mob of villagers standing in the audience demanded the Sarpanch to rape the women. Whether he did or not remains unknown but Priyanka’s vaginal cavity was allegedly stuffed with rods and sticks. Their bloodied bodies were eventually beaten to death and loaded back into the bullock carts and strategically thrown into various parts of the irrigation canal that skirted the village. During the attack Bhaiyallal returned home after he heard a commotion coming from the village. As he approached his home, he saw the mob but quickly retreated to Siddharth’s home for help.

Upon hearing the news from Bhaiyallal, Siddharth called the police station at 7:07 pm to report the mob and seek assistance. The police inspector didn’t leave to investigate the mob report until 7:45pm and when he returned at 9:30 he had come back with little information. The next day, on September 30, Bhaiyallal went to the Andhalgaon police station to file an FIR to report his family missing, but was refused service and instead told to go look for his family again. Several hours later Priyanka’s body was found floating in the canal.

As she was pulled out, a TV cameraman from local television station ETV filmed it, allegedly capturing evidence of the rods and sticks stuck inside Priyanka. There was also a photographer allegedly paid by police to take pictures as well. Priyanka’s body was then delivered to the hospital to conduct the post-mortem report. The official medical superintendent, Dr. Bante, received a phone call shortly after Priyanka’s body arrived and left the junior medical officer, Dr. Shende to carry-out the procedure.

It was unusual that an urgent matter would take her away like that, but it was alleged she was lured away from the hospital by members protecting the mob who had money to pay various people to cooperate. Dr. Shende then conducted the post-mortem on Priyanka and despite being naked, failed to conduct a rape test as is customary when a body is found nude. Furthermore, he noted on the report that, “No injuries noted to the external genitals. ”        On the following day, October 1, the bodies of Sudhir, Roshan and Surekha surfaced and were brought in for post-mortem reports.

Though Dr. Bante had been present in the hospital that day, she again did not attend the post-mortem procedure. No genital injuries were noted in their reports either which was notable since both Sudhir and Roshan were stripped down to their underwear. That same day 28 people were booked and arrested in connection with the massacre. When the local newspapers first covered the attack, the reporting highlighted the alleged relationship between Surekha and her cousin Siddharth as the reason for the attack.

In the Vidarbha Pulse, a local small town newspaper, the article outright blamed the deaths on an affair, “Four persons of a family were murdered over illicit relations at Khairlanji village near Mohadi in Bhandara district. ”        Not long after the first local news reports, various fact-finding missions from dalit and activist organizations conducted investigations. The Manuski Centre based in Pune was one of the first to visit Khairlanji and also the first to publish the pictures of the dead bodies.

Consequently, the pictures were costly as the photographer asked for money before releasing them. Despite such a bribe, the pictures were crucial in communicating the horror of the attack. Nicolas Jaoul, a South Asian scholar based in France, traveled to Khairlanji not long after the attack and completed some of the most thorough research that exists on the massacre. In regards to the importance of pictures he writes, “These images played a major part in the protests and became the main incentive for producing collective anger.

In Bhandara, Asit Bagde, an Ambedkarite activist who was among the first to take up the issue, explained to me: ‘We were able to use the pictures to speak about the murder (…) the same way that the photograph affected me, I could explain it to the next brother and he could explain to the next one; this way publicity spread orally in the first ten days. In the first ten days, it was only oral, and it went like this: this happened and it happened like this, and then they were murdered in this manner. ’ The news thus spread rom activist to activist, at the pace of a rumor, creating distress and building the tension in the local Buddhist community. ”       In fact, this is also the same way in which the story came to me—through dalit activists who had come to Mumbai from Nagpur to share this story with other dalit activists in the city, who would share the story with me. I was as a journalist for The Times of India then in 2006, based full-time out of Mumbai. I had received a call from a friend of mine Deelip Mhaske who was an activist I had just profiled for his work in the city.

He asked to set up a meeting with me at the Indian Institute of Technology-Powai to meet with the other activists who had traveled from Nagpur about a rape and murder that occurred over 700 miles away. After hearing the gruesome details of the rape and murder with clues that seemed they’d undoubtedly reveal corruption, after reading the physical copy of the Vidarbha Pulse article that summed up the murder as a result of an affair and after hearing about the years of struggle and intimidation the Bhotmanges faced in Khairlanji, I pitched it to my editor.

Though the circumstances and facts that surrounded the case were markedly grisly, it was the fact that the news had remained underground for a month that hooked my editor into supporting my coverage of the story. He knew our newspaper would be the first to break the news and understood how that could be used as a platform to spark the rest of the media outlets to cover it. The next day I left for the village with Deelip and one other activist friend. The account of the massacre I’ve shared here thus far is a result of that investigation.

I filed the story from Nagpur and returned home after a week in Bhandara. The article, run on Sunday, October 30, 2006, titled, “Just Another Rape Story,” harbored a taunting tone for the silence that kept this story unnoticed. It ended with a paragraph written by my editor: “Bhaiyallal’s desperate wails, unburdened to anyone who is willing to listen, now echoes in the desolation of Khairlanji’s perpetual anonymity. The little media interest that had surfaced when the bodies were first fished out from a canal has now almost entirely disappeared.

Apparently, this is just another crime story in India today. ”       The first major outlet to pick up the story after that was NDTV the next day on October 30. After that was Tehelka on Saturday, November 4, by Shivam Vij. Four days later, the riots began. On Tuesday, November 6, 22 dalits were arrested in Kamptee, Maharashtra in connection with rioting. They threw stones, damaged police vehicles and lit them on fire. Six policemen were injured. That same morning in Nagpur, major riots began with 200 people that blocked roads and lit tires on fire.

The role of fire in the Khairlanji case played an important part in drawing media attention, demanding justice and creating a spectacle that represented a rage much larger and more dangerous than a collective group of protestors could muster themselves. On Wednesday, November 7, after the fires and damage that broke out, over 18 different English-language and vernacular newspapers depicted the rioting on their front page. Later that same day more fires erupted and a curfew was installed in Nagpur.

In Mumbai, protestors barged into Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh’s office demanding justice and protestors outside his office staged a dharna. On Thursday, November 8th, the fires continued and were burning all over Nagpur, but protesting had spread out to other towns and cities. Television news stations began covering the chaos every day and as a response to the huge jump in media coverage, the activists planned a walk called “The Long March,” set to take place on November 12 taking them from Nagpur to Khairlanji.

In the nine days since news of the massacre had finally made it to the mainstream press, Bhaiyallal received 600,000 rupees in compensation as stipulated by the Prevention of Atrocities Act, 19 more people were arrested, the case was cleared to be taken over by the Central Bureau of Investigation and the case was approved to be put on a fast-track court. In any of the other caste atrocity cases, this might have taken months or even years. When the mainstream media first picked up this story and began covering it, the activists/protestors took immediate advantage and staged rallies and protests to further engage the media.

When the first day of fires were set, the media responded with a huge swell of coverage. And when the activists/protestors reacted, the fires got bigger and more widespread which drew more media coverage to the cause in general. Without all the activists and protestors who capitalized on the media attention and organized their efforts, there would be no newsworthy element to cover. And if there had been no media interested in engaging with the activists and protestors, it would very difficult to produce the type of attention Khairlanji got—the relationship was very symbiotic.

Bathani Tola In the cases of the dalit massacres in Bihar by the Ranvir Sena, the numbers of dead, the brutal manner in which they were killed and the repeated frequency with which they happened, made these series of riots some of the worst in India’s history. The Ranvir Sena formed in 1994 as an upper-caste landlord militia to protect land and retaliate against Naxal violence. The Naxalites had organized and formed a coalition of two Communist Marxist-Leninist parties who, “advocated the use of violence against the upper castes in organizing Dalits to achieve land reform. It’s worth mentioning that not all lower-caste villagers in predominantly Naxalite areas were Naxalites, Narula points out. So when the Ranvir Sena would carry out attacks against dalit villagers in retaliation for Naxalite violence, many innocent people were killed. On July 11, 1996, at Bathani Tola, in Bihar, 19 dalits and Muslims, mostly women and children, were killed in an attack where 60 Ranvir Sena members lit houses on fire, beat villagers with lathis, used swords and shot them. During that time the Communist Marxist-Leninist parties were organizing to demand higher wages for agricultural workers.

If they didn’t receive the raise, they wouldn’t work. Therefore in an effort to intimidate and prevent a strike, they planned their attack. In the aftermath it took four years to even charge those who were guilty in the attack, with 62 accused in March 2000. However, today, it now stands as the most recent case for which the death penalty was awarded. On May 12, 2010, Judge A. K. Srivastava handed out the death penalty to three people and life sentences to 20 others. According to a news report the charges were filed under the Indian Penal Code and Arms Act and not the POA Act.

It is worth pointing out because like Khairlanji in which the POA Act was not observed, this practice could have long-standing consequences for the special rights granted under the POA Act. Laxmanpur-Bathe One of the most infamous dalit massacres in history, the Laxmanpur-Bathe attack took place a year and a half later after the Bathani-Tola massacre on December 1, 1997. Sixty-one dalits were killed over the supposed demand for more equitable land distribution in the village. Sixteen children, 27 women and 18 men were killed and at least five girls were raped before being shot and killed.

In Smita Narula’s book, “Broken People: Caste Violence Against India’s ‘Untouchables’,” she describes the Human Rights Watch visit with survivors of the attack—accounts that are very rare to read. In the case of the rapes that took place, one witness, Surajmani Devi, tells them: “Everyone was shot in the chest. I also saw that the panties were torn. One girl was Prabha. She was fifteen years old. She was supposed to go to her husband’s house two to three days later. They also cut her breast and shot her in the chest.

Another was Manmatiya, also fifteen. They raped her and cut off her breast. The girls were all naked, and their panties were ripped. They also shot them in the vagina. There were five girls in all. All five were raped. All were fifteen or younger. All their breasts were cut off. ” Part of the strategy of the Ranvir Sena was intimidation by way of sexually assaulting the women and killing children. In media reports and in Narula’s account, Sena members were quoted as saying, “We kill children because they will grow up to become Naxalites.

We kill women because they will give birth to Naxalites. ” In this case, the police were compliant in the violence because of their refusal to act on tips of impending violence. The Ranvir Sena had openly been touring the surrounding area of the village to fundraise for their attack. The police knew about their planning meetings, but did nothing about them because according to one officer, “It’s like crying wolf. The Communist Party of India (M-L) keeps sending us complaint letters every week; we can’t take action every time. Throughout the course of its existence, the Ranvir Sena has committed over 40 separate attacks against dalits, CPI (M-L) members, Muslims and other groups killing hundreds of people. They had approximately 400 troops and were financed by wealthy landowners. In 2000, each member of the militia was paid between 1,100 and 1,200 rupees per month for their work in the attacks. Each member was also insured. If they died during a massacre, their family would receive 100,000 rupees. In both the Bathani-Tola and Laxmanpur-Bathe massacres, media coverage did not match that of the Khairlanji massacre though the death toll was much higher.

Various media reports and fact-finding missions covered the atrocities, but for various reasons it did not spark the same kind of interest and similar protests demanding justice that occurred in Khairlanji. However, it was just 17 months after the Khairlanji death penalty sentencing that this case became the next caste crime where the death penalty would be handed out. On April 7, 2010, 16 persons were sentenced to death by a court in Patna, Bihar, while 10 others got a life sentence. Those not sentenced to die were also ordered to pay a 50,000 rupee fine. Media framing and the death penalty in India

While resistance to the death penalty is documented in Hindu texts as early as the Mahabharata, and despite the fact that several Hindu rulers refrained from imposing it, it was used by many. In some references capital punishment was supported as the fourth kind of punishment allowed to be inflicted, behind bodily punishment, punishment by fine and punishment by words. Today, the death penalty is a buzzword in caste atrocity crimes, routinely called for as a means for retributive justice in cases where dalits have been murdered at the hands of upper-caste mobs.

While I do not possess the resources to carry out the review and coding of all the articles in a newspaper like The Hindu, or something comparable, to provide evidence for the connection between a pro-death penalty tone and the rise in capital punishment sentencing, I can point to the increased attention given in covering atrocity cases as highlighted by the Khairlanji case study, in addition to providing recent media examples in which capital punishment has a observable pro-death penalty tone as defined by Baumgartner.

In the Laxmanpur-Bathe atrocity case, one of the prosecution lawyers was quoted as saying, “As Laxmanpur-Bathe was one of the biggest carnages, the court took strong view of the killing of the Dalits in a brutal manner and sentenced 16 people to death treating it as the rarest of rare case. ” That it’s mentioned that the court took a strong view of the killing in light of the sentence can be seen as providing a justification for a pro-death stance.

Former Union Minister of Law Arun Jaitly has made very clear statements that suggest a possible pro-death opinion: “The low rate of conviction leads us to the conclusion that crime in India is a very high profit and a low risk proposition. You commit a heinous crime and there is a 93. 5 percent possibility that you will get away with it. He made the comments in the context of communal and caste riots that fail to receive any convictions or trials. Kiran Bedi, the social activist and former Indian Police Service officer, uses justice and the death penalty in the same sentence, casting no doubt about her pro-death opinion, “The death penalty is necessary in certain cases to do justice to society’s anger against the crime. In an op-ed piece in The Hindu, explaining the complexity of the Khairlanji death sentencing, Navanaya publisher S. Anand mentions the death penalty as an unfortunate form of justice for some people, “Given such pervasive apathy and hopelessness, the death penalty in the Khairlanji case, even when the judgment jettisons caste as a ground for the crime, deludes people into thinking that there is some justice, at last.

And in the most recent death sentencing case (although outside the realm of caste violence), the trial of Ajmal Amir Kasab, the lone survivor in the 26/11 terrorist attack, the judge openly claims there is no other solution than capital punishment, stating, “In the court’s opinion, Kasab has no chance to reform. Keeping such a terrorist alive will be a lingering danger to the society and the Indian government. So while a thorough examination of decades of Indian media and its framing of capital punishment cannot be undertaken here, it has been my intention to highlight the media’s ability to shift how not only how caste crimes are regarded, (as was demonstrated by the lack of coverage and slow justice in the Ranvir Sena cases compared to the robust media coverage and speedy justice in the Khairlanji case) but how the increased attention on it and subsequent rise in death penalty sentencing will only contribute to an even greater rise of capital punishment in crimes against dalits.

As I do not want to advocate for the death penalty per say, I have tried to illustrate the difference and inequality between a death sentence and an actual execution by showing the disparity between actual executions and death penalty sentences. As I mentioned, though a death sentence usually never means a person will be hanged to death, it still carries a strong message for those who support it for retributive justice.

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The Politics of Punishment: Media Framing and the Death Penalty in Crimes Against Dalits. (2019, Jun 20). Retrieved from

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