Two decades after the massacre, the families of victims wait for justice.

On July 11, 1996, shortly after mid-day, the Ranveer Sena, a private militia of Bhumihar landowners, massacred 21 Dalits and Muslims, 20 of whom were women and children, in Bathani Tola, a hamlet in Bhojpur district, Bihar. The massacre lasted for three hours, yet the police personnel posted a mere 100 metres from the site stayed away.

The carnage in Bathani Tola was the first in a long series of massacres perpetrated by the Ranveer Sena in an area comprising Bhojpur, Arwal, Jehanabad, and Patna districts, that claimed around 400 lives, primarily of Dalits and the landless.

Although many dominant caste men accused of committing the killings have been prosecuted, the legal process has so far failed to convict them. In April 2012, the Patna High Court acquitted all the 23 persons accused of committing the carnage in Bathani Tola, though the trial court pronounced them guilty. The following year, the same court also acquitted those accused of perpetrating three other massacres. A special leave petition appealing against the acquittal of the accused in the Bathani Tola case is due to be heard by the Supreme Court soon.

Since the 1970s, the lower castes, rallying around various leftwing political formations, challenged the sources of their oppression with movements around the payment of statutory wages, the arbitrary eviction of bataidars, and the entitlement of women labourers to their bodily autonomy. In retaliation, the militias of various dominant castes brutally sought to restore the edifice of socio-economic power wielded by them through public spectacles of violence designed to punish and decimate members of the backward castes. It is indeed surprising that the judiciary has repeatedly failed to find sufficient evidence to convict the accused — as in the Bathani Tola judgment — despite eyewitness accounts.

In contrast, cases in which the landless and oppressed were the accused have had a very different fate in courts — such as in the Bara massacre of 1992, where TADA was invoked, and the convicted remain in jail.

The Patna High Court verdict on the Bathani massacre, while admitting many deficiencies in the investigation and prosecution, discredited eyewitness testimonies, pronouncing that the accused would not “be exposing their identity in broad daylight”, that any eyewitnesses could not have escaped alive, and that the accused had been falsely implicated, allowing the real killers to escape.

In striking contrast, the landmark Naroda Patiya verdict of August 2012, pertaining to the killing of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, affirms the validity of the testimonies of the survivors of a carnage. The principles outlined in that verdict can help steer the course of justice in the murky waters of mass massacres, where the agencies of investigation and prosecution are complicit in the crime itself. The Naroda Patiya verdict notes that the “value of injured eyewitnesses is on high pedal [sic]. The principle is that no injured would substitute a wrong person naming him as a[n] assailant by saving [a] real assailant.” The verdict also notes that, “It is [a] settled position of law that the defect, lacuna and deliberate carelessness on the part of the investigating agency cannot fetch any benefit in favour of the accused or else it amounts to perpetuate the injustice already caused to the complainant party.” Accordingly, the eyewitnesses of Bathani Tola should not be held liable for the shortcomings in the legal process.

In a sting operation by Cobrapost, released in August 2015, several Ranveer Sena men boasted that they had been part of gangs that committed various massacres and had even terrorised the complainants into turning hostile. Bathani Tola, however, is an exception, where eyewitnesses stood their ground despite intimidation. They look to the Supreme Court with the hope that it will re-examine the evidence and correct a great injustice.

If not, the profound questions raised by Nayeemuddin Ansari, who lost six members of his immediate family, including a three-month-old baby daughter and two young sons aged five and six, in the massacre, at a convention in Delhi in 2012 — “Who killed 21 people that afternoon, if it wasn’t those we named in the FIR? Are we expected to bring back the dead to give evidence?” — will remain unanswered

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