Pic courtesy- rediff.com

Pic courtesy- rediff.com

By Medha Deo

In these days of high profile political campaigning and mud slinging in Bihar, it is ironic how no political party, worth its salt, has raised any concern on the blatant and unapologetic confessions made by members of the Ranveer Sena (“Sena”) in the videos released by Cobrapost. Whilst popular opinion in urban elite circles and social media has already discredited the revelations as ‘politically motivated’, the eerie political silence that exists around the issue, clearly indicates the discomfort of all political leaders, some of whom have posed as messiahs of the dalits, in addressing issues of dalit assertion of rights.

To label caste massacres carried out by the Sena as a mere attempt to murder individuals for revenge would be a huge understatement of its killings. Revisiting narratives from the scene of occurrence of the massacres, one realizes that the assaults by the Sena were not results of clashes between warring groups in the heat of the moment. On the contrary these massacres were orchestrated with impeccable cold blooded planning to ensure maximum damage.

In reporting the details of one of such massacres, the Frontline in its coverage of the Bathani Tola massacre wrote :

“….The enormity of the caste massacre had horrified the nation and the international community. The killings went on for more than two hours from 2 p.m. on that day. There were three police pickets within a range of one kilometre, including one in the village itself, but no action was taken to prevent the crime. An 18-year-old woman was gang-raped. The breasts of a 25-year-old woman were chopped off before she was killed. A nine-month-old child was tossed in the air and chopped into two as she fell to the ground. A pregnant woman’s womb was slashed open and the foetus impaled on a sword[1]…”

Similarly, in Lakshmanpur Bathe, the list of the dead included 27 women and 10 children, the youngest victim being a one year old. The assailants were on a spree of indiscriminate shooting, thereby killing every person they found in the habitation, including people who happened to be there accidentally[2]. Amongst the women who were killed, eight were pregnant whilst the bodies of five women were found in positions which indicated rape and three women had their breasts mutilated.

In carrying out these massacres, the Sena achieved its objective of creating everlasting images of violence which will remain etched with the survivors of the massacre and their communities for a lifetime. Given the gory visuals witnessed by the survivors, it is likely that the trauma of the massacre coupled with the deep vulnerabilities of the victims’ communities will even affect the confidence of their future generations specifically in their dealings with the dominant castes. Thus, these massacres served the dual purpose for the Sena, that of establishing the hegemony of the upper castes (primarily Rajputs and Bhumihars) unconditionally in the agrarian belts and of creating fear so intense that the dalit communities shudder to question the legitimacy of this hegemony for generations to come.

The Sena justified the series of massacres carried out by it as a ‘desperate attempt’ by helpless landlords to protect their life and property from the brewing naxalism in Bihar. A strong argument that emerged stressed that given the inefficiency of the police, the complete breakdown of law in the state – the prevailing ‘jungle raj’ and the anti upper caste approach of the then State Government, rising up in arms against the ‘naxalites’ was the sole alternative that remained before them to defend their life, land and honour.

Whilst the existence of the naxalite movement in the 90’s cannot be denied, there has hardly been any piece of evidence linking the victims of the massacres by the Sena to any specific naxalite activity. Far from being underground naxalites, majority of the victims were women and children residing within the village with their families. Infact in most cases they were also under the employment of the same landlords who perpetrated the killings of their family members. The critical fact to be stressed here is that the chosen sites of the Sena’s various attacks were located in and around hamlets where landless peasants working in the fields (and it is no co incidence that most of them were dalits) of the landlords had tried to assert their basic political and economic rights. These assertions on most occasions could have been demands as fundamental as demand for minimum wages for work, release from bonded labour, access to common property in village or freedom to exercise voting rights in parliamentary/legislative/ panchayat elections. Any such political assertion or refusal to submit to the existing hegemony by a dalit was a given assumption of his/her affiliation with the naxalite groups. It was a propaganda of this assumption, that facilitated the Sena’s agenda of targeting any and all peasants specifically dalits and seeking credibility and sympathy for its intentions.

In the aftermath of the massacre, the support received from the state and its agencies were limited to ex-gratia payments from the state governments and employment for one member of the victim‘s family. Even in terms of subsequent affirmative action or special attention to be given to affected villages, the state has failed to take any major steps. What is even more hard hitting is that members off victims’ families and other members of the community have had to return back to employment under the landlords’ (some of whom were directly involved in the massacres), due to lack of alternate employment

The police and the prosecution have been accused of doing a slip shod investigation both by the courts and the witnesses, thereby leaving gaps within the evidence for the benefit of the defence arguments. The judiciary on the other hand has failed to balance the procedural need to establish the normative reality before law with the quest for establishing the truth and doing complete justice.

Consequently, all Sena members who were accused in the cases of Bathe, Bathani Tola, Miyanpur and Nagari Bazaar massacres have been acquitted by the Patna High Court. Similarly, all accused in the Shankarbigha case have been acquitted by the trial court at Arwal. This means that despite presence of numerous eye witness accounts, the Criminal Justice System functional in the state has failed to hold even one person conclusively responsible for the deaths of more than 145 dalits, killed in the above massacres cumulatively. Whilst appeals before higher courts are pending in the above cases, the current judicial trend leaves little hope of justice within these proceedings.

For the survivors, the above acquittals serve as a loud reminder of the ineffectiveness of systemic procedures in providing justice against oppression from the dominant castes. The cinematograph of bloodbath created by the Sena, serves as a huge deterrent against any demand for enforcement of rights. With these massacres, the Sena has successfully shown to the Dalits peasants, the probable consequence of their activism and awakening.

In a state comprising of 16 % of Dalit population and 17% EBCs, the promises in exchange for dalit votes even today are limited to announcements of welfare schemes and incentives for their ‘upliftment’. A right based approach for empowering these marginalized sections does not even surface in mainstream political discussions, party agendas and election manifestos.

Massacres like the ones carried out by Sena and similar upper caste militia have occurred in the state from the early 70s. Perpetrators of these massacres have obtained patronage from different political parties at different times. State collusion with perpetrators of dalit massacres has remained an open truth, which no political party in power has either questioned or denied this involvement. The Amir Das Commission set which was set up to examine the political connections of Sena listed various names of politicians providing support to the Sena. The links that this Commission investigated cut across party lines, and included patronage networks deep within the BJP, the RJD, JD(U) and the Congress. Infact what needs to be understood is that most mainstream political parties act together as a political class providing patronage to the dominant castes.

Whilst parties in the likes of the CPI-ML have been consistently working towards providing support to victims of massacres on a case to case basis, their ability to bring any justice or create systems for ensuring a deterrent against future attacks remains very low due their limited political outreach.

Given the said background, it would infact be desirable that the revelations by Cobrapost live up to the allegations of being ‘politically motivated’. That some political party wakes up with the conscience to address the injustices which have gone unaddressed. And that the debate around the political and economic identity of dalits in Bihar finally gains some momentum even if it is at the cost of allowing the opportunist ambitions of a given party.

[1] http://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl2912/stories/20120629291203200.htm

[2] Mr. Bijendra Thakur, who was visiting his friend and had decided to stay back was killed despite being an outsider in the village