It was unusual in that all but one of the 21 persons killed in a hamlet called Bathani Tola in Bhojpur district on July 11, 1996 were either women or children, including infants. Worse, 16 years later, the Patna high court dismissed as “totally unreliable” all the nine victims who had been produced as prosecution witnesses, including a Dalit woman who had survived with a bullet injury on her chest.
Acquitting all the 23 persons who had been convicted by the trial court, the high court relied on the counter narrative of a police sub-inspector who had been produced as a defence witness, although it was on his watch that the massacre had taken place and he had, in fact, been suspended at the time for his negligence and possible complicity.
The appeals against this travesty of justice came up for hearing before the Supreme Court for the first time, serendipitously, two days after the 20th anniversary of the Bathani Tola massacre.
Though the fatal casualties at Bathani Tola included six members of a Muslim family, it was part of a series of mass killings targeting Dalits in the Bihar of the nineties by Ranvir Sena, a banned upper caste militia. After Bathani Tola, Ranvir Sena pulled off an even bigger spectacle the following year at Lakshmanpur Bathe, with a death toll of 58, which is the highest ever for a caste atrocity.
These two massacres saw similar trajectories of impunity. The process of justice began on a promising note. As the survivors deposed fearlessly, the trial court in each case convicted several accused persons, with some of them even being awarded the death penalty. But, as in the Bathani Tola case, the Patna high court found it fit to reverse all the convictions in the Lakshmanpur Bathe case.
The appeals against the wholesale acquittals in the latter case too are awaiting the attention of the Supreme Court. It remains to be seen whether in these two Bihar cases, the Supreme Court will, following the precedent set in the case of the 1985 Karamchedu caste massacre from Andhra Pradesh, overrule the acquittals by the high court and reinstate the convictions by the trial courts.
Bathani Tola is reminiscent of the 1968 Kilevenmani massacre in Tamil Nadu, where again the fatal casualties were predominantly of women and children and the violence came as a reprisal for leftwing mobilisation of landless labourers. The difference though is that while the women and children in Kilvenmani were trapped in a hut that had been set on fire, their counterparts in Bathani Tola were either gunned down or hacked to death in a house in which they had taken shelter. When a belligerent mob armed with firearms and swords had descended on Bathani Tola from a neighbouring village, the menfolk ran away hiding wherever they could as they were more likely to be attacked. The mob fell upon the women and children of Bathani Tola, marking a new low in brutality.
Neither the sight of the mob nor the sound of the firing provoked a response from any of the three police pickets located within a range of a kilometre or so. Far from holding those policemen accountable, the high court relied on the testimony of sub-inspector Raghuraj Tiwary, who was in charge of the picket right in the village from where the mob had originated. Testifying on behalf of the accused persons, Tiwary claimed that the firing during the carnage had actually been from both sides.
The high court lent credence to this counter narrative despite its failure to explain why women and children were the main casualties and their bodies were all found inside one house. Since Tiwary had given his version before any of the victims could give theirs, the high court ruled that the police should have immediately lodged an FIR on the sub-inspector’s allegation of cross-firing.
Disregarding the enormity of the tragedy and the desertion of the hamlet in its wake, the high court made much of a 12-hour delay in the registration of the FIR, which was on the information of a victim whose wife had been killed. Further, in discarding the testimony of injured victim Radhika Devi, it ignored the settled law that deems such a witness to come with a “built-in guarantee” of her presence.
While being overly concerned about deficiencies in the prosecution’s evidence, the high court made little effort to appreciate the honesty of the victims who had either lost family members or been injured. The Supreme Court would do well to separate justice from prejudice.