Justice Delayed, And Denied Yet Again

By People’s Union for Democratic Rights

28 January, 2015

PUDR urges Supreme Court to suo moto intervene in the Shankarbigha and other massacres

People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR ) strongly condemns the acquittal of the accused in the Shankarbigha massacre (Jehanabad District) of 1999. On 14 January, 2014, a Trial Court in Jehanabad District of Bihar acquitted all the 24 accused members of Ranvir Sena in Shankarbigha killings on grounds of “lack of evidence”. All the 23 persons killed, of them seven children including a 10 month old child, five women and eleven men, were from families of landless agricultural workers from the Dalit and backward communities of Paswan, Chamar, Dushads, and Rajwar. A private militia of Bhumihar (loosely described as landlord) caste – Ranvir Sena (active from early 1990s) – unleashed the terror on the victims on the eve of the Republic Day, night of 25th January 1999. After 16 years of court battle the accused have been set at liberty. The verdict in the Shankarbigha case provides occasion to reflect on the caste massacres of the 1980s and 1990s in Bihar (undivided) and their aftermath.

The Shankarbigha killings were part of the series of “caste-cleansing” undertaken by the private upper caste Rajput and Bhumihar militias like Sunlight Sena, Savarna Liberation Front and Ranvir Sena in the agrarian ecosystem of central Bihar districts. In 27 incidents of massacres by Ranvir Sena 400 children, women and men perished. It is important to note that all these massacres took place in the context of peoples’ struggles over land and wages under the leadership of CPI(ML) Liberation, CPI(ML) Party Unity and Maoist Communist Centre and were resisted by the Rajput and Bhumihar landlords in Bihar in the 1980s-90s. The struggling poor largely comprised of landless Dalits, and other backward castes.

In October 2013, the Patna High Court acquitted all 23 members of Ranvir Sena accused of Laxmanpur Bathe massacre (1997) where 58 Dalit agricultural labourers were killed. On the other hand, the accused of Bara Massacre, Gaya (where members of Bhumihar caste were killed allegedly by erstwhile members of the Maoist Communist Centre belonging to Mochi, Paswan, Dussadh communities i.e. Dalit and backward castes) have been convicted and are in jail since 1992. The interplay of social stratifications and the resulting judicial bias can be clearly inferred from the fate of similar crimes but different accused.

It is also worth noting that the Shankarbigha verdict is the fifth in row of the recent acquittals, on the basis of either “lack of evidence” or absence of reliable eye-witnesses. Four Patna High Court verdicts in Bathani Tola (April 2012), Nagari Bazaar (March 2013), Miyanpur (July 2013), and Laxmanpur Bathe (October 2013) over the last two years acquitted all those upper caste persons who had been convicted by the Trial Courts. In the Shankarbigha case, where the acquittal has happened at the Trial Court stage itself, all 49 witnesses turned hostile and declared inability to identify the accused. Fear and social pressure of dominant castes are not to be taken lightly. Despite the fact that the Ranvir Sena publicly accepted that they had carried out the massacre, the allegedly insufficient evidence only goes on to highlight the bias of police in investigating the crime and collecting evidence to prosecute the case. The laxity of police in investigation of all other massacres of Dalit and backward peasants and agricultural labourers is evident from the results of the trial as mentioned above.

List of recent acquittals of upper caste persons in cases of massacres of lower caste persons in Bihar due to lack of evidence or unreliable witnesses

Bias is also evident in the judiciary’s selective and differential use of laws. While TADA (since lapsed) was immediately slapped on lower caste accused of Bara massacre involved in killing of upper caste men and landlords in 1992. The provisions of even The Scheduled Castes and The Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 were not applied in the case of Shankarbigha massacre. This is not to argue that extra-ordinary laws be imposed in all cases of massacre, where so far they have not been. What we sue for is impartial and thorough investigation, and just and fair trials so that justice can be delivered to all.

Shankarbigha trial and investigation when contrasted against Bara massacre yet again shows, that the criminal justice system is loaded in favour of the powerful against the powerless, and that the awarding of punishments is itself in keeping with existing inequalities. Members of the police and the judiciary in the conduct of their duties replicate the same caste structures and prejudices that characterize the society from which they come. The arc of history of people struggling for justice in India is long but it bends in favour of injustice with a regularity which tends to make it a rule.

Since the matter is before the Court we urge the apex court to suo moto intervene in these instances of gross injustice and ensure that even if delayed, justice is done to the victims of the massacres and that perpetrators are not allowed to escape scot free.

Sharmila Purkayastha and Megha Bahl