The Jehanabad carnage

Print edition : December 13, 1997

The Ranbir Sena, a private army of landlords, strikes terror in a central Bihar village.

KALYAN CHAUDHURI

THE soil of central Bihar is drenched with the blood of the oppressed. On the night of December 1, 63 people of Lakshmanpur-Bathe village in Jehanabad district were murdered in cold blood. The victims, landless agricultural workers and their families, were supporters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Party Unity and the killers were members of the Ranbir Sena, a private army of local landlords. Among those killed were 27 women and 16 children. The victims were from the backward communities of Paswan, Chamar, Mahto, Mallah, Rajwar and Barbar.

In a well-planned operation, about 100 Ranbir Sena activists carrying firearms descended on Lakshmanpur-Bathe, 125 kilometres from Patna, at around 11 p.m. They forced their way into huts by breaking open the doors and fired on people who were asleep. The entire hamlet which, on the banks of the Sone river, was virtually decimated in an attack that lasted more than three hours. The main aim of the killers was to terrorise the sympathisers of the CPI(ML) Party Unity and establish landlords' supremacy in central Bihar.

According to reports, the killers entered Lakshmanpur-Bathe, not easily accessible by road, after crossing the Sone in three boats from Sahar block in neighbouring Bhojpur district. Before attacking the village they had killed five people, all belonging to the Mallah community, on the river bank. And on their return, they shot the three boatmen who had ferried them across the river. The boatmen were also Mallahs.

Two families were wiped out in the attack: Moti Chowdhury and six members of his family and Sheojatan Chamar, his wife and two sons and two daughters. Seven-year-old Bimlesh is the only survivor in the family of Sohar Rajwar. Rajwar, his wife, two sons and two daughters-in-law were killed. Bimlesh is among the 20 seriously injured people who are fighting for their lives at the Patna Medical College Hospital. Surendra Rajwar lost his wife, mother and sister in the attack. He escaped by scaling the mud wall in his house and hiding in a mustard field nearby. Savitri Devi lost her daughter, son-in-law and four other members of her family. The killers did not spare even an infant, Sumitra, and 80-year-old Rajmati Devi.

Three of the victims of the Ranbir Sena, by the river Sone.-KRISHAN MURARI KISHAN / REUTERS

The bodies, strewn around the area, remained there for more than a day. Most of the men fled the village when the attack began and only relatives from neighbouring villages ventured into Lakshmanpur-Bathe to mourn the dead. They did not allow the police to remove the bodies until Chief Minister Rabri Devi visited the village. Rabri Devi visited the village in the afternoon of December 3 along with Governor A.R. Kidwai and Union Minister of State for Home Maqbool Dar. After their visit, people arranged a mass cremation by building six pyres on the dry bed of the Sone. The survivors are waiting for revenge. A senior police official said: "This is not the end. There may be another massacre within a fortnight."

Rabri Devi suspended the Superintendent of Police, S. Rajan, and replaced several senior officers, including Home Commissioner D.P. Maheswari and Inspector-General of Police (Law and Order) Niyaz Ahmad. The administrative reshuffle was done soon after President K.R. Narayanan expressed "grave concern" over the massacre (see box). Describing the carnage as a "national shame", the President asked the Bihar Government to take all steps to punish the guilty.

Prime Minister I.K. Gujral asked the Union Home Ministry to get in touch with the Bihar Government and assist the State administration in bringing the culprits to book and tackling the situation. Maqbool Dar announced an ex-gratia payment of Rs.1 lakh to the kin of each victim.

All major political parties condemned the incident. The Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) expressed its shock and anguish over the ghastly killings of poor and unarmed people and demanded action against the Ranbir Sena.

Women and children were among the victims in Lakshmanpur-Bathe.-DEEPAK KUMAR

The dispute between local landlords and landless peasants over 60 acres (24) of land is said to be the cause of the carnage. Bhumihars reportedly captured 50 acres of village land earmarked for distribution among the landless peasants in the village. They also grabbed 10 acres of garmazuarua (government) land that was distributed among the landless peasants with purchas (land ownership documents). A section of peasants affiliated to naxalite groups was up in arms against upper-caste landlords of the Bhumihar community.

The outlawed Ranbir Sena, formed in l991, is a private army of Bhumihars. The Sena hit the headlines in July 1996 when it massacred 21 Dalit women and children in Bathanitola. On March 23 this year, it killed 10 landless agricultural workers belonging to the Musahar community in Habaspur village in Patna district. The reason for the killing, according to the Sena, was that people in the village organised themselves under the banner of the CPI(ML) Party Unity against upper-caste landlords.

What happened in Lakshmanpur-Bathe on that winter night was part of a long, bloody conflict between the haves and the havenots of rural Bihar. With landlord-controlled private armies and naxalites involved in ferocious fighting, bloodletting has become a daily affair in central Bihar. On the east of the Sone, the landlords' armies are in conflict with the outlawed Maoist Communist Centre and the CPI(M-L) Party Unity. On the west, it is Ranabir Sena versus the CPI(M-L) Liberation.

Mourning the dead.-DEEPAK KUMAR

Although Lakshmanpur-Bathe is said to be the stronghold of the CPI(ML) Party Unity, it also has a substantial number of sympathisers of the CPI(ML) Liberation. Despite the political enmity between these organisations, people owing allegiance to them work in central and south Bihar to protect the common interests of the peasants and organise movements, sometimes violent, against the landlords.

Although both the perpetrators and victims seem to have political affiliations, the violence in Bihar has more to do with caste and class than party politics. Private armies like the Diamond Sena, the Sunlight Sena and the Ranbir Sena are feudal militias operating with the sole intention of guarding the interests of their own communities.

The landlords' armies were formed in the l970s and 1980s when the Congress was in power in Bihar. Under Janata Dal rule, the landlords strengthened them in response to the growing presence of naxalite groups.

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