Pic courtesy- Muslim Mirror
Vol – XLVIII No. 45-46, November 16, 2013
The acquittal of the Laxmanpur-Bathe accused is a shocking miscarriage of justice.
The Patna High Court’s decision on 9 October 2013, setting free all the 26 men who had been convicted by a sessions court for the Laxmanpur-Bathe massacre reflects on the poor state of the justice-dispensing mechanism in the country. There will be no justice then for the deaths of the 58 who were murdered in 1997. Notwithstanding the legality or otherwise of the grounds on which the division bench arrived at its decision (it found that the prosecution witnesses on whom the sessions judge had based his verdict to convict the accused were unreliable), it has yet again shaken the faith of the poor in the republic and on the principle of constitutional democracy. In doing so, the Patna High Court simply repeated its April 2012 decision in the Bathani Tola case (21 dalits were murdered in similar circumstances in 1996). This has added to the instances of the higher judiciary contributing to the process whereby the “wretched of the earth” (to borrow Frantz Fanon’s evocative book title) are led to the path of vengeance rather than that of justice. The acquittals of the accused in the Laxmanpur-Bathe and Bathani Tola cases are not unprecedented. They follow a pattern.
The Jabalpur Bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court had delivered a similar verdict in the case of the murder of the trade union leader Shankar Guha Niyogi, who was shot dead on 28 September 1991 in Bhilai by an assassin allegedly hired by some industrialists. In June 1997, the trial court at Durg found evidence of the involvement of at least five industrialists from Bhilai in a conspiracy to murder Niyogi and sentenced them to life imprisonment. The assassin hired to murder Niyogi was sentenced to death. In June 1998, the Madhya Pradesh High Court reversed this judgment, acquitting all the accused. Both the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha appealed against the acquittal in the Supreme Court. In 2005, the apex court upheld the high court verdict but sent the assassin to life imprisonment. Though political discourse in the Dalli Rajhara region was predominantly within the ambit of constitutional democracy during Niyogi’s lifetime, it had begun to turn elsewhere by the time the Supreme Court bench upheld the high court verdict.
The massacre of 58 persons (all from the oppressed and marginalised sections of society), on the night of 30 November-1 December 1997 in Laxmanpur-Bathe by armed marauders of the upper-caste Ranveer Sena was not an isolated incident. The private militia, set up by the landowning classes, predominantly the Bhumihars, to “deal” with increasingly assertive poor peasants and landless agricultural labourers, had carried out such terror attacks elsewhere. The Bihar Land Reforms Act, 1950 has remained a pious wish, notwithstanding the rhetoric that marked its passage in the state assembly as well as during the vote on the Constitution (First Amendment) Act, 1951, which added the Ninth Schedule to the Constitution. Even where the law is enforced, its scope has been restricted to the economic empowerment of the peasantry. Those like the hapless inhabitants of Laxmanpur-Bathe were left to live at the mercy of the lords of the land, who considered it beneath their dignity to till it but enjoyed lording over the minds and bodies of the tillers and workers.
The course of history has, however, witnessed the wretched assert their rights time and again. The process began in Bihar in the 1980s under the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)’s leadership. The Ranveer Sena was created by the forces of the status quo against this assertion. The oppressed were left to live and tend the fields as long as they accepted the supremacy of their exploiters, but were attacked if they sought change. The massacre in Laxmanpur-Bathe has to be seen against this backdrop. It was plainly an attack on the constitutional scheme on which the Indian state and its machinery, including the police and the civil administration, stands. The Ranveer Sena ought to have been viewed from this perspective and dealt with appropriately. The Patna High Court failed to do so, just as it did in the Bathani Tola case.
There is an appeal against the high court verdict in the Supreme Court, where an appeal against the high court decision on the Bathani Tola massacre is pending since it was admitted in July 2012. The highest court of justice cannot restrict the scope of this case to a mere question of procedure. Justice is best ensured by taking recourse to the principle of the due process of law. The apex court cannot shy away from adopting this principle in cases involving the rights of the socially and economically oppressed, when it has done so in a chain of other cases. The Court has held that the consequence of an act had to be taken into account while dispensing justice, which is the principle of the due process of law. In the Laxmanpur-Bathe and Bathani Tola cases, the consequence of the Patna High Court’s decisions can only be a loss of faith in constitutional democracy among those affected and those whose lives are similar to those of the murdered.