November 6, 2013
The site of the Shankarbigha, Jehanabad massacre on 25 January, 1999 [Image courtesy: Getty]
By Sumati. This article first appeared in Newsyaps
1 December, 1997, past midnight: Two boats, full of over a hundred armed men belonging to the Ranvir Sena, cross Sone River that flows between Bhojpur and Jehanabad districts in Bihar. After reaching the village Laxmanpur Bathe, they killed the boatmen who ferried them. In a pre-planned way, they surrounded the village on all sides, split into groups, and barged into the houses. They fired and fired, and by the end of the bloodbath, 58 people had been shot to death. The dead included 27 women, 8 of whom were pregnant, and 16 children, the youngest of whom was one year-old. Some families had been completely wiped off. All were Dalits.
9 October, 2013: Patna High Court acquits all of the 26 accused in the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre, reversing the decision of the lower court which had in April 2010 given the death sentence to 16 convicts and life to 10 others. The court found “unreliable” the same witnesses that the lower court had found reliable and held that the accused “deserve grant of benefit of doubt.”
Justice was served.
11 July, 1996: Bathani Tola in Bhojpur district, Bihar was surrounded by 150 men belonging to the Ranvir Sena in the broad daylight of 1 pm. Armed with guns, swords, sickles, and lathis, the men fired shots in the air. As the terrified villagers ran to hide themselves, the men started burning houses. They entered the mud huts, pulled out women and children, slit their throats, shot them, and stabbed them with swords. 11 women and 9 children, including an infant, and 1 man were killed. The dead were all Dalits and Muslims. The survivors and eyewitnesses recognized the attackers and named them clearly in the FIRs, as these were men from their own villages who had not even tried to hide their faces during the attack. 14 years later, the sessions court in Ara convicted 23 men from the Ranvir Sena.
26 April, 2012: A two-member bench at the Patna High Court acquits all the accused, citing “unreliable evidence”.
Mianpur, Bihar. 32 Dalits were killed in 2000. The trial court convicted 10 persons in 2007. On 3 July, 2013, Patna High court acquits 9 out of the 10 convicted.
Nagri Bazar, Bihar, 1998. 10 Dalits were gunned down by Ranvir Sena. The trial court had convicted 11 persons. On 1 March, 2013, all the 11 accused are acquitted by the High court.
Laxmanpur Bathe. Bathani Tola. Mianpur. Nagri Bazar. Haibaspur. Shankar Bigha.
These names would not register on the minds or the bleeding hearts of the growing, prospering, and the already-prospered India. That India which is run by its caste and class privileges but which makes you believe that it has earned it all with ‘merit’. The candles will not be taken out at India Gate, the TV rooms would not be abuzz with angry questions and outrages about the massacre of justice.
Yet, this is how the system, right down from the police station to the higher judiciary, from the bureaucrats to the media to the parliamentary parties, serves justice to India’s Dalits, landless, poor, Muslims and backward communities. Over the past year alone, the courts have erased these massacres from the pages of law by acquitting all or most of the accused in these 4 cases in which not less than 140 Dalits and backward caste people were killed, most of them for being supporters of different radical Communist groups. The killers belonged to the Ranvir Sena, a private militia formed by the land-owning Bhumihar Brahmins and Rajputs in Bihar in 1994. Between 1994 and 2000, nearly 400 people were killed for being active, passive, or alleged sympathizers of the Naxalites.
It was an open war between the oppressed protesting against feudal humiliation and for dignity, and the landed upper castes who have violently maintained their caste hegemony and have exploited the agricultural labourers for centuries. Agitations for land rights and increase in wages had begun in the region since the 1970s, and gained momentum from the second half of 1980s onwards. Movements were taking place mainly under the leadership of 3 groups – the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC), the CPI (ML) Party Unity (later becoming CPI (ML) People’s War) and the CPI (ML) Liberation. These assertions by the oppressed were an affront to the landed castes’ brutal feudal rule and class interests, and so was formed the Ranvir Sena. It was not the first such armed sena formed by the upper castes of the region to defend their caste hegemony, but the earlier violent ones such as Brahmarshi Sena, Kunwar Sena, Sunlight Sena were not as well-organized as the new one. In Belchi and Pipra massacres in Bihar in the 1970s, the demand for wages had already led to the killing of Dalit labourers.
“Ee sab Chamaar, Dusadh, Dom maanega to aiyse hi maanega. (This is the only way to teach these Chamaars, Dusadhs and Doms a lesson). They not only shelter the Naxalites but also refuse to work in our fields,” the men from the Ranvir Sena openly stated in an interview to Outlook in 1997.
So, let us not make the mistake of viewing these massacres as simple feuds between two castes. Rather, they were the reactions of feudal powers of society that were being challenged by the rising assertions by the Dalits and backward castes across the fields of Bhojpur and Jehanabad from the 1970s onwards, which resulted in the furious hurt shown by the landed castes. These revolts were over the question of land and wages – demand for minimum wages for labour in the fields, right over gairmajura government land. A strike and blockade by the workers had taken place. Most importantly, through these class demands, they were making an assertion for dignity which this brutal system has denied them for centuries. Without this context of the political mobilizations of the oppressed sections, the true nature of the massacres cannot be understood.
The Ranvir Sena was not only unapologetic, but so confident that nothing will happen to it (in spite of a formal ‘ban’) that it indulged in 27 massacres of nearly 400 Dalits in a span of 6 years. It is said that after each massacre, it left its organization’s name in blood on the walls of the village. The declarations for massacres were made in advance in village meetings and even in local papers. And indeed, nothing happened to them. Their chief, Brahmeshwar Singh, alias Mukhiya, the mastermind behind these massacres, who everyone except the judiciary seemed to have evidence against, walked free and acquitted of all charges after just a few years in prison. He was shot and killed last year by unidentified gunmen, after which several political leaders hailed him as a hero.
The Sena members were bloodthirsty with impunity. For over a decade, they piled up bodies of the landless poor and agricultural workers, Dalits, Muslims and backward castes. They targeted the women and children in a planned way.
“We kill children because they will grow up to become Naxalites. We kill women because they will give birth to Naxalites.”
It was never a secret that the Ranvir Sena had the tacit support and sponsorship of many parties including the BJP and the Janta Dal (United), and even the ruling party, the RJD. While, the Lalu Government had, under pressure, set up the Amir Das Commission to look into the massacres and the political patronage of Ranvir Sena, the Nitish Kumar Government promptly disbanded this commission after coming to power, as it would have exposed a nexus that ran deep into the political establishment. Several of its own members were being probed and exposed by the commission. BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi, Sushil Kumar Modi, JD(U)’s Nand Kishore Yadav, Krishan Sardar and RJD’s Akhilesh Singh and Kanti Singh were about to be named, among 37 other political leaders, for direct aid and support to the Sena. Justice Amir Das stated after the Bathe judgement that the report “could (have) affect(ed) many people. Obviously, some people from the government were also involved.”
Justice Das further added that in the case of Bathe, it was “a thorough probe which revealed that the killers belonging to the Ranvir Sena did not come from outside. They were all from Lakshmanpur, known to the victims who didn’t need much light to recognise the faces of their attackers. They were their landlords; now they are MLAs…”
How just and caste-class blind is the justice system can be further understood from a few facts. For instance, there were at least 3 police outposts within less than a kilometre of Bathani Tola, which were set up after open declarations of “mass revenge” by the Sena in village meetings. The police was of course nowhere to be seen while the mayhem of loud massacre was carried out in broad daylight just a few steps away from them. Why would they? In Ekwari village in April 1997, the police broke and forced open the doors of people’s homes and watched as Sena members killed eight villagers.
In cases during the 1990s where the members of the upper caste belonging to the Ranvir Sena were killed by Dalits and backward castes organized under various Communist groups, the justice system worked so swiftly and efficiently that neither the authenticity of the evidence or the nitty-gritty of witnesses mattered. Many of the accused in these cases have been punished under repressive laws such as TADA. Seven people, belonging to the backward castes, have been sentenced to death by a special TADA court in Bara incident of 1992 where Bhumihar landlords were killed. Overall, in the past two decades, nearly 150 accused members of these communities have been sentenced to death by special courts in Bihar.
When four judgments in a row acquit members of the same upper caste militia for brutal massacres, it is not an aberration, especially in light of the scores of such judgements across the country. The system feels no qualms in declaring that the massacred Dalits and poor had no killers. It reveals in distressing ways the true nature of the system that we hail as democratic and just. The thin line between the perpetrator and deliverer of justice gets more blurred.