Getting away with murder

Sikandar Chaudhary, who lost nine members of his family in the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre, with his family on October 21. Photo:Ranjeet Kumar

The acquittal of all the 26 accused in the 1997 massacre of Dalits in Laxmanpur Bathe village deepens the pessimism among agricultural workers in central Bihar. Such massacres do not happen any more, but the feudal relations that made them possible continue to destroy lives. By AJOY ASHIRWAD MAHAPRASHASTA in Laxmanpur Bathe, Shankarbigha, and Sendani

THIS October, death came knocking at Sikandar Chaudhary’s door again. A resident of Laxmanpur Bathe village in Bihar’s Arwal district, Sikandar had witnessed nine members of his family being shot dead on December 1, 1997. In just two hours on that fateful night, he and many others were left orphaned as the Ranveer Sena, a militia of upper-caste landlords, went on a killing spree in his village. The massacre, perhaps the worst ever of Dalits in India, earned international notoriety for Laxmanpur Bathe. Sixty-one people were killed, including 27 women and 16 children. The then President, K.R. Narayanan, called it “a national shame”. The official toll was 58.

On October 9 this year, the Patna High Court acquitted all the 26 accused in the case, setting aside their conviction by a lower court in 2010. Now it is fear, more than gloom, that grips Bathe. “They will kill me,” says Sikandar, who was an eyewitness to the crime and sees the verdict as his death knell. The judgment produced celebrations, with gunshots being fired and crackers being burst, in the neighbouring upper-caste tola (colony), to which most of the accused belong.

Sikandar’s fears may not be misplaced. In the weeks since the verdict came, members of the Bhumihar tola regularly pass with their motorcycle caravans through Bathe and threaten to kill the witnesses in the case. “We ruled and we will rule. You couldn’t do anything, could you? So better stay in your place.” This, according to Sikandar, is the kind of thing they say. He does not know what to do except to leave the village. The massacre that took place 15 years ago continues to shape his life.

The mood was upbeat in the upper-caste tola. “At last we got justice. We had lost all faith in the government that was hell-bent on putting us behind bars to cash in on the ‘backward’ votes. We had faith in the judiciary and we feel redeemed. We are farmers and were falsely implicated,” said Baliram Singh, whose death sentence was overturned. Anjani Singh, who had also been an accused, said: The government is against the forward castes. Only the Bharatiya Janata Party speaks in our favour.”

Bathe is an archetypal village in central Bihar. The upper-caste tola (in this case, a mix of Bhumihars and Rajputs) is visibly affluent with pucca streets and spacious houses. The residents are from the landed class. Agriculture is their main occupation. The other tola in the village is about 100 metres away and is home to Dalits and other backward classes (OBCs). Except for agricultural work, there is absolutely no interaction between the two tolas. Surrounded by agricultural fields on three sides and with the Sone river on the fourth, Bathe presents itself as an idyllic village, far from the noise and pollution of the city. Beneath the surface, however, tensions simmer between the upper castes and the backward castes.

The Dalits are mostly agricultural workers. Until a few years ago, they were not allowed to sit in a khatiya (cot) even in their own homes and were forced to follow a feudal code of conduct. They could not wear new clothes, smoke cigarettes, ride bicycles or dare to talk with their heads held high. The landlords determined the wages and generally doled out minuscule sums. They seized Gairmazarua land (panchayat land in a village for development activities and Dalit and OBC welfare), illegally, to prevent Dalits and OBCs from using it. Whenever Dalits protested, their women got raped and men got beaten or killed. A landlord who put his labourers under “house arrest” and withheld their wages but refrained from killing them was considered benevolent. The landlords, in effect, had a complete grip over the village economy.

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